Yeats Family

10 Things You Didn’t Know About WB Yeats

Every Irish person will have come across the work of William Butler Yeats in school but here are 10 things your teachers may not have told you.

1.Yeats was fascinated by the occult and mysticism. He joined the Golden Dawn, a secret society which practiced ritual magic, in 1890, progressing to its Inner Order in 1893, and remained an active member for most of his life. He also joined paranormal research organisation The Ghost Club in 1911

2. While Yeats’ unrequited love for Maud Gonne is as famous as his poetry, what is less well-known is that they consummated the affair in 1908 – almost 20 years after first meeting. However, the relationship did not develop further.

3. He was nothing if not persistent. After proposing to, and being rejected by, Maud Gonne for the fifth time, he asked her daughter Iseult to marry him – also without success. Shortly after Iseult’s refusal, Yeats, then 52, married 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees in October 1917.

4. He may have been in such a rush to get hitched because he believed it was written in the stars. An astrological chart drawn up through the Golden Dawn found October 1917 was the ideal time for Yeats to marry.

5. Yeats’ introduction to automatic writing began as a sly attempt by Georgie to alleviate his fears about their marriage. The process is said to allow a person to write without conscious thought, acting as medium for the spirit world. During a grim honeymoon, Georgie convinced her new husband that the following was written through her: “With the bird all is well at heart. Your action was right for both.” Yeats took this as Iseult being well and his having made the right choice. He and Georgie went to on produce thousands of pages of automatic script.

6. Yeats served in the first Seanad for six years from 1922. He argued against the ban on divorce, a move he viewed as “grossly oppressive” to the Protestant minority, warning it would “put a wedge in the midst of this nation”. He also spoke out against new censorship laws, and while he promoted Irish-language research, he questioned compulsory Irish.

7. He played a major role in the Irish cultural revival. He was involved in founding the Abbey Theatre and the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, now the Hugh Lane, and supported the Cuala Press set up by his sisters to produce books of Irish interest.

8. WB Yeats was the first Irishman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923 “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. A year later his brother Jack added to the family medal haul, winning silver in the arts and culture section of the Olympics for his painting The Liffey Swim.

9. Yeats described his last years as a second puberty following a Steinach operation at age 69. Perhaps not coincidentally had several affairs with younger women but also experienced a late burst of creativity.

10. The grave of WB Yeats may contain someone else’s body. The poet died in France in 1939 but was exhumed and brought to Drumcliffe, Sligo,in 1948. However, historian Louise Foxcroft, whose granduncle Alfred Hollis was buried in France on the same day as Yeats, has raised concerns that a mix-up meant Hollis’ body was sent to Ireland instead.


About the Writer: Anne Hayden is a writer and editor who grew up in Cork, studied in Galway and lives in Dublin. She has an MA Journalism from NUIG and is Assistant Chief Subeditor at the Irish Sun. You can follow Anne on twitter @ainenihaodain