Lily and Lolly Yeats – Not So Famous Irish Relatives

by Jennifer Sturgeon  

Andy Warhol once said that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Whether fame lasts 15 minutes or 15 centuries, for some it will be well deserved – and for others not so. Today we often see that celebrities can gain fame without any particular talent, but the reverse is also true. Some people who deserve credit and renown for good works are often lost in the passage of time. This series will highlight the achievement of those who have been, rightly or wrongly, overshadowed by their more notorious relatives.

Lily and Lolly Yeats were the two younger sisters of Ireland’s finest poet, W.B. Yeats. Their father was the artist John Butler Yeats and their mother was Susan née Pollexfen from a prominent Sligo family. In the early part of the 20th century, they were prominent in the Celtic revival movement with their involvement in arts, crafts and publishing.

LILY   (25th August 1866 – 5th January 1949)

Lily Yeats’s Embroidery

Susan Mary Yeats, later to become known as Lily was born in Enniscrone, Co.Sligo. By all accounts, she was a sickly child and although she had longevity, she succumbed to illness on many occasions throughout her life. From July 1872 until November 1874 she was looked after at her maternal grandfather’s home, Merville in Co. Sligo. She then joined the rest of her family whenthey moved to West Kensington, London where she was taught by a governess for 2 years. In 1878 she attended the Notting Hill School Chiswick and when the family settled in Howth in 1881, she enrolled at Dublin Metropolitan School of Art with her sister.

Suffering from ill health in 1887, she moved to Huddersfield to live with her aunt and invalided mother. The next year saw her back in London where she visited William Morris and became enthusiastic about the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris’s daughter May taught her the art of needlework and she started employment with Morris & Co. on 10th December 1888, earning 10 shillings for her first week’s work. Within a year she was training new embroideresses for the firm.


Lily Yeats

In 1894 she gained employment as a governess in Hyère in France where she, unfortunately, contracted typhoid and this resulted in a return to London in 1896.


Following the death of their mother, Lily and her sister returned to Ireland in 1900. Along with a friend Evelyn Gleeson they opened Dun Emer (Fort of Emer) Craft studio in 1902. The enterprise was named after Emer, wife of the legendary warrior Cuchullain and it became a focus for the Irish Arts and Crafts movement where women were taught painting, drawing, cooking, sewing and the Irish language. Lily ran the embroidery department which supplied decorative embroidery for churches and domestic customers. In 1904 the business was re-organised into parts which separated completely in 1908. Evelyn Gleeson ran the Dun Emer Guild and the Yeats sisters ran the Cuala Press and embroideryworkshop. Their sister-in-law George, wife of the poet WB helped Lily in the embroidery workshop.

The Cuala Press and embroidery business struggled to make a profit and Lily’s sporadic bouts of ill health did not help matters. In 1929 her condition was finally diagnosed as a “malformed thyroid” and now in her sixties, Lily decided that she had enough and the company was dissolved in 1931. She continued to sell her own embroidered pictures until her death in 1949.

LOLLY  (11th March 1868 – 16th January 1940)

Elizabeth Corbet Yeats, later to become known as Lolly was born in London. Her early years mirrored those of her sister, living for a while at Merville in Co. Sligo and then moving to a number of different London residences with her family. She began writing fiction in 1886 and published a home-made magazine “The Pleiades” with 6 friends; notable stories included “Story without a plot” and “Scamp and 3 friends”.

She trained as a kindergarten teacher at Froebel College Bedford and once qualified, taught art as a visiting mistress at Froebel College, Chiswick High School and Central Foundation School. She earned a good income from lecturing and the publication of 4 painting manuals – Brushwork; Brushwork studies of flowers, fruit and animals; Brushwork copybook and Elementary brushwork studies.

After her move to Dublin with Lily and their business association with Evelyn Gleeson, she managed the Dun Emer Press which was the first printing works in Ireland to work with hand presses. The company’s first book was her poet brother’s “In the seven woods” in 1903. She specialised in beautifully illustrated and hand bound books which were expensive to produce. As a result, she struggled to make the business profitable and this was not helped by her strained relations with Evelyn Gleeson.

Bookplates from the Cuala Press Printed Materials Collection

In 1908 she and her brother WB set up the Cuala Press which went on to publish over 70 books, 48 of which were written by the poet himself. It was an enterprise which spearheaded the Celtic Revival of literature and art and published works by Lady Gregory, Synge and Gogarty.

Her relationships with her poet brother and sister were often fraught and yet the sisters continued to live together, ostensibly because they couldn’t afford to do otherwise. Lolly died in 1940 due to the effects of high blood pressure and heart problems.