‘Ignorant goodwill’? Eva Gore-Booth versus W. B. Yeats

Eva Gore-Booth

Most people, including me, know Eva Gore-Booth (1870-1926) only from Yeats’s poetry; he describes her as ‘withered old and skeleton-gaunt’, seemingly too unattractive for him to bother to make contact.  He suggests that this physical appearance is somehow her fault, caused by unfeminine dabbling in politics and prefers her in his memory as a young ‘gazelle’ in a ‘silk kimono’.  Looking across a number of his poems it seems that Yeats, himself having lost his ‘pretty plumage’, gets angry when women, like Maud Gonne, have ‘grey in their hair’.  He also appears to resent women who are actively engaged in politics, and reprimands Constance Markievicz for giving up being ‘young and beautiful’ and riding to ‘harriers’.  All three of these women, Maud Gonne, Constance and Eva come in for some vitriolic criticism from the ‘smiling public man’. Ironically, without Yeats, Eva might have disappeared even further from the public eye had he not written about her, and thus immortalised her in his poem.  Clearly one could argue that, as sister of the more famous, Con, Eva might have remained known, but on the other hand, the third sister, Mabel, is almost invisible even to scholars.

On Monday evening there was a wonderfully atmospheric rehearsed reading, directed by Julie Kelleher, and performed in Cork Gaol, of Eva’s symbolist play, “The Death of Fionavar” .  The next day post-graduate students were offered a superb master class; a sequence of talks, roundtable and workshop relating to Eva and her work.

An area of discussion that interested me was Eva’s decision to eschew her aristocratic life in the big house, (Lissadelle , County Sligo) and move, in 1895, to Manchester to live with a woman, Ester Roper.  Here the two worked with working class women, setting up a trades council, and campaigning for votes for all, not just propertied, women.  This, it seems to me, was an incredibly brave decision. Others argue that Eva had always distanced herself from the family and its wealth, especially from her grandfather, named locally, ‘the evictor’.  Instead, she sought out the company of tenant farmers.  Her elder brother, Josslyn, had brought back ideas for new co-operative techniques of farming, from the United States, and Eva and her brother were interested in introducing them in Sligo.  So the move to Manchester was just one of a series of similar choices. Other commentators point out that the family’s reputation and its wealth meant that Eva remained privileged in that she could electioneer from a coach and four, and use family contacts to reach influential people.

Nevertheless, she is, for me, a hero.  Further evidence of her bravery is that, whilst in London during the Great War, she worked with conscientious objectors; regarded by most as pariahs.  Since both my grandfathers were conscientious objectors in 1914-1918 I feel especially warm towards this activity.  So, the title of this blog, from “Easter 1916”, which actually refers to Con, rather than Eva, should perhaps be applied to Yeats himself, as “ignorant illwill”.

Yeats poems quoted: “Among School Children”, “Easter 1916”, “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievizc”

Eva Gore-Booth’s and Constance Markievicz’s Art of War in 1916: Sisters in Arms 3rd November 2015, Speakers: Maureen O’Connor, (UCC), Cathy Leeney, (UCD), John Borgonovo, (UCC), Sonja Tiernan, (Liverpool Hope Unversity).


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