Dublin, June 1865

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Sandymount AveWhat youthful mother, a shape upon her lap ... …
    ... Would think her son, did she but see that shape
    With sixty or more winters on its head,
   A compensation for the pang of his birth,
   Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

Right: Sandymount Avenue (Courtesy: Google Maps)

So wrote W.B. Yeats in his poem 'Among School Children'. Did he have his own mother in mind, that shadowy figure, Susan Pollexfen Yeats, whose life was plagued by ill-health, the deaths of two of her children, and an unhappy marriage? What were her dreams, as she waited for the birth of her first child, in June 1865?

The second week of June, was, according to the Cork Examiner of 19th June, excessively warm, "almost oriental in its splendour." Susan Yeats must have been grateful for the sea breezes of Sandymount, a pleasant village-like suburb of Dublin. From Sandymount, her husband  John Butler Yeats travelled into Dublin every day in order to pursue his (somewhat unenthusiastic) studies in law. Sandymount’s population was just over 2000 and houses and house names such as Fairy Villa and Peachville suggest that the locals had pretensions to gentility. In addition to grocers and haberdashers, there was a  money-order and post office, a toyshop and a green at the centre of the village, with Robert Corbet's Sandymount Castle located on one side of it. Corbet was an uncle of John Buter Yeats. He was rather dismissive of the Yeats house a suburban villa, as his own house – though not actually a castle - had large gardens and pleasure grounds. Yeats would include the "Sandymount Corbets" in the family litany invoked in the poem Are You Content.

William, or Willie as he was known to family members, was born at No 1 George's Ville (now 5 Sandymount Avenue) on the night of Tuesday 13th June. During his lifetime he would not only see major changes in his native country – political, social and cultural – but also play a significant part in making those changes come about. When he died in 1939, the Ireland he left behind may not have been quite the one he dreamed of – many of his later poems express his despair at its shortcomings - but the fact that it existed at all and had sense of pride in its heritage was to a large degree due Yeats and others like him. This vision of a new Ireland is one that Yeats sees as having been at least partially realised in his  poem The Municipal Gallery Revisited. It is a country that the ballad-singers might celebrate – a place totally unlike the "dead Ireland of my youth."

Sandymount, December 1968

Above: Sandymount, December 1968 (click to view larger image).

So Yeats, like Joyce after him, saw the Ireland – and by implication the Dublin – of his youth as a place of death and paralysis. Yet this was the Ireland – and more particularly the Dublin - that would produce a generation of idealists and artists unlike any it had known before Where did all this idealism and energy come from? What was Dublin like in 1865?
The Dublin that Yeats was born into was a middle class,  solid, Victorian city. The Yeats family fortunes had begun with Jervis Yeats, the "Dublin merchant" mentioned in Yeats's poem Are You Content. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Yeats family was active in those pillars of Victorian society, the law and in the church. They also owned land in Dublin and in other parts of the country, from which John Butler Yeats derived much of his income.

But outside the comfortable world of lawyers and rectors and landlords, there was another Dublin. The city's population of 260,000 included many thousands who existed on casual labour – or lived by begging – and made their homes in parts of the city that were rapidly becoming black spots of tenement housing. This aspect of Dublin is ignored in guidebooks such as The Stranger’s Guide to Dublin, published in 1865. It describes Dublin as a large and handsome city, which "bids fair, if the present rate of progress is to continue, to be, ere long, a good example of the spirit of improvement of this progressive age."

But the Stranger's tours are hand-picked to avoid certain areas, and the writer admits that the "effluvium" of the Liffey is unbearable at low tide. Its writer cannot quite avoid a mention of the "grumbling and disaffection of the population." This disaffection would  increase, and in the latter part of the century find take political focus in the Home Rule movement and the Land League. It was also very much alive among the members of the Fenian Brotherhood, a secret society that saw violent revolution as the road to an Irish republic. One member of that society, jailed in 1865, was John O’Leary, who was to have a hugely important effect on the development of Yeats's nationalism and who would figure in more than one of his poems.

Another burning issue of the day was emigration, which had become endemic in Ireland since the famine. Perhaps John Butler Yeats attended the meeting in the law society on 18th June 1865, debating the motion as to whether "Emigration from Ireland endangers the prosperity of the country."

The cultural life of Dublin had been recently enhanced by the publication of John T. Gilbert's History of the Viceroys and Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas. On a lighter note, the newspapers were advertising such delights as the appearance of the Polynational Mimic, Valentine Vonsder, at the Rotunda; Quaglieni's Grand Cirque in Abbey Street and, the highlight of the summer, the Great Exhibition. The Exhibition had been officially opened in May and was a kind of World Fair, aimed at showing the range of Irish and international manufacturing and arts. The Exhibition opened in May at the site of what is now the Iveagh Gardens, and had an average attendance of 5000 per day and 3000 per night on those evenings it opened to the public.  Here the aim of providing the people of Dublin with "rational amusement blended with instruction" was met by a huge display  which included exhibits from all over the world, from silk handkerchiefs to sewer pipes, sewing-machines to jaunting cars. The Arts exhibits, in addition to examples of the traditional arts such as sculpture and painting, contained a section on the new art of photography.

This then, is a snapshot of  the Dublin into which W.B. Yeats was born and spent his babyhood.  John Butler Yeats was called to the Bar in early 1866, but within two years he gave up his legal career and moved to London to train as a portrait painter. It was a decision that was to have severe repercussions for his family, not least in financial terms. Although Yeats would spend other periods of his life living in Dublin, he always claimed Sligo, and later Coole Park, as his spiritual home. Dublin would become an in-between city, a stopping off point between the cultural bustle of London and the natural beauty of the West. Later in the year we will be publishing an image gallery on the people and places of Yeats's Dublin. For now, let's celebrate the city as the somewhat overlooked birthplace of the child who would become the one of the great poets of the twentieth century. One cannot but believe that Susan Yeats would have felt that bringing this creative genius into the world was indeed adequate compensation for "the uncertainty of his setting forth."

The Reading Room, Dublin City Library and Archive, contains a wealth of material on the life, times and work of W.B. Yeats.

Sources used for this blog include the following:
Thoms Directory 1865; Irish Newspaper Archives On-Line (Cork Examiner June 1865; Freeman’s Journal 1865) (available in any Dublin City Library branch); The Stranger’s Guide to Dublin, 1865, Collected Poems, W.B. Yeats, W.B. Yeats, A Life, R.F. Foster.


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