Jack B Yeats’ take on the West of yesteryear
Fr Kevin Hegarty
The Irish Times is currently running a competition to discover the best place to holiday in Ireland. I expect Westport will feature in the nominations. Will it do the double and add to last year’s designation as the most attractive place to live in the country? I am sure such a victory would please local TD Michael Ring, the Minister of State for Tourism.
Time will tell. One of my favourite destinations when I take a break is the National Gallery in Dublin. I find great serenity in contemplating its vast array of memorable paintings, both Irish and international, especially when the place is quiet.
The gallery is now hosting an exhibition of the sketch books of Jack B Yeats. His career spanned over 50 years. He is one of the leading Irish artists of the last century. He came from an unusually talented family - his father was also an artist and his brother was the distinguished poet. Even during the recession his work commands high prices. Just over a year ago his vibrant depiction of a fair day in Ballycastle, County Mayo sold for almost €1 million. If only I had won the lotto!
In 1996 his niece, Anne, gifted the gallery with his personal archive of sketch books. Augmented from other sources it now amounts to 204 items. The exhibition has 123 of these volumes opened on ‘particular and well-chosen pages’. Four complete sketch books have been photographed and the digital images can be viewed on Samsung Galaxy tablets.
Among the treasure trove are examples of his work from 1905 when he and the playwright John Millington Synge visited Erris.
They had been given a joint commission by C P Scott, editor of ‘The Manchester Guardian’ to report on everyday life in Connemara and Mayo. The newspaper was campaigning for the alleviation of abject poverty in the west of Ireland. The editor was interested to know what contribution the ‘Congested Districts Board, set up in 1893 to address the problem, was making.
Having surveyed Connemara, they travelled by train to Ballina in the early summer of 1905. From there they went by long car to Belmullet, a journey of 40 miles that began at 4am.
It was an uncomfortable journey for tired men. Jack was so sleepy he had to tie himself in on the rollicking transport. He wrote to a friend ‘when the driver saw me apparently pitching off head foremost he roared with horror but when he saw the rope he roared with pleasure’.
Synge wrote a fuller account of the journey for the ‘Manchester Guardian’.
“We passed Crossmolina and were soon out in the bogs where one drives for mile after mile, seeing an odd house only, scattered in a few places with long distances between them. We had been travelling all night from Connemara and again and again we dozed off into a sort of dream, only to wake up with a start when the car gave a dangerous lurch, and see the same dreary waste with a few wet cattle straggling about the road or the corner of a lake just seen beyond them through a break in the clouds. When we had driven about fifteen miles we changed horses at a village of three houses, where an old man without teeth brought out new horses and harnessed them slowly, as if he was in his sleep. Then we drove on again, stopping from time to time at some sort of post office where a woman or a boy usually came to take the bags of letters. At Bangor Erris four more passengers got in and as the roads were heavy with rain we settled into a slow jog-trot that made us despair of arriving to our destination.
The people were now at work weeding potatoes in their few patches of tillage and cutting turf in the bogs and their bedraggled colourless clothes - so unlike the homespuns of Connemara - added indescribably to the feelings of wretchedness one gets from the sight of these miserable cottages, many of them with an old hamper or the end of a barrel stuck through the roof for a chimney, and the desolation of the bogs.”
Synge’s picturesque reportage, strongly embellished by Yeats’ drawings give a fascinating insight into a community on the abyss of destitution. Poverty seeped through the wall of most of the houses.
Landlords and their middlemen exploited the people. Emigration, either permanently to America or temporarily on harvest work to England or Scotland, was the most prevalent activity in the community.
In the midst of darkness there was some joy. Jack B Yeats wonderfully evokes St John’s Eve (Bonfire Night) in Belmullet in one of his drawings. He also wrote of it: “We stood in the market square watching the fire play, flaming sods of turf soaked in paraffin, hurled to the sky and caught and dried again, and burning snakes of hay-rope. I remember a little girl in the crowd, in an ecstasy of pleasure and dread, clutched Synge by the hand and stood close in his shadow until the fiery games were done.”
The sketch book exhibition continues at the gallery until May 5. It is well worth a visit for anyone interested in Yeats, art and the social history of the West of Ireland.