Guest Author - Mary Ellen Sweeney
The poetry of William Butler Yeats helped to kindle support for a self-governed Ireland. Through his poetry, with which he was to transcend politics, he touched the soul and made a cause for human dignity and love of country.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, to the Anglo-Irish landowner class, Yeats was raised on the wild west coast of Ireland in County Sligo, which was to him the “country of his heart.” He read the standard fare for sensitive types of his class and time: Byron, Shelley, and Blake, but it was his Sligo experience that made him a partner in the liberation of the Irish from the heavy yoke of British rule.
The Irish Parliamentary Party began demanding Home Rule from Britain as early as the 1880s, but no good came of it. Eventually, Britain sent special soldiers into Ireland to quell the revolutionary humor of the Irish: “English recruits to the Black and Tans were mainly the unemployed veterans of World War I. Their principal motivation: employment for ten shillings a day. They remain the gold standard for brutality in Ireland. Hence the speedy (and some would say tragic) recall of the Ben and Jerry’s “Black and Tan” ice cream flavor and a heartfelt “oops” by the company.
The idea of a difference between British and Irish blood is a bit out there to begin with; if you go back far enough all people of the British Isles have common ancestors. Home-rule in Ireland was the goal of the Irish Nationalists; and Yeats, though of Anglo-Irish stock, knew only too well the history of the island and had strong nationalistic sympathies. For Yeats, the overlap that existed between his Irish nationalism and English cultural heritage was bound to cause tension, and it was the pressure of this urgently political and secular tension that caused him to try to resolve a political problem on a metaphysical level. Yeats was to demonstrate that the Irish were more than substandard Englishmen by displaying a great literary mine of Irish heritage. Yeats knew that if he tried to write directly about the events surrounding him he would be caught up in the turbulence and swept off; so he wrote of the events surrounding him only symbolically and to great effect. To overcome the secular and political tensions of the time, Yeats developed a system of symbols, much as had St. Patrick, utilizing the myths and legends of Ireland’s antiquity to produce strong feelings of patriotism.
His patriotic writings were influenced by his associations in “the cause.” He fell in love with Maude Gonne, the courageous Nationalist, who, though English by birth, was moved to action by sympathy for the people in the Land Wars. This love went unrequited, but her passion and outspoken ideals had a significant effect on his poetry. He kept company with an assortment of people in the arts, other Nationalists, and was encouraged to produce poetry and plays to further the cause.
During the time of the revolution, Yeats wrote in order to resurrect an interest in the history of Ireland, which had been suppressed by the English colonial system, and by weaving in current political themes, he promoted an interest in the present situation of Ireland. He was a propagandist.
Yeats was one of the founders (and patriots all) of the Abbey Theater. Theaters are places that people go to get an emotional high, to laugh or cry, and mostly, to cheer, and when Yeats’ inspirational work was read, people were stirred. He was raised on the Irish legends and myths, and he described what he saw by what he knew.
Yeats was a Senator in the first Senate of the Irish Free State in 1922. He was a valuable voice of reason in this body, and though he failed, fought the Roman Catholic churchmen eloquently on the matter of divorce. In 1923 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He made much of the honor as a public relations effort throughout the world for the newborn Irish Free State. Yeats died in France in 1939 and was buried, but he was later exhumed and reburied in Sligo, as were his wishes “under bare Ben Bulben’s head” in Drumcliffe churchyard (which overlooks the sea on one side and is on the left-hand side of the road to Donegal.)