W.B. Yeats and the sharp hiss of a whip

Implementing the Treaty

Cartoon from the Irish Worker. Click below for a pdf of the full page

W.B. Yeats and the Sharp Hiss Of a Whip

A post by Gerry Watts

In August 1924, Jim Larkin’s Irish Worker featured a cartoon of William Butler Yeats wielding a whip, and referred to him as the ‘Gentle Poet.’ In the biographical sketch of Yeats on the official website of the Nobel Prize organisation, Yeats is described as ‘one of the outstanding and most influential twentieth-century poets writing in English.’ It is also stated that one of his recurring themes is ‘the contrast of art and life.’[1] In this short sketch there is no mention of Yeats’ elitism. Nor is there in the facts about Yeats on the Nobel Prize website, any mention of his support for Fascism.[2]

In 1933, the year that Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirts were to march on Dublin, Yeats wrote that de Valera had so forced the situation that:

A Fascist opposition is forming behind the scenes to be ready should some tragic situation develop … Our chosen colour is blue, and blue shirts are marching about all over the country, and their organiser tells me that [the choice of colour] was my suggestion.[3]

Writers often try to pass off this phase of Yeats’ life as an aberration, a mistake—of being caught-up in the moment. In fact, Yeats has a history of admiration of, and association with, repressive regimes, and brutal measures. For example, his admiration of Mussolini is known.[4] Yeats was also a member of the Seanad (the lower house) of the Irish Free State parliament. The Irish Free State government has been described as a reactionary, conservative government; with its leading lights coming from ‘establishment Ireland in-waiting’; typically, graduates of Clongowes Wood and UCD.[5] The 1922 Constitution was brought in with the proclaimed separation of powers[6] but the laws enacted by the new government between 1922 and 1924 were extremely repressive (the Public Safety Act of 1923 was followed by two further Public Safety Acts in 1924: the Powers of Arrest and Detention; and, the Punishment of Offences).[7] This was designed to bolster, in part, the Treatyite government vis á vis the republicans. However, the Acts were to be used wherever civil disturbance occurred, and hence could be used against radicals within the labour movement.[8] The Powers of Arrest and Detention Act was used against followers of James Larkin at a decisive moment in their struggle with the incumbent leadership of the ITGWU in May 1924. Minister O’Higgins was the driving force behind the legislation, which included the death penalty, hard labour and whipping, and he was dogged in his defence of the Acts, and resolute in his opposition to any meaningful amendments.[9]

Yeats greatly admired O’Higgins, referring to him as ‘the great builder of [our] nation.’ Yeats also supported O’Higgins’ raft of repressive measures, which included the death penalty, and the grisly spectacle of being flogged. At a time when progressive countries might be looking for civilised ways to deal with internal problems, the Irish Free State was reverting to barbaric measures. One such measure Yeats supported was the Public Safety (Emergency Powers) Act, 1923. The interesting thing about this draconian act was that even O’Higgins himself admitted that it was not necessary. In the Seanad, at the end of July 1923, he acknowledged that the situation in the country had greatly improved, but protested that the Bill was ‘simply to meet a possible future situation.’ On 1 August, O’Higgins pleaded with the Seanad to allow his Bill through because the courts ‘having regard to the marked improvement in the country within the past few months [could decide] that a condition of war or armed revolt does not exist.’ O’Higgins did not want to leave anything to chance, or the esteemed wisdom of the judiciary. As it turned out, the republican Anti-Treatyites did not cause the Irish Free State to dissolve into chaos (as was claimed at the time), and their protest was channelled into the democratic return to the Dáil of de Valera as leader in 1932.

Labour Party member Thomas Farren moved an amendment to have Section 5, sub-section 4 of the 1923 Bill, which contained the whipping measure, removed. When this was not allowed, Labour Party member John O’Farrell moved to ameliorate the measure by delaying it. He argued that the punishment should not be enacted for three months, which would give the returning Dáil an opportunity to review the appropriateness of the punishment. In the voting on the Bill, not only did Yeats support the passage of the Bill (containing the death penalty), he also voted against the amendment which sought the three-month delay on the whipping measure. There certainly seemed to be a contrast between art and real life as far as Yeats was concerned. In his abstract way, Yeats could explore the human condition through the poetic use of words and the imagination, spiced with a sprinkling of Oriental mysticism, but his ability to empathise with the concrete human person, the here and now, is questionable. Yeats has been called the Master of Sound[10] (some might disagree with this designation). I wonder what Byzantine words Yeats would use to represent the hiss of a whip as it increases in volume and velocity, just before it tears into human flesh with its ferocious crack?

[1] Nobel Lectures: Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969. “Les Prix Nobel”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_organizations/nobelfoundation/publications/lesprix.html

[2] The less said the better, perhaps, about the fact that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his long-forgotten drama and not for his poetry.

[3] Quoted in Foster, R.F., W.B. Yeats: A Life, II: the Arch-Poet 1915-1979 (Oxford; OUP: 2003).

[4] See Ellmann, R., Yeats: The Man and the Masks (London; F&F: 1960).

[5] See Regan, J.A., The Irish Counter-Revolution 1921-1936 (Dublin; Gill & Macmillan: 1999).

[6] Byrne, R., et al. The Irish Legal System (Dublin; Bloomsbury Professional: 2014) pp.49-50.

[7] Mansergh. Nicholas. The Irish Free State: Its Government and Politics (London; George Allen & Unwin: 1934) pp.308-309.

[8] Indeed as the threat of the anti-Treatyites receded, the legislation became ever more repressive; to the extent the Executive was virtually able to override the Constitution. For an outline of this process, see Mansergh. Nicholas. The Irish Free State: Its Government and Politics (London; George Allen & Unwin: 1934) pp.307-315.

[9] See McCarthy, J.P., Kevin O’Higgins: Builder of the Irish State (Dublin; IAP: 2006) pp.111-117, 128-131.

[10] Devine, B., Yeats: the Master of Sound (Buckinghamshire; Colin Smythe: 2006).

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