'Around the World with WB Yeats'
Blog04 December 2019
Around the World with WB Yeats: why I agreed to become Honorary President of the Yeats Society
I received a message a little while ago from the Yeats Society in Sligo asking if I would agree to become the Society's new Honorary President. I thought about it and decided to accept the Society's kind offer. Why did I do so? In a nutshell, W.B. Yeats has been part of my personal and professional life for the past five decades and I am keen to do what I can to nurture his reputation as a giant of modern poetry and as an indispensable Irish writer.
I first came across the work of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) during my schooldays in Waterford. The poems I remember from that time are 'The Wild Swans at Coole' and 'No Second Troy'. Lines like:
“The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky”
still reverberate with me from those days, as does Yeats's powerful image of revolutionary agitation:
“hurled the little streets upon the great”.
At University College Cork in 1974 I bought a paperback copy of the Pan edition of Yeats's Selected Poetry, a volume that still has a place on my bookshelf. Yeats's poetry first captivated me when I realised that works like 'September 1913', 'Easter 1916', 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen' and ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ traced the lineaments of Irish history during those critical opening decades of the 20th century, a part of our past that has always held a special fascination for me. As a history student, I remember reading the Nobel Prize acceptance speech Yeats delivered in Stockholm in 1923 in which he sought to claim his share of the credit for the coming of Irish independence.
"The modern literature of Ireland, and indeed all that stir of thought which prepared for the Anglo-Irish War, began when Parnell fell from power in 1891. A disillusioned and embittered Ireland turned away from parliamentary politics; an event was conceived and the race began, as I think, to be troubled by that event’s long gestation."
This encouraged me to explore further Yeats's engagement with the Ireland of his time, "the seeming needs of my fool-driven land" as he acerbically put it during one of his spasms of disenchantment with his homeland. I used Yeats's life and work as a source for my M.A. thesis in history at UCC, 'The indomitable Irishry: writers and politics in Ireland, 1890-1939'.
In 1978, I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and two years later embarked on my first overseas diplomatic posting in New Delhi. I went there with the firm intention of turning my thesis into a book but discovered that I was not yet ready for such a venture.
One thing I learned in New Delhi was the extent of Indian interest in W.B. Yeats. There were, I think, three main reasons for this. The first was that Yeats's nationalism struck a chord with many Indians in the early 1980s, just over 30 years after India gained its own independence. At that time, there was considerable awareness among those I encountered of the degree to which Ireland's struggle for freedom had exercised an influence on their own independence movement. The second source of this Indian interest in Yeats was the poems he had written with Indian themes, especially in his early years. And finally, Yeats was recognised as a champion in the West of the great Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore.
Early in my time in New Delhi, I was asked to help with the setting up of a Yeats Society and I spoke at the Society's second public event. My subject was 'W.B. Yeats and the idea of a national literature', one I chose because I expected the issues of language, literature and nationality to ring bells with my Indian audience.
Another Yeats enthusiast I met was the Indian academic and novelist, Chaman Nahal (1927-2013), who at that time taught at the University of New Delhi. He was renowned for his novel about the partition of India, Azadi (1975) Professor Nahal invited me to address the annual Conference of the All-India English Teachers’ Association. I spoke at the opening plenary session, which was a daunting task for a young diplomat of 25 years of age as that session drew an attendance of some 1,500 teachers from all over India. The other keynote speaker that day was politician/poet, Karan Singh, whose father had been the last Maharajah of Kashmir. Singh, who was then India's Minister for Education and Culture, spoke passionately about his love of poetry. He devoted much of his speech to Yeats, quoting by heart long passages from his poetry. It was a tour de force and a vivid illustration of Yeats's international standing.
The most striking memory I have of Indian interest in Yeats came in December 1982 when my wife, Greta, and I were invited to the home of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (1900-1990), who was the grandmother of a friend of ours, Gita Sahgal. Mrs Pandit, had by then retired from a stellar career in India's diplomatic service as Ambassador to the United Nations, to the Soviet Union and to the United Kingdom where she had also been a non-resident Ambassador accredited to Ireland. She was born Vijaya Lakshmi Nehru and was the sister of India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and aunt of the then PM, Indira Gandhi.
When I was introduced to Mrs Pandit, she immediately launched into a word-perfect recitation of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' followed by 'When You are Old'. She had memorised Yeats's poems while interned by the British during India's independence struggle and had never forgotten them. The fact that Yeats was an Irish nationalist had endeared his poetry to the Nehru family during that time of tribulation for them.
Those days in India were a revelation for me. I realised that our literature was an invaluable part of our national heritage, one that also served to enhance our international reputation. I have carried that lesson with me over the years and have tried to give voice to it.
During a career break in Perth in the 1980s, I became involved with the Yeats Society of Western Australia set up by an ex-army officer, Joe O'Sullivan, who saw it as a way to boost Ireland's image in 1980s Australia. I have fond memories of delivering a Yeats talk at the home of renowned Australian novelist, Mary Durack (1913-1994), in a beautiful garden on the banks of the Swan River.
As Ireland's first Consul General in Edinburgh (1998-2001), I saw history and literature as a productive way of connecting Ireland with Scotland. At the newly-established Institute for Scottish and Irish Studies at the University of Aberdeen, I came to know the then Director of the Yeats Summer School, Professor George Watson, and at his invitation spoke at the school in Sligo for the first time in the year 2000.
During my time as Ambassador to Malaysia, one of my objectives was to promote Ireland as a destination for Malaysian students. I saw our literature as a means by which Ireland's educational strengths could be highlighted. I remember giving a keynote address on Yeats at the National Library in Kuala Lumpur and later at the inaugural KL International Literary Festival. At a Summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Kuala Lumpur, I heard South African President, Thabo Mbeki, structure his keynote Conference speech around Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’, which is perhaps the most frequently quoted poem of the 20th century. For the benefit of those who might have been puzzled by such homage to Yeats’s work, I wrote a commentary for Malaysia’s New Straits Times, which the paper headlined ‘The Non-Aligned Poet’.
I arrived in Berlin in October 2009, as the dark clouds of recession were gathering around the Irish economy. Most of my time there was spent dealing with our economic crisis and explaining to Germans the underlying strengths of the Irish economy which I insisted would enable us to pull through the difficulties that then beset us. In an effort to bring home to German audiences that there was a lot more to Ireland than the difficulties affecting our banks, I took a Yeats exhibition to about a dozen German universities and spoke each time about the poet's life and work. I was invariably able to slip some contemporary economic and political points into my Yeats speeches!
My assignment in London (2013-17) coincided with the peak years of our decade of centenaries. In Britain, there was a degree of sensitivity surrounding the centenary of the Easter Rising and I sought to use 'Easter 1916' as an access point for an understanding of the Rising.
During 2015 for the 150th anniversary of Yeats's birth, I undertook multiple speaking engagements - at the Oxford Literary Festival, the Newbury Festival and the Edinburgh Book Festival to name but a few. I also posted a daily tweet of Yeats's poetry, which attracted lots of positive attention, and took part in Bob Geldof's documentary on Yeats, A Fanatic Heart.
In Washington this past two years, I have combined Yeats's birthday on June 12th with Bloomsday (June 16th) to arrange an annual celebration of our two greatest writers, Yeats and Joyce.
Looking back over the forty years of my diplomatic career, I can clearly see how much Ireland has changed. Our economy has been transformed and our society has opened out in all sorts of ways. We have become fully embedded as a member of the European Union and through the ‘Global Ireland’ policy our national footprint around the world is being ambitiously enlarged. One thing that has not changed, however, is the high regard in which Irish writers are held. Our literature provides a precious window through which Ireland, past and present, can be viewed. This makes our country, its history and culture better known than they would otherwise be. When it comes to telling Ireland's story in the critical years before and after independence there are few witnesses that can match W.B. Yeats.
It is because of my lasting personal enthusiasm for Yeats’s work, and my strong sense of his undiminished importance to Ireland, that I accepted the invitation to be the Honorary President of the Yeats Society.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador to the United States and, since November 2019, Honorary President of the Yeats Society.