The remarkable contribution of the Yeats sisters to Irish craft culture is being celebrated in a new exhibition in the Old Library from this week.


In partnership with the Department of Foreign Affairs, a touring version of the exhibition will also be shown internationally through Ireland’s global network of Embassies and Consulates, introducing new audiences to Irish design heritage and the lasting legacies of Elizabeth and Lily Yeats and other Cuala artists, while also celebrating local female-led creative and craft enterprises.


Elizabeth and Susan (Lily) Yeats were nationally and internationally recognised as leading figures in the Arts and Crafts movement in the early 20th century, but their contribution has perhaps been overshadowed by those of their brothers, painter Jack Yeats and WB Yeats, the poet and Noble Laureate. 


Elizabeth and Lily founded two successful craft business in Dublin, Dun Emer Industries (1902-1908) and Cuala Industries (1908-1940), which specialised in fine publishing, including books and artist designed prints under the directorship of Elizabeth, and embroidery under Lily. Their work was in demand from Irish and international customers. Both businesses almost exclusively employed and trained young women.  


On display in Trinity’s Old Library are photographs and other archival material giving a flavour of the working lives of the Cuala women as well as examples of the prints and needlecraft produced by the business. Digital screens in the Long Room showcase further material from Trinity’s Cuala collections. Entitled ‘The Yeats Sisters & Irish Design: Making, Identities & Legacies’, the exhibition forms part of the Book of Kells visitor experience and runs until 26 September. See hereherehere to book tickets


“Over the last number of years, the Cuala Press Project has worked to raise the profile of the Yeats sisters and the artists they collaborated with,” explains Dr Angela Griffith from Trinity’s School of Histories and Humanities and co-curator of the exhibition. 


This exhibition illustrates how the Cuala Industries constructed a distinctive and sophisticated form of Irish cultural identity for national and international audiences. The quality of art and design production at Cuala demonstrates their engagement with, and promotion of, national and international Arts and Crafts theories and practices. Cuala set a standard that all others followed in Ireland. Their work also provides important insight into the social status of working women in the first half of the twentieth century, the contribution of women to industry, and the agency of women in art and design production both in Ireland and internationally.


"The international touring version of this exhibition will honour and celebrate the global footprint of the Yeats sisters’ design heritage,” comments Dr Angela Byrne, co-curator of the exhibition.

As Irish women of the Yeats sisters’ generation emigrated in their droves, the constant flow of people between Ireland and the wider world nurtured and inspired cultural expression. Dun Emer textiles were displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis and at Irish fairs in New York. They are part of the creative legacy of Ireland’s struggle for independence and the process of finding our place in the world.


Trinity is home to a range of fascinating material related to Cuala Press including beautiful handprinted and hand coloured artist-designed prints, records from the Cuala’s business archive, a complete set of published works, as well as the printing press, type and some hundreds of printer's blocks. A selection of this  material is available to the public as a digital collection, The Cuala Press Collection, as part of the Virtual Trinity Library.  


An ongoing project to catalogue, conserve, digitise and increase public awareness of the collection is supported by the Schooner Foundation.  


Laura Shanahan, Head of Research Collections, the Library of Trinity College Dublin, added:  

The Library is proud to be able to share the work of these incredible women in this exhibition, as a result of the research and conservation-archival partnership between the Library and the department of History of Art and Architecture in Trinity Collection Dublin. The material displayed in this exhibition demonstrates the skill and foresight of these women entrepreneurs, and we expect their story to captivate visitors who will long remember Cuala Industries, the Yeats sisters, and their impact and influence in Ireland and beyond.


About the Cuala Press Project

Trinity’s Cuala Press Research Project is a collaboration between the Library of Trinity College Dublin and the Department of the History of Art and Architecture. It is funded by the Schooner Foundation. The Project focuses on the work of Elizabeth C. Yeats and the artists that contributed designs to this exceptional female-run private press. The designers involved are among some of the most important 20th century Irish artists, not least among them was Jack Yeats, Elizabeth’s youngest sibling, and women such as Beatrice Elvery and Dorothy Blackham. As a result of Schooner’s philanthropic investment, for the first time Cuala materials have been made available as a digital collection, The Cuala Press Collection, as part of Virtual Trinity Library. The aim of the project is to catalogue, conserve, research and digitize the collections, providing access to researchers, scholars of all ages and the wider public.  


The Cuala Press Print Collection comprises hand-printed and hand-coloured original artist-led designs. The Cuala Press Business Archives comprises approximately 81 boxes of material relating to the company business such as minute books of directors' meetings, cash books and letters. This collection also includes original preparatory drawings for prints, sample books, and designs for embroidery. Personal material such as photograph albums and scrapbooks also provide an invaluable insight to the working lives of the women of Cuala. Example are included in this exhibition.  


Image: Detail from Mary Cottenham Yeats, The Rainbow, Dublin: Cuala Press, 1910s, hand coloured photoengraving  - IE TCD MS 11574/20/1.