In recognition of National Poetry Month, we’re highlighting a selection of our Cuala Press titles. These elegant volumes, many of them volumes of poetry, are some of the finest examples of private press printing from the last century.
Emerging from both the international Arts and Crafts Movement at the turn of the century and the Celtic Revival in Ireland, the Cuala Press traces its earliest history to a joint venture between Elizabeth Corbet Yeats, sister of the poet William Butler Yeats, and Evelyn Gleeson, at the Dun Emer craft studio at Dundrum, Gleeson’s home near Dublin. The name of the press, “Emer’s fort” in Irish Gaelic, is a reference to the wife of the Irish mythological hero, Cú Chulainn and the studio and the press were notable because of its all female staff of artists and printers. In addition to the finely crafted books of the Dun Emer Press, run by Yeats, the studio also produced fine embroidery, tapestries and rugs, overseen by Gleeson. Elizabeth Yeats is shown here (far right), along with fellow workers, at the Dun Emer Press in 1903. One of the images most associated with the press is the Dun Emer pressmark of ‘Lady Emer and tree’ designed by Elinor Monsell and first used in Katharine Tynan’s Twenty One Poems (1907).
The goals of the enterprise were outlined in a prospectus written by Gleeson in 1903: “A wish to find work for Irish hands in the making of beautiful things was the beginning of Dun Emer. … Everything as far as possible, is Irish: the paper of the books, the linen of the embroidery and the wool of the tapestry and carpets. The designs are also of the spirit and tradition of the country. … The first two books issued by the Dun Emer Press are now scattered over the world, and have given pleasure to our country people in America and at home and to strangers interested in the art of hand printing.” The full text of the prospectus can be found in Liam Miller’s history The Dun Emer Press, Later the Cuala Press published in 1973.
In 1908, Elizabeth Yeats and her sister Lily left Dun Emer Industries and set up their own studio, bringing the printing enterprise with them and renaming it the Cuala Press. From 1908 to 1946, the Yeats sisters, with the literary guidance of their brother, printed some of the most important works of the Irish Literary Revival, including first editions of works by Lady Gregory, Louis MacNiece, John Millington Synge, and, of course, William Butler Yeats.
In his introduction to The Revival of Printing: a bibliographical catalogue of works issued by the chief modern English presses published in 1912, Robert Steele writes of the Press: “Miss Yeats, who in time past had come within the circle of William Morris’s influence, has set herself the task of reviving fine printing in Ireland. Her books…have the advantage of being in many cases important from their subject-matter, as well as desirable pieces of printing. Technically her work, which in the early books showed many of the characteristics of amateurism, is now more satisfactory, though the press-work and the colour of the ink, especially of the red, are still open to improvement.” Regardless of Steele’s judgement of the earlier products of the press, seventy-seven titles were published by the Dun Emer and Cuala Presses combined and they are highly prized by collectors and scholars today for their literary importance as well as their simple beauty.
Special Collections has one title printed at the Dun Emer Press and eight others printed at the Cuala Press, including the last book printed there in 1946, Elizabeth Rivers’ Stranger in Aran.
The title page of the Rivers volume and one of the four hand-colored illustrations are shown here.
Three of our Cuala imprints are volumes of Yeats poetry that were once part of the working library of Irish-American poet and critic, Louise Bogan. Bogan wrote an article in The Atlantic in 1938 and praised the quality of Yeats’ verse: “…these evocations of Celtic beauty, heroism, and strangeness wakened, as more severe music could not then waken, Ireland’s ears to the sound of its own voice speaking its own music.”
Shown here is Bogan’s copy of The Cat and the Moon by William Butler Yeats published by the Cuala Press in 1924. The title page features the charging unicorn device designed by Robert Gregory and first used by the press in 1907. Gregory, was the son of Lady Gregory and the subject of Yeats’ famous poem “An Irish Airman Forsees His Death“. This copy is inscribed to Bogan by her second husband, Raymond Holden.
The Dun Emer Press and Cuala Press titles highlighted here, along with the over 1,000 volumes of the working library of Louise Bogan, are available to researchers in the Walter Havighurst Special Collections. They are truly amazing examples of the art of fine hand-press printing and our copies’ association with an important American poet make them extra “special”.
Special Collections Librarian