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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Upcoming event: James Connolly: Life, Death and Legacy

The Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour & Class  in association with the Galway Council of Trade Unions present

ConnollyA panel discussion on

James Connolly: life, death, and legacy

Preceded by short excerpt from

The Non-Stop Connolly Show,

performed by Margaretta D’Arcy

Galway Mechanics Institute,

Middle Street

Thursday, 18th February, 8 pm

Admission FREE



The Panellists

PBuckinghamPeter Buckingham is a professor of History at Linfield College, Oregon. He has published widely on American labour and radicalism, and is currently a visiting scholar, Moore Institute, NUI Galway.




Meredith Meagher is currently completing a PhD at the University of Notre Dame. She was employed as a researcher on the RTE documentary series The Rising, and is a committee member of the ICHLC



TMoriartyTheresa Moriarty is a labour historian with a particular interest in the history women at work and in trade unions. She is an honorary president of the Irish Labour History Society.




EOConnorEmmet O’Connor is a Lecturer in History at the University of Ulster. His most recent works are Big Jim Larkin: hero or wrecker (2105) and Studies in Irish Radical Leadership, co-edited with John Cunningham (2016).




MHarrisMary Harris, chairperson of the panel, is an authority of the revolutionary period, 1912-23. She is a lecturer in History and Co-ordinator of NUI Galway’s 1916 Commemorative Programme.





Non-Stop Connolly Show


The Non-Stop Connolly Show, a drama in 6 parts over 24 hours, was one of the great drama ‘by John Arden & Margaretta D’Arcy, looks at different periods in James Connolly’s life: Boyhood; Apprenticeship; Professional; The New World; The Great Lockout; World War and the Rising. Trying to persuade a journalist to attend the show in 1975, D’Arcy reassured him that ‘the whole thing will no more demanding than say, Upstairs Downstairs [the Downton Abbey of its day].’

The Connolly Show was first staged in full in Dublin’s Liberty Hall over Easter weekend, 1975. Directed by the authors with Jim Sheridan & Robert Walker, the play’s joint producers were the Irish Workers’ Cultural Centre, the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union and Official Sinn Féin. An abridged (11 hour) version, The All-Night Connolly Show was produced at the Galway Grammar School in May 1975, under the auspices of University College Galway’s Political Discussion Society.




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Upcoming seminar: ‘Losing Our Way: Capitalism and Cultural Change in Ireland, post-1958’


Prof. Lionel Pilkington will present a paper entitled

‘Losing Our Way: Capitalism and Cultural Change in Ireland, post-1958’

at the ICHLC monthly seminar this

Thursday, 4 February 2016, 4 pm

Room GO10, Hardiman Bld, NUI Galway

FREE All welcome.

Lionel Pilkington is author of Theatre and the State in 20th Century Ireland: Cultivating the People (Routledge, 2001) and Theatre & Ireland (Palgrave, 2010), co-editor (with Fiona Bateman) of Studies in Settler Colonialism: Politics, Identity and Culture (Palgrave, 2011), and author of various essays on Irish theatre and on culture and politics in 20th century Ireland. Capitalism, taxation and ideas of acting (as theatrical performance and as social and political intervention) feature prominently in his current research project: a back history of neoliberalism in Ireland from 1958 to 2008.

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Call for papers: NAMHO conference 2016

NAMHO Call for papers 2015.10.30

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Public debate on the ‘separation women’ of World War One

Public debate on the ‘separation women’ of World War One

Separation Women

During the First World War, the payment of separation allowances to the dependents of servicemen was a powerful incentive to recruitment. Unemployed men, as well as those in casual employment, were assured that their wives and children would be able to keep a roof over their heads and have enough to eat if they joined the fight in Europe. But if soldiers were reassured by the allowances, others were alarmed at the idea that women were getting something for nothing, and a ‘moral panic’ ensued, with reports that the allowances were being wasted on drink and dissolution. In January 1916, a Galway magistrate scolded a woman ‘with a young family in Raleigh Row going down to the pictures and going home at 11.45 … and £1.5.0 going to waste in this manner.’  It was ‘only a person with a degenerate sort of mind who on a fine day with the sun shining, goes to see this rubbish at the pictures’, he told her. During the 1916 Rising in Dublin, and in other Irish cities throughout the period the separation women came into conflict with Irish republicans, including the women of Cumann na mBan.

On Thursday 14 January at 8 pm, in the Galway Mechanics Institute, Middle St., a number of historians will disentangle the myths from the facts in relation to the separation women. The featured historians are Dr Ann Matthews (author of The Irish Citizen Army), Mary Clancy (NUI Galway), and Dr John Borgonovo (UCC). This free event, under the auspices of the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour & Class, will be chaired by Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley, and all are welcome.

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Upcoming seminar Tues 1 Dec


On Tuesday, 1 Dec., 4 pm, in ICHLC seminar series, Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley will speak on ‘Women’s rights and child welfare in Ireland, 1922-2014’. The seminar takes place in Room GO11, Hardiman Research (Library) Building, NUI Galway. All are welcome.
Preceding the seminar, at 3.15, the AGM of the ICHLC will take place.

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Remembering Noel Browne 1915-1997: Reflections on Radicalism, Welfare and Social Change in Modern Ireland

The Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour & Class held a very successful conference over Friday and Saturday 13-14 November 2015 to mark the centenary of the birth of Dr Noel Browne. The proceedings were recorded and are available to listen to below.

Friday night saw a public event held in the Mechanics’ Institute, Middle Street, Galway, to mark the life and legacy of Noel Browne.

The first part of the event was a discussion chaired by Tish Gibbons and featuring Glyn Carragher (grandson of Noel Browne), Donncha Ó hEallaithe (founding member of the Socialist Labour Party), and Joe Higgins TD (Socialist Party).

Glyn Carragher standing, speaking on his grandfather Noel Browne.

Glyn Carragher standing, speaking about his grandfather Noel Browne.

This was followed by Sarah Clancy (Winner of 2015 Irish People’s Poetry Prize), who read two of her poems.

Sarah Clancy reading two of her poems to a packed audience at the Mechanics' Institute

Sarah Clancy reading two of her poems to a packed audience at the Mechanics’ Institute

The event was concluded by the reflections of Robert Ballagh, artist of the iconic portrait of Noel Browne which featured on the cover of his autobiography Against The Tide (1986), speaking on ‘the Noel Browne I knew’.

Robert Ballagh speaking on the Noel Browne he knew

Robert Ballagh speaking on the Noel Browne he knew

The Saturday consisted of five panels of papers presented at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway, outlined below.

Panel 1 – The Catholic Church and the Social Sphere

Chair: David Convery

Shane Faherty – ‘The Catholic Church and the Creation of Denominational Education.’

Gerard Madden (NUIG) – ‘Catholic anti-communism, the Cold War, and peace and nuclear disarmament campaigns in Ireland 1945-1968.’

Deirdre Foley (UCD) – ‘Contraception and Conscience: Family Planning in Ireland and at the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street (1963-1978).’

John Cunningham (standing) introduces the day's events. Seated from left to right are Deirdre Foley, Gerard Madden, and Shane Faherty.

John Cunningham (standing) introduces the day’s events. Seated from left to right are Deirdre Foley, Gerard Madden, and Shane Faherty.

Panel 2 – Theory and Practice

Chair: Sarah-Anne Buckley

Nat O’Connor (UU) – ‘Increasing People’s Net Economic Benefit versus Tax Cuts.’

Angela Flynn (UCC) – ‘Discourses of Inequality: Ireland’s Health System.’

Aggelos Panayiotopoulos (UL) and Michael O’Flynn (UCD) – ‘Scholar-Activism: Creating Spaces for Education and Action.’

From left-right: Aggelos Panayiotopoulos, Angela Flynn, Michael O'Flynn, Nat O'Connor.

From left-right: Aggelos Panayiotopoulos, Angela Flynn, Michael O’Flynn, Nat O’Connor, Sarah-Anne Buckley.

Panel 3 – Forgotten Voices

Chair: John Cunningham

Liam Cullinane (UCC) – ‘Health, Safety and Masculinity in Twentieth Century Ireland: Insights from an Oral History Project.’

Sara Goek (UCC) – ‘Describing Poverty in Mid-Twentieth Century Rural Ireland: Personal Narratives and Collective Memory.’

Dr Goek’s paper featured audio from some of her interviews for which she does not have the ethical permission to share online. Accordingly, her paper is not included in this recording.

Liam Cullinane

Liam Cullinane presenting his paper.

Panel 4 – The Health and Welfare of Mothers and Children

Chair: Tomás Finn

Sarah-Anne Buckley (NUIG) – ‘Reflecting on child welfare in Ireland during Noel Browne’s lifetime, 1915-1997.’

Carmel Hannan (UL) – ‘Changing times but still the same story: The health and well-being of Lone Mothers in Ireland.’

Sarah-Anne Buckley

Sarah-Anne Buckley

Carmel Hannan

Carmel Hannan

Panel 5 – Ireland and the International Left

Chair: Shane Faherty

David Convery (NUIG) – ‘John Wheatley: Irish-born Minister of Health in Britain’s First Labour Government.’

Morris Brodie (QUB) – ‘Scattered internationalists: Irish anarchism in the interwar world.’

Liam O’Discin (UCD) – ‘Catholics, Communists and Steelworkers, 1936-1948.’


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