Yeats in Bewley’s – A Nobel Speech in a Dublin Café
On a cold winter’s evening, Elizabeth Margaret Cunningham left the familiar surroundings of Trinity College, her place of work for the last fifteen years, and made the short trip up Grafton Street to the Café Ritz.
This wasn’t to be a simple case of a woman seeking a warming cup of coffee on a Friday evening with the weeks’ labours just ended, rather, she had a rendezvous with one of the most prominent writers and intellectuals in the State, a man who, just a month later, would become the first Irish winner of a Nobel Prize. That man was William Butler Yeats, and she would hear him make a speech that would echo through a Stockholm banqueting hall weeks later, in December 1923.
The Café Ritz no longer trades on Grafton Street; however, a very famous café still operates from that site and it has its own strong literary heritage. In 1927 the Café Ritz was bought by the Bewley family and became an iconic meeting place for generations of Dubliners. Long before a café was on the site, the building housed the famous Whyte’s Academy – a grammar school run by Samuel Whyte and which produced students such as composer Thomas Moore, playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, revolutionary Robert Emmet and future British Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington.
In later decades Bewley’s became a haunt for many associated with the city’s literary scene, Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and Brendan Kennelly were regular patrons. One of the first changes the Bewley family made after purchasing the café was to commission the renowned stained-glass artist Harry Clarke to design and install four of his iconic masterpieces in the windows at the rear of the café. Even today the Bewley’s Café Theatre continues to give a space for performance and theatrical experimentation.
Perhaps, it should be no surprise, then, that in November 1923 William Butler Yeats, poet, playwright and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre should decide to speak within the walls of a Grafton Street café. But this was not part of a lecture tour by Yeats, he was there by invitation of the grandly named Dublin University Elizabethan Literary and Debating Society.
Elizabeth Margaret Cunningham, simply known as “Cun” to her friends, was the warden of Trinity Hall, this meant that she was responsible for a small number of unmarried female students in Trinity College. However, she took on a very active role beyond this in University life such as chairing debates held by the Elizabethan Literary and Debating Society, which had been established in 1905 as the University’s other debating societies refused to allow women members, and would continue to do so until the late 1960s.
It was this role which led her to the Café Ritz for the first public meeting of the society outside the boundaries of the College. The fact that she was able to secure as notable a speaker as W.B. Yeats should perhaps not be too surprising, as Elizabeth Cunningham was a family friend of the Yeatses and was particularly close to the Yeats sisters, who in later years would donate a collection of the Cuala Press works to Elizabeth and Trinity Hall.
The topic of William Butler Yeats’ speech focused less on his own work, than on that of others, including Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge as well as on the creation of the Abbey Theatre and the many obstacles that it had to overcome in its short existence. His lecture was entitled The Irish Dramatic Movement and while a full text of this lecture in the Café Ritz is not readily available, thankfully there is a full transcript of a speech made just a month later with the same title that Yeats made upon receiving the Nobel for Literature in Stockholm.
In the speech, Yeats tracks the development of the Irish theatrical and literary revival, going back to the likes of the Gaelic League and the work of Douglas Hyde and even earlier influences like the poet Antoine Ó Raifteiri. He tracks a growing awareness of Irish history, language and literature against an often violent and turbulent political backdrop. It is worth remembering that when Yeats accepted his Nobel Prize in December 1923 that he, and Ireland had witnessed a decade of violence, from the Lock-out of 1913, through the First World War, Easter Rising, War of Independence and the Civil War which had ended barely six months earlier.
In his speech he mentioned the burning of a house belonging to his friend and benefactor, Lady Gregory, only months earlier during the Civil War. He had written poetry which tried to encapsulate some greater truth around the political and social turmoil he witnessed, whether in his works like September 1913, An Irish Airman foresees his death or Easter 1916.
Throughout the speech Yeats is generous (if occasionally somewhat condescending) in his praise for his peers and supporters, while he acknowledges his role in the creation of the Irish Dramatic Movement, he gives due credit to others like Lady Gregory and Annie Horniman in founding the Abbey Theatre and is enthusiastic in his celebration of the theatrical works of the late John Millington Synge (comparing his impact to that of Robert Burns on Scottish literature) which initially had aroused such controversy when they were first performed.
However, there is a trace within his speech of some bitterness and disillusionment. He refers repeatedly to the struggles; financial, artistic and otherwise he encountered in setting up the Abbey Theatre, the hostile reaction from officialdom and from members of the public. He speaks with understandable weariness of the violence of the years just passed and wonders whether Ireland will ever have what he had witnessed in his recent visit to Sweden. He closes his lecture with the musing that he had “seen little in this last week that would not have been memorable and exciting to Synge and to Lady Gregory, for Sweden has achieved more than we have hoped for our own country.”
While these last observations would not have been uttered in the rooms of the Café Ritz it is interesting to wonder what was discussed there, what the views of the educated ladies of Trinity College were in relation to the words of this ageing literary giant, undoubtedly proud of his contributions to the dramatic life of Ireland but shaken by the violence of the previous years and strained by the constant effort to keep his fledgling theatre alive. If nothing, perhaps these young women in the audience saw the roles of women like Lady Augusta Gregory, Annie Horniman and even Elizabeth Yeats had played in the Irish literary revival and foresaw a role for themselves?
As for Elizabeth Margaret Cunningham, she continued in her role as warden until 1940 before retiring to her native Donegal. She is one of only two women, the other being Alice Oldham, who campaigned tirelessly for the admission of women in the early twentieth century, who have a building named after them in Trinity College.
Next time you visit Bewley’s for a scone or a coffee, reflect on the fact that on a cold November evening, Ireland’s first Nobel laureate addressed a small room of people in a battle-weary city and spoke with hope and trepidation about the artistic life of their nation. And that a month later that same speech was made before the world from the Nobel prize gala in Stockholm, celebrating, in Yeats, a personification of the Irish literary revival, and that even in times of crisis it was possible for something, brilliant, vital and groundbreaking to emerge.