Depicting everyday Mayo life

Second Reading

MOMENT CAPTURED The Swinford Funeral, by Jack Butler Yeats (1918).

Jack B Yeats was born 150 years ago this month

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

Jack B Yeats, arguably the leading Irish artist of the 20th century, was born 150 years ago last Sunday, August 29. He belonged to a lavishly talented family. His brother was the distinguished poet WB, while his sisters Elizabeth and Susan were prominent in the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement.
For over 50 years, Jack was at the centre of the Irish artistic world. An accomplished water colourist and illustrator in his early years, he developed into a modernist painter of some repute. Though he reaped little financial reward during his lifetime, his paintings now attract high prices. Some years ago, his vibrant depiction of a fair day in north Mayo’s Ballycastle sold for almost a million.
Though born in London, Jack spent most of his childhood in Sligo. His father, a somewhat self-indulgent man, abandoned a career as a barrister to devote himself to art. As a painter he was financially unsuccessful and rarely able to provide for his family. As a consequence his wife brought their children to her family home in Sligo.
She was a member of the Pollexfen family who ran a successful milling and seafaring business in the town. It was there the landscape and seascape of the west of Ireland entered Jack’s bloodstream. As is evident from his paintings and illustrations, he loved the sea – a love that developed on his voyages on his grandfather’s ship that sailed regularly between Sligo and Liverpool.
His grandfather William, who he revered, told him stories of sailors and their stirring exploits. Jack claimed that Sligo was a major influence on his work, saying that he seldom painted a picture without ‘a bit of Sligo’ in it.
At the age of 16, he enrolled in art school in England. In the early 1890s he fell in love with Mary Cottenham, a fellow art student. They married and settled in Surry and later in Devon. They made regular visits to Ireland and made it their home in 1910.  His first book of illustrations and paintings ‘Life in the West of Ireland’, published in 1912, is a revealing compendium of his fascination with everyday Irish life, as he perceived it.
In May, to mark the 150th anniversary of John Millington Synge’s birth, I wrote here of his connection with Mayo. He shared that connection with Jack B Yeats.
In 1905 they had been given a joint commission by CP Scott, editor of The Manchester Guardian to report on and illustrate everyday life in Connemara and Mayo. The newspaper was campaigning for the alleviation of abject poverty along the western seaboard. The editor was interested to know what contribution the ‘Congested Districts Board, set up in 1893, was making in its brief of redressing the west of Ireland’s economic and social problems.
Yeats found it delightful to travel with Sunge. Having surveyed Connemara in early June, they journeyed to Belmullet, where they spent a week.
Synge’s picturesque reportage, embellished by Jack’s illustrations, provide a fascinating insight into a community poised on the precarious abyss between survival and destitution.
Poverty seeped through the walls of most of the houses. Landlords and middlemen exploited their tenants. Land reform was slow in coming. Much of the ground was poor. Emigration, either permanently to America or temporarily on harvest work in England or Scotland was rife throughout the community.
In the midst of darkness and despair, there was some joy. Jack B Yeats wonderfully evokes 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.”
As part of the recent National Heritage Week, the Erris Historical Society presented a shopfront exhibition to mark the 150th anniversary of the births of Yeats and Synge and to highlight their connection with the barony.