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"Wherever green is worn": Yeats, Irish America and Nationalist Ireland

Yeats's politics: The poet, WB Yeats, had a complicated relationship with the land of his birth, one that ran through his life and work from the beginning to the end.

He was still in his 20s when he fell under the spell of two strong figures. The first was the Fenian, John O'Leary, who kindled in him an interest in Ireland's distinctive cultural and historical traditions. This helped make him an Irish writer, whose life and work had Ireland as its chief inspiration and preoccupation. The second was Maud Gonne, who stirred Yeats's romantic imagination. The daughter of a British army officer, Gonne was a fervent Irish nationalist who drew Yeats further down that road than he might otherwise have been willing to travel. 

From the outset, Yeats desired to be numbered among those "that sang, to sweeten Ireland's wrong" although he insisted that he would do so while maintaining the highest literary standards. Four and a half decades later, in his valedictory poem, 'Under Ben Bulben', he continued to proclaim that "ancient Ireland knew it all" and to urge adherence to "the indomitable Irishry." 

In the decades in between, his engagement with Ireland went through many ups and downs. The story of Yeats's undulating relationship with nationalist Ireland is one that is essential to the understanding of his life and literary achievement. 

He went from being throughout the 1890s an indefatigable advocate for the creation of a national literature for Ireland, to a disillusioned early 20th century figure who believed in 'September 1913' that 'romantic Ireland' was 'dead and gone'. The Easter Rising rekindled his interest in Ireland's potential and he committed himself to helping build the new State that emerged in 1922. But it was not long before disenchantment set in again as literary censorship sapped his belief in Ireland's glorious destiny.

In this talk, I want to look at the evolution of Yeats's engagement with revolutionary Ireland with a special eye on his experiences in America where, playing to the gallery of Irish American sentiment, he made some of his most overtly nationalistic pronouncements. 

Irish America's political influence: The Irish American dimension to Ireland's revolutionary struggle was an important one. Throughout Yeats's life, Irish Americans wielded considerable influence on Irish affairs. They were a perennial source of financial support for Irish movements and many were eager to use their influence within the American body politic to help advance the cause of Ireland. 

The Irish American impact on Ireland was particularly pronounced during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the decades leading up to the Easter Rising. In the newly-published Cambridge History of Ireland the point is made that "Irish-America proved to be especially fertile ground for advanced nationalism."  Advanced nationalists were those whose ambitions for Ireland went beyond the demand for Home Rule to more comprehensive forms of self-government.

The oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood, which Yeats seems to have joined during the 1890s, was kept alive by support from America. The American Fenian organisation, Clan na Gael, sent former Fenian prisoner Tom Clarke back to Dublin in 1907 where they funded his tobacconist shop which provided ideal cover for his conspiratorial activities. Clarke became a focal point for the reinvigoration of the republican movement. As R.V. Comerford has written: "It was Clarke's single-minded response to unfolding events that, more than anything else, brought about an armed rising in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916." (Eugenio Biagini and Daniel Mulhall (eds.), The Shaping of Modern Ireland, Dublin 2016, p. 20)

Yeats and America, 1903-04: W.B. Yeats paid five visits to America, in 1903-04, in 1911, in 1914, in 1920 and in 1932-33. During those visits, he had extensive engagement with Irish America at an important time in the history of Ireland and of Irish America. The motivation behind Yeats's American visits tended to be financial rather than artistic. His American tours were invariably lucrative affairs.

In the four months he spent in America in 1903/04, Yeats delivered more than 60 lectures, many at leading American Universities, met with President Theodore Roosevelt, and amassed $3,200, a substantial sum at that time, especially for someone like Yeats who had throughout his life been perennially hard-pressed financially. 

And what did Yeats have to say to his American and Irish American audiences? One of his main topics was what he termed 'the intellectual revival in Ireland' in which he focused on the Irish language, literary and dramatic movements that had emerged during the previous decade and conjured up a pastoral, egalitarian future for Ireland, which would "preserve an ancient ideal of life" centred on agriculture rather than industry. 

In what sounds like a prose version of his well-known poem, 'The Fishermen', he enthused about Ireland where "alone among the nations" will be found "away on the western seaboard, under broken roofs, a race of gentlemen, keeping alive the ideals of a great time when men sang the heroic life with drawn swords in their hands." (W.B Yeats, Uncollected Prose, Vol 2, p. 159). Suffice to say that this is romantic nationalism of a fairly pure strain, which makes semi-spiritual claims for the nation. 

Yeats's America tour came at an interesting time in Yeats's engagement with Irish affairs. In one sense, he was at the height of his renown as an Irish nationalist having the year before produced, in collaboration with Lady Gregory, his most political piece of work, Cathleen ní Houlihan, and was on the way to establishing a national theatre for Ireland. The Abbey Theatre opened its doors in December 1904. 

But not all was sweetness and light between the poet and his fellow Irish nationalists who had conflicting ambitions for Ireland. In the opening years of the 20th century, Yeats had come under attack from advanced nationalists, for example Patrick Pearse, in the Gaelic League's journal, An Claidheamh Soluis who insisted that a national literature could only be written in the Irish language. Pearse later regretted his dismissal of Yeats as a third-rate poet and invited him to speak at his school at St. Edna's.

There were more sustained attacks from D.P. Moran in his weekly paper, The Leader. Moran's gripe against Yeats was that, by his definition, Yeats was not properly Irish. Moran's concept of an Irish Ireland was defined by Catholicism and the Irish language. Yeats fitted neither frame. 

The national literature Yeats conceived was to be Irish in theme and spirit but would be written in English. Moran disagreed, and he had a caustic pen. For Moran, Yeats "lacked every attribute of genius but perseverance" and he asserted that "practically no-one in Ireland understands Mr. Yeats and his school". (D.P. Moran, The Philosophy of Irish Ireland, pp. 102-03). The notion of an Irish literature in English was, according to Moran, "one of the most glaring frauds that the credulous Irish people ever swallowed." (The Shaping of Modern Ireland, p. 128)

A good example of Yeats's growing doubts about Ireland's direction of travel at this time was 'No Second Troy', 

    Why should I blame her that she filled my days 

    With misery, or that she would of late 

    Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways, 

    Or hurled the little streets upon the great, 

    Had they but courage equal to desire? 

Yeats enjoyed the advantage of having his first American tour organised by the indefatigable Irish-American lawyer, John Quinn, who later helped Yeats maintain his father in New York where he moved in 1907 and refused to return to Ireland. Yeats senior died in New York in 1922. 

Quinn had worried ahead of that first tour that Yeats might not go down well with Irish American Catholics on account of his unorthodox religious views and the memory of the controversy about his 1899 play, The Countess Cathleen. 

John Quinn need not have worried as Yeats won over his audiences. Such was his reception that he was asked by the Irish American Fenian body, Clan na Gael, to deliver a lecture in memory of Robert Emmett on the 126th anniversary of the patriot's birth. When Yeats spoke at the Academy of Music in New York in February 1904, his talk attracted an attendance of 4,000. It would have been inconceivable for Yeats to have attracted an audience of that size in Dublin or in London. Such was the imposing scale of Irish America. 

In this speech, Yeats offered an unbridled nationalist interpretation of Irish history. In it, he lionised Emmet as someone who "showed that there was something in Ireland which not all the wealth of world could purchase." (Uncollected Prose 2, p. 315). He predicted that "when Ireland is triumphant and free, there will be something in the character of her people, something lofty and strange, which will have been put there by her years of suffering and by the memory of her many martyrs." (Uncollected Prose 2, p. 319). None of his critics in Ireland could have taken exception to his American lectures. This was the outlook of an advanced Irish nationalist and his audiences evidently lapped it up. 

Yeats's 1911 Tour: By the time, Yeats returned to America in 1911, his view of Ireland had darkened markedly. The prime cause of his dismay had been the negative public response to Synge's Playboy of the Western World when it premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 1907. Yeats had sprung to Synge's defence and, when the playwright died in 1909, Yeats turned him into a symbol of artistic integrity ground down by philistine versions of Irish nationalism.  

The effects of the Synge controversy can be seen in Yeats's poems, which take a more sardonic view of Ireland, as in 'Words':

What have I done, or what would do

In this blind, bitter land.

Or in 'All things can tempt me':

One time it was a woman's face, or worse -

The seeming needs of my fool-driven land:

Yeats's 1911 visit was part of the Abbey Theatre's first tour of America. Yeats accompanied them for about six weeks. On the strength of his earlier visit, and the religious tolerance he encountered at that time, he believed that Irish America could be a vital source of support for his Theatre, although he accepted that this would take time. He observed that "The Irish imagination keeps certain of its qualities wherever it is, and if we are to give it, as we hope, a new voice, and a new memory, we shall have to make many journeys." (Karin Margaret Strand, W.B. Yeats’s American Lecture Tours, Ph.D Thesis, Northwestern University 1978, p. 87).  

Inevitably the controversy that had surrounded Synge's Playboy in Ireland pursued Yeats and his troupe to America. One Irish American body described the Playboy as "the foulest libel that has ever been perpetrated on the Irish character." (Strand 1978, p. 122). Some Irish American organisations were stirred up about the Playboy and Yeats, never one to shirk a verbal battle, went into bat for Synge's genius. "He took his types from reality indeed, but he exaggerated them and arranged them according to his fancy until he created something as strange as the wandering knight and the Sancho Panza of Cervantes." (Strand 1978, p. 102)  

In his stout defence of Synge and the Playboy, he sometimes used an argument that can be heard today when he said that "Dublin might know its Ireland better than those for whom Ireland is but a memory or a tradition." 

Yeats's 1914 Tour of America: His 1914 tour of America was a very different affair from its predecessor. By this time, Yeats's disenchantment with Ireland had reached new depths and this was reflected in the poems that appeared in Responsibilities, some of which have a bitter, unattractive tone. 

Indignant at the fumbling wits, the obscure spite

Of our old Paudeen in his shop, I stumbled blind

Among stones and thorn-trees, under morning light.


You gave, but will not give again

Until enough of Paudeen's pence

By Biddy's halfpennies have lain

To be 'some sort of evidence',

Before you'll put your guineas down,

That things it were a pride to give

Are what the blind and ignorant town

Imagines best to make it thrive.

This collection did have a more refined statement of Yeats's disillusionment in 'September 1913'. 

Was it for this the wild geese spread

The grey wing on every tide;

For this that all that blood was shed,

For this Edward Fitzgerald died,

And Robert Emmet and Wolfe,

All that delirium of the brave?

This reads like a farewell to Irish affairs. On his 1914 tour, Yeats largely steered clear of Irish America. Only one of his three lectures - Synge and the Ireland of his time - dealt specifically with Irish affairs. His visit took place in the teeth of the raging controversy about Home Rule and Yeats expressed guarded optimism about the prospects for agreement that would preserve the unity of Ireland. He spoke of what he saw as a new mood in Ireland brought about by the prospect of Home Rule. "In Ireland we still cherish the old patriotism, but it has taken a different form. The young Irishman of today does not want to die for his country; he prefers to live for it." Again his tour was a lucrative one, raising £500. This figure is put into perspective by the fact that his total income in 1913 was £522.

Yeats's 1920 Tour: By the time Yeats returned to the United States in 1920 everything in Ireland had, as he put it, 'changed utterly' and Ireland was in the throes of revolutionary turmoil. 

Like almost everyone else, Yeats was taken completely by surprise by the Easter Rising. His initial private response was one of dismay. He thought that all the cultural work he had pursued for the previous 20 years would be undone. 

The Rising drew from him one of his finest poems, which has helped shape perceptions of that great event in modern Irish history. 'Easter 1916' is in my view the finest public poem of the 20th century in the English language. 

It begins in a matter of fact manner, noting that the Rising was planned and executed by people Yeats had known and who had seemed to him to be figures who could be made fun of. He then tells the story of four of the participants, Pearse, MacDonagh, John McBride and Constance Markievicz. Even McBride, a "drunken vainglorious lout" who had taken Maud Gonne away from him, is credited with having resigned his part in the "causal comedy" and been "transformed utterly" by his participation in the Rising and his subsequent execution. 

The heart of the poem is in its final stanza:

    Too long a sacrifice

    Can make a stone of the heart.   

    O when may it suffice?

    That is Heaven's part, our part   

    To murmur name upon name,   

    As a mother names her child   

    When sleep at last has come   

    On limbs that had run wild.   

    What is it but nightfall?

    No, no, not night but death;   

    Was it needless death after all?

    For England may keep faith   

    For all that is done and said.   

    We know their dream; enough

    To know they dreamed and are dead;   

    And what if excess of love   

    Bewildered them till they died?   

    I write it out in a verse—

    MacDonagh and MacBride   

    And Connolly and Pearse

    Now and in time to be,

    Wherever green is worn,

    Are changed, changed utterly:   

    A terrible beauty is born.

The poem reaches an heroic crescendo as he names the Risings leaders, MacDonagh and McBride and Connolly and Pearse, and states that "wherever green is worn", their reputations will be "changed, changed utterly." But the poem's final line highlights Yeats's fundamental ambivalence towards the Rising for it is described, not as a ‘terrific beauty’ but as "a terrible beauty."

The years that followed the Rising were tumultuous ones for Ireland and for the world as World War 1 came to an end and Ireland's war of independence broke out in 1919. It was against the backdrop of this turmoil that Yeats paid his 1920 visit to America and naturally he was quizzed about his response to developments in Ireland. Indeed, it was in America that Yeats first met Eamon de Valera who was on a protracted visit to the US, promoting the Irish Republic whose President he had become the previous year. 

Although his lecture topics studiously avoided current Irish affairs, when he did make comments on Ireland, he described himself as an Irish nationalist and attributed the conflict in Ireland to "English blundering", which had played in to Sinn Féin's hands. (Strand 1978, p. 314). In particular, he was critical of the delay in giving effect to the Home Rule Act of 1914, which was deferred because of the outbreak of World War 1. On one occasion in response to a journalist's question, Yeats described Ireland as "a country of oppression" and expressed his belief that the present upheavals would result for some form of self-government for his strife-torn country. (R.F. Foster, W.B. Yeats: the arch-poet, p. 165) While he acknowledged Sinn Féin's mandate, he decried political fanaticism as "a bitter acid that destroyed the soul."  (Foster, p. 165)

Yeats's final American tour: Yeats's last American tour in 1932/33 was undertaken for familiar reasons, to boost his own finances and to raise money for his latest project, the Irish Academy of Letters, which he set up in September 1932. This was Yeats's rejoinder to the literary censorship that had been introduced during the 1920s, and the narrowing of the new State's intellectual horizons. 

During this visit, Yeats was described as "Ireland's cultural Ambassador" (Strand 1978, p. 208). His own aim was "to substitute a cultural link" between Ireland and Irish America for the political one. (Ibid.) The lecture he delivered most often was entitled 'The New Ireland' in which he divided Irish history into four eras, the fourth beginning with the death of Parnell in 1891. The following 40 years had been a period of renaissance as unity and passion had come to Ireland in the wake of Parnell's passing. Literary societies and the Gaelic League had risen to eclipse the old politics of the Irish Party. (Strand 1978, p. 333). He maintained that: "In Ireland, the cultural renaissance is closely allied to the political revolution. But Ireland is the first interest of everybody working there. .. The Irish players first acted, not for acting's sake, not for art's sake, but to serve their country."

The analysis he offered his American audiences was very much in line with the speech he made when accepting the Nobel Prize in 1923, when he sought to claim for the Irish literary revival some of the credit for Ireland's political transformation. 

The poem that best epitomises Yeats's desire at this time to put his memories and his reflections on Irish politics into shape on the page is 'The Municipal Gallery Revisited':

Around me the images of thirty years:
An ambush; pilgrims at the water-side;
Casement upon trial, half hidden by the bars,
Guarded; Griffith staring in hysterical pride;
Kevin O'Higgins' countenance that wears
A gentle questioning look that cannot hide
A soul incapable of remorse or rest;
A revolutionary soldier kneeling to be blessed;
An Abbot or Archbishop with an upraised hand
Blessing the Tricolour. 'This is not,' I say,
'The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland
The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.'

Conclusion: WB Yeats spent more than a year of his life in America. He was a success here. He worked hard, travelling widely and lecturing frequently. He made a positive impression wherever he went and was invariably seen by the American press as someone who ought to have an opinion on every current topic to do with Ireland. And he did not disappoint them. America also made a positive impression on Yeats and he was happy being there.

While some in Irish America might have had doubts about the integrity of his Irish nationalism, they could not help being impressed by the fact that he was so well received in America. And he played to the gallery of Irish American sentiment, always being careful to present himself as the Irish nationalist he undoubtedly was, even if his nationalism was an unconventional variety. The differences of opinion within nationalist Ireland that raged at home, "the seeming needs of my fool-driven land” paled into insignificance on the broader stage that was early 20th century America.

America was an important place of refuge for W.B. Yeats during those torrid three decades when Ireland and its greatest poet were being remade as a modern sovereign state and a modern poet.       


Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador to the United States of America

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