Dublin is famous for many things and over its thousand-year history it saw the building of the first two-chamber parliament (Houses of Commons & Lords) – now the Bank of Ireland, College green – in the 1730s; the construction of the Rotunda by Benjamin Mosse in 1745, which is now the oldest continuously operating maternity hospital in the world, and the production of Guinness, one of the best-known drinks in the world. However, its contribution to the written word is legendary with its three native-born Nobel Laureates for Literature giving it a unique place in history.
WBY – home on Sandymount Avenue
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was born in Sandymount and is considered one of the foremost of 20th century literature. He studied in London and spent summer holidays with his maternal grandparents in Sligo, a place that he often wrote about. With Lady Augusta Gregory he established the Abbey Theatre, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923 that cited his ‘inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.’ Voted as Ireland’s favourite poet his poem Easter 1916, written in the months after the event, capture the mood of the nation at that very tense moment. On the other hand one of his earliest works, Lake Isle of Innisfree (from 1888), a twelve-line written in style of the Celtic Revival that was then becoming popular is still the poem that most people are familiar with:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was born in 33 Synge Street, but went to London where he worked as a theatre critic before starting to write. He is best known as a playwright (he wrote more than 60 plays) with Man and Superman, Saint Joan and Pygmalion being the most famous. In 1938 a film version of Pygmalion was produced in Hollywood and it won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. He is the first person to have won both a Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and an Oscar. In 1906 he moved to a house in Ayot St Lawrence, north of London, that late became known as Shaw’ Corner. He spent the rest of his life here and loved nothing more than tending the garden with his wife Charlotte. In 1950 he fell while pruning a tree, and he died shortly afterwards from complications associated with the fall. He was ninety-four! His and Charlotte’s ashes were scattered along the paths and throughout the garden they loved.
Samuel Beckett (1913-1989) was born in Foxrock and went to Trinity College. A keen sportsman he is the only Nobel Laureate to have played first class cricket having featured in two matches against Northamptonshire. He was in France when WWII began and fought with the French Resistance and was awarded both the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance. He described his efforts during the war, rather humbly, as ‘boy scout stuff’. He had met James Joyce in Paris in the 1930s and had begun writing before the war began. In 1949, his bleak absurdist play Waiting for Godot was well-received in Paris. When the play was first performed in London in 1955 it was voted ‘the most significant English language play of the 20th century’. His works consider the tragicomic conditions of life, that often combine a bleakness and minimalism which he captured so well. Beckett was at the forefront of ‘modernist’ writing style and a leading light in the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’. He lived and worked in Paris until he died on 22 December 1989 and he is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. And on 10th December 2009 the new bridge across the Liffey was named in his honour.
Samuel Beckett Bridge
Jack B Yeats
Jack B Yeats, one of Ireland’s foremost painters, was born in London on the 29 August 1871, the youngest child of John Butler Yeats and his wife Susan (nee Pollexfen). His father, who had trained as a lawyer, was also a painter although not nearly as successful as his son would become.
Jack spent his early years moving between London, Dublin and his maternal grandparent’s home in Sligo before moving to London in 1887. He studied at the South Kensington School of Art and the Chiswick School of Art where he met Mary Cottenham White who he married in 1894. They moved to Devon in where he developed his artistic career as an illustrator for various journals, and after focusing on watercolours had his first exhibition in London in the 1897.
The couple left Devon for Ireland in 1910, first settling in Greystones, Wicklow, before moving to Dublin and finally into 18 Fitzwilliam Square where they spent the rest of their lives.
Olympic Silver Medal
Back in Dublin Yeats began to work in oils and travelled widely capturing images of rural life, particularly in the West of Ireland and, of course, scenes in Dublin. One of his most famous and beloved paintings is The Liffey Swim (1924) which is now in the National Gallery. He entered this in the Paris Olympics and won the Silver Medal which is part of the Jack B Yeats archive that was donated to the gallery by his niece Anne Yeats, herself a painter and stage designer, in 1996. In 1999, his painting The Wild Ones was sold at Sotheby’s, London, for £1.2 million, the highest price ever paid for one of his works.
He continued to produce work for publication including illustrations for JM Synge’s The Aran Islands. And he wrote numerous plays, a collection of short stories for children and novels through the 1930s and 1940s. He died on 28 March 1957 and is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery. He was 85.
The Liffey Swim
Filed under Art, Dublin, London
As a nation in love with words and writing, the National Library of Ireland is the vault where all the treasure is kept. Irish writers have made a significant and profound contribution to the world for centuries, and much of their original works are safeguarded in the building on Kildare Street that opened its doors in September 1890. It was designed by the architect Thomas Deane and proved to be very popular from the start.
The library traces its history from the Royal Dublin Society which was founded in 1731 ‘..for improving husbandry, manufactures and other useful arts and sciences’. A Royal Charter, which included an annual allowance, was granted in 1749. In 1836 a Select Committee recommended that the library should not just be accessible to a select few but opened as a National Library. At that time most of the library’s books were of a scientific nature, and future acquisitions included books with a more general nature and, of course, those with an Irish interest. In 1840 one of its earliest purchases was the collection of 17th century Irish pamphlets which was bought from the London bookseller Thomas Thorpe.
The library is open to one and all and is for reference purposes only – you cannot borrow books! The building’s main space, The Reading Room, is spectacular and definitely worth a visit. In recent years with the surge of public interest in tracing Family History, the Genealogy Department has become an important part in the search.
With such a large amount of material available the library holds many exhibitions and lectures. The WB Yeats exhibition is permanent affording the visitor a ‘comprehensive view of the great poet’. The library also holds many important papers belonging to James Joyce (early workings of Ulysses) and those of Roddy Doyle, Seamus Heaney, Colm Toibin and Brian Friel.
The library also holds the National Photographic Archive which is based in Meeting House Square, Temple Bar. Over 20,000 negatives have now been digitised and they are available online.
WB Yeats Exhibition
Helen of Troy may have had the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’ but Hazel Lavery’s launched a billion pounds!
Hazel – Lady Lavery
Hazel Lavery (nee Martyn) was born on 14th March 1880 in Chicago to Edward Martyn, a wealthy industrialist of Anglo-Irish extraction. She was known as ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the Midwest’ but decided to leave and went to London in the early 1900s. She married a doctor, Edward Trudeau in 1903, but he died after only five months. By then she had met John Lavery, and they married in 1909. He was the most sought-after artist in London and was appointed the official artist to the British Government during World War I. When he was knighted in 1918 Hazel became Lady Lavery.
As Sir John Lavery was the portrait artist of choice for the ‘great and good’ in London, Hazel met and corresponded with many famous people like George Bernard Shaw, the historian Hilaire Belloc and Lytton Strachey, a founding member of the Bloomsday Group. During the Anglo-Irish treaty negotiations in 1922 their grand house on Cromwell Parade, South Kensington, was used by the Irish delegation. Hazel was very much the society hostess and entertained her guests that included Michael Collins and Kevin O’Higgins. At the time there was much gossip and speculation about her relationship with these men, but her correspondence does not confirm anything.
Lady Lavery by Sir John Lavery
After the Treaty was signed Sir John Lavery was asked to design an image for the new Irish Banknotes that represented the female personification of Ireland. This looked back to Irish mythology and had been previously represented by Mangan’s Dark Rosaleen and WB Yeats’ Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Hazel’s image was adopted and reproduced on banknotes from 1928 until the mid-1970s. And that’s an awful lot of banknotes (and money).
Lady Lavery – on the money!
The Abbey Theatre (also known as the National Theatre of Ireland) has had a long and interesting history dating back over a hundred years.
In the 1890s WB Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory and Edward Martyn published a ‘Manifesto for the Irish Literary Theatre’ with the intention of establishing a national theatre for Ireland. Allied to this was the work of the brothers William and Frank Fay who formed WG Fay’s Irish National Dramatic Company that helped develop local acting and writing talent, and the financial input and management guidance of Annie Horniman. She was from London and a friend and supporter of George Bernard Shaw and had financed one of his plays Arms and the Man in 1894. She came to Dublin in 1903 and worked as Yeats’ secretary when he, Gregory, Martyn, AE Russell and JM Synge founded the Irish National Theatre Society. She helped fund the new project which was soon augmented by members of the Fay group. The first plays were performed in the Molesworth Hall, but when the old Merchanic’s Hall on Lower Abbey Street became available Horniman and the Fays agreed to buy the premises.
William Fay was the appointed as the first theatre manager with responsibility for training new actors. Jack B Yeats, the renowned artist, was commissioned to paint portraits of the leading actors of the time that were on show in the theatre’s foyer. On the opening of the new theatre, 27 December 1904, three one-act plays were performed; two by WB Yeats and one by Lady Gregory. The theatre thrived for a few years, but after the riots that followed Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World in 1907 and the split with Fays, the theatre’s fortunes slipped.
The old building was destroyed by fire on 17 July 1951, and the company performed at the Queen’s Theatre until 1966 when the newly built Abbey Theatre, designed by Michael Scott, was officially opened 18 July. With the contribution of new, exceptional playwrights like Hugh Leonard (Da 1973), Tom Murphy (A Whistle in the Dark 1961) and Brian Friel (Dancing at Lughnasa 1990), the fortunes of the theatre improved and helped raise its international profile.
Theatre of Dreams!
WB Yeats – Sandymount Green
Although he did not spend much time in the neighbourhood, WB Yeats still casts a watchful, fatherly eye over the place. His bust in Sandymount Green looks out on the small and pleasant triangular park in the centre of the village. It is an oasis of calm of which the dreamer in Yeats would surely have approved.
He was born only a short distance away at 5, Sandymount Avenue on 13th June 1865 and left with his family for England two years later. He did return to Ireland years later and lived in what was for him his spiritual home in Sligo. With his father, John Yeats, a well-known artist he met many of Ireland’s leading lights in the arts and began writing poetry from an early age. His first book of verse The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, published in 1889, shows his early interests in Celtic mythology and the occult, themes which he moved away from as he matured. Apart from the title poem two others, notably, The Stolen Child and Down by the Sally Gardens are considered some of his finest early work. Over the years he became a leading member of the Irish Literary Revival movement, and alongside Lady Augusta Gregory, Edward Martyn and other kindred spirits founded the Abbey Theatre, which he served as chief in its early years. On its opening night, 27th December 1904, his play Cathleen ni Houihan and Lady Gregory’s Spreading the News were performed.
In 1889 he met Maud Gonne, who having read his first published poem The Isle of Statues, sought him out. He was smitten with her beauty and outspoken, confident nature and thus began a lifelong, unrequited love. He proposed marriage in 1891, and when rejected admitted that thereafter ‘the troubling of my life began’. She was his muse and although they did briefly become lovers many years later it did not last. I was recently given a book of his poems and particularly like Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven which beautifully captures the essence of love:
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Sandymount Green – tread softly…..
Merrion Square is a jewel in Dublin’s crown, and as it celebrates its 250th anniversary, it is looking better than ever. The square was originally laid out in 1762 and landscaping went on for almost thirty years, and this attention to detail shows in the magnificent space that we can enjoy today. The square is surrounded on three sides by unbroken Georgian terraces and by National Gallery, National Museum – Natural History, and the manicured lawns of Leinster House on its West side. Nowadays most of the houses are occupied by professional offices and various institutes; namely, The Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (No. 8), The Goethe-Institut Irland (No. 37), Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA – No. 73) and many more besides. Its central location has always attracted people and many of its residents have telling contributions to Irish life and beyond. Daniel O’Connell, known affectionately as The Liberator for his championing the cause of catholic emancipation lived at No. 58 (South). A short walk away, on the same side, the Nobel award-winner, poet and founder of The Abbey Theatre WB Yeats resided at No. 82.
Oscar Wilde – Dublin’s first rocker!
And, of course, its most famous resident Oscar Wilde lived, appropriately enough, at No. 1. He was born about three hundred yards away at 21 Westland Row on 16 Oct 1853, and his upwardly mobile family moved to the square two years later. His mother, Jane, was a poet and wrote political, revolutionary verse for The Nation during the stressful and turbulent years of The Famine under the pseudonym ‘Esperanza‘. Her famous, raucous Saturday afternoon salons were the talk of the town and left a deep impression on Oscar who would brilliantly recreate their atmosphere in his books and plays. The square (11.7 acres) is beautifully maintained and the central flower plot a joy to behold in the sunshine. There are many statues set randomly about the place and the colourful, reclining Oscar Wilde (opposite his old home at No 1) is a favourite with visitors and photographers. Another piece, The Joker’s Chair, is a memorial to Dermot Morgan, who played the part of Father Ted Crilly in the hit TV comedy Father Ted. I’ve heard many a laugh here as visitors sit, recite a funny line from the show and have their photograph taken. Also, in the artistic scheme of things, an Art Market is held every Sunday with artists displaying their work along the railings. The square, although 250 years old, is still the beating heart of classic Georgian Dublin and always interesting to visit, if only to stroll among its quiet trees.