W. B. Yeats – The Tallaght letters


To mark the 150th. anniversary of the birth of W. B. Yeats we explored the poet’s links with the Tallaght area. Yeats was friends with Katharine Tynan the Tallaght based poet and novelist and they maintained a correspondence that lasted for nearly five years in the late 1880s and early 1890s. These letters from Yeats to Katharine in Tallaght help give us an insight into the formative period of the poet’s life.

Yeats was just twenty when he first met Katharine Tynan. It was 1885 and her first volume of poetry had just been published to some acclaim. The editor of Dublin University Review brought the young poet to meet her at her father’s farm – Whitehall which was on the Belgard Road between Clondalkin and Tallaght. ‘Her first impression was of a tall, lanky, angular youth; a gentle dreamer’.[1] They became close friends and Yeats was a regular visitor to Tallaght. She in turn spent much time in his company in Dublin where she remembered him going about flailing his arms and reciting poetry in the streets[2].

When they met it was Katharine who was the successfully published poet and he would initially have been in awe of her. However, she was quick to recognise his genius. She reviewed his early work and spoke of ‘a high place for its author among the poets of the world if its promise was fulfilled’.[3]

In the winter of 1886-87 Katharine got to see a lot of Yeats while she was having her portrait painted by the poet’s father. Willie would sit in the studio reciting his poetry and hers and when she stayed with the Yeatses she remembered at night hearing ‘his wavering monotone as he chanted poetry to himself’[4]. Shortly after the portrait was completed Yeats and his family moved to London and so began a long correspondence between the two poets. Yeats missed Ireland and he depended on Katharine’s regular letters to keep him in touch with his literary friends and acquaintances. She was the person who, apart from his family, knew him best. So it is not surprising that he revealed more of himself to her than to any of his correspondents of that period.

The common thread running through all the letters is the sharing and discussion of each other’s work. Yeats values Tynan’s opinion and seems to appreciate her positive criticism and encouragement. He in turn, advised her on possible subjects for her poems and offers opinions, not always positive, on her work.

K. Tynan

Katharine Tynan

Yeats advises Katharine on her writing:

Saturday [August 13 1887].

… remember by being as Irish as you can, you will be more original and true to yourself and in the long run more interesting, even to English readers. …

In the same letter he gives qualified praise to a poem she had sent him:

… The poem you send has that naivety you know how to use so well. The earliest verses are very good; indeed it is all a good little poem, not so good, though, as the “St. Francis” one in a late Irish Monthly

Yeats on Tallaght:

Yeats had read a story about St. Aongus of Tallaght and urged Katharine to write a poem about him.

March 8 [1889]

… Did you read that delightful saint story in Irish Monthly called “Rapt Culdee” – if not do, and write a poem about it. He lived in your own neighbourhood at Tallaght.  … Do not forget him. He is charming. …

March 21 [1889]

… I am delighted to hear about the “Culdee.” How will you treat it? Will you bring in local scenery? I hope you will do that. It would be a fine thing to write a poem that always would be connected with Tallaght in people’s minds. …

On London:

Time and again, Yeats makes it clear that de does not like London.

On Wednesday 27 [April 1887] he writes:

My Dear Miss Tynan,

…London is just as dull and as dirty as my memory of it. I do not like it one whit better.

… Rose is sullen and homesick-this latter we are all a little. …

Then on May 18 ‘87

… Any breath from Ireland blows pleasurably in this hateful London where you cannot go five paces without seeing some wretched object broken by either wealth or poverty…..

and on July 1 [1887]

… I do not think I shall ever find London very tolerable. It can give me nothing; I am not fond of the theatre, literary society bores me, I loathe crowds and was very content with Dublin, though even that was a little too populous …

Again on August 25 [1888]

… I pour out all my grievances against this melancholy London- I sometimes imagine that the souls of the lost are compelled to walk through its streets perpetually. …

Feb. 12 [1888]

… I feel like Robinson Crusoe in this dreadful London. …

  On Sligo:

In August 1887 Yeats moved back to Sligo in order to finish work on The wanderings of Oisin. His fondness for Sligo is immediately clear and stands in stark contrast to his view of London.

 From Rosses point he writes:

… Oisin goes ahead famously, the country helps one to think …

And on Saturday [August 13, 1887]

… It is a wonderfully beautiful day. The air is full of trembling light. The very feel of the familiar Sligo earth puts me in good spirits. I should like to live here always, not so much out of liking for the people as for the earth and the sky here, though I like the people too…

And from his grandfather’s house at Charlemont, Sligo:

… Sligo for me has no flesh and blood attractions-only memories and sentimentalities accumulated here as a child, making it more dear than any other place. …

and later, March 9 [1989} he compares London and Sligo:

… Hey-ho, I wish I was out of London in order that I might see the world. Here one gets into one’s minority among the people who are like one’s self- mystical literary folk and such like. Down at Sligo one sees the whole world in a day’s walk, every man is a class. It is too small there for minorities. …


On Nationalism:

The letters provide ample evidence of Yeats’ determination to establish a distinct Irish literature that would serve to underline Ireland’s separateness from England.

On [Oct 10 1889] he wrote:

… so much in the way of writing is needed for Irish purposes. You know all this as well as I do, however. Much may depend in the future on Ireland now developing writers who know how to formulate in clear expressions the vague feelings now abroad – to formulate them for Ireland’s not for England’s use. …

Referring to T. W. Rolleston (1857-1920) he said:

Thursday [Dec 26, 1889]

… I was always hoping he would drift into things – do something for nationalism, political or literary, …

[Dec 2, 1891]

… I have an ambition to be taken as an Irish novelist, not as an English, or cosmopolitan one choosing Ireland as a background…

[Late December, 1891]

… I am busy getting up a London Irish Literary Society – to be a branch ultimately of Young Ireland  League. …

In March 1895, referring to what he termed ‘the more thoughtful Unionists’ he says that Parnellism and

… the dying out of party feeling has nationalised the more thoughtful Unionists.

But also referring to these self-same ‘thoughtful Unionists’ Yeats shows quite a degree of condescension when he tells Katharine that:

… These people are much better educated than our own people, and have a better instinct for excellence. …

Nor was he always kind in his opinions of others.

On George Bernard Shaw

Feb. 12 [1888].

… Last night at Morris’s I met Bernard Shaw, who is certainly very witty. But, like most people who have wit rather than humour, his mind is maybe somewhat wanting in depth. However, his stories are good, they say. …

On Tolstoy

Nov 14 [1888]

… I am reading Tolstoi – great and joyless. The only joyless man in literature, so different from Turgenev. He seems to describe all things, whether beautiful or ugly, painful or pleasant, with the same impartial, indifferent joylessness. …

On Journalists

August 30 [1888]

… I hate journalists. There is nothing in them but tittering, jeering emptiness. They have all made what Dante calls the Great Refusal. That is, they have ceased to be self-centred, have given up their individuality. … The shallowest people on the ridge of the earth. …

Yeats on his own work:

 In his correspondence with Katharine Yeats felt secure enough to confide in her about  his struggles and frustrations as he sought to ‘write poetry of insight and knowledge’.

In some of his early letters he clearly lacks confidence in his own poetic ability:

14 March [1888]

… it is not the poetry of insight and knowledge, but of longing and complaint – the cry of the heart against necessity. I hope some day to alter that and [to] write poetry of insight and knowledge. …

And he was pessimistic about the prospects The Wanderings of Oisin and other Poems which was due to be published in 1889:

Sept 6 [1888]

…  I am not very hopeful about the book.Somewhat inarticulate I have been, I fear. Something I had to say. Don’t know that I have said it. All seems confused, incoherent, inarticulate. Yet this I know, I am no idle poetaster. My life has been in my poems. To make them I have broken my life in a mortar, as it were. I have brayed in it youth and fellowship, peace and worldly hopes. I have seen others enjoying while I stood alone with myself – commenting, commenting – a mere dead mirror on which things reflect themselves. I have buried my youth and raised over it a cairn- of clouds. Some day I shall be articulate, perhaps. But this book I have no great hopes of – it is all sluggish, incoherent. It may make a few friends, perhaps, among people of my own sort – that is the most. Do what you can for it.

If Yeats was despondent about his poetry in September, by December 1888 he had written a draft of what was to become probably his best known poem. He wrote to Katharine enclosing a version of The Lake Isle of Inisfree that is noticeably different from the final version we are all familiar with.

Dec. 21 [1888]

… Here are two verses I made the other day: There is a beautiful island of Inisfree in Lough Gill, Sligo. A little rocky island with a legended past. In my story I make one of the characters whenever he is in trouble long to go away and live alone on that island – an old daydream of my own. Thinking over his feelings I have made these verses about them –

I will arise and go now and go to the island of Inisfree

And live in a dwelling of wattles, of woven wattles and

wood-work made.

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a yellow hive for the


And this old care shall fade.

There from the dawn above me peace will come down

Drooping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the

household cricket sings;

And noontide there be all a glimmer, and midnight

be a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnets’ wings.


[1] Roger McHugh (ed.), W. B. Yeats letters to Katharine Tynan (New York, 1953), p.11.

[2] Katharine Tynan, Twenty-five Years: Reminiscences (London, 1913), p.191.

[3] Roger McHugh (ed.), W. B. Yeats letters to Katharine Tynan (New York, 1953), p.12.

[4] Ibid., p.11.


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