‘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).

The difference between hope and expectation

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I knew of Frederick Douglass mainly through reading the novel Transatlantic, by Colum McCann (2013 Random House), about a third of which is devoted to a narrative describing Douglass’s trip to Ireland. He is invited by protestants, and I think, Quakers, to Dublin, in the first instance.  There a maidservant seems to take a romantic interest.  Douglass travels down to Cork by the backroads  and is struck by the sight of impoverished Roman Catholic peasants, barefoot and in rags.  The love interest turns up again in Cork and is disappointed so that the last we see of her is as a forlorn waif waiting at the docks for a ship to America.

A nagging memory also connects Douglass to a novel by Sebastian Barry: I thought it was The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty but I am not sure. I was really looking forward to hearing more about him from an expert in the field.

Bill Lawson opened by quoting Douglass, “the colored people of this country are bound to keep fresh a memory of the past till justice shall be done them in the present.” From this Lawson explained his own concept of social disappointment.  He interrogated the differences between expectation and hope.  So this was very interesting as I had always considered that hope is the binary opposite of despair.  My understanding, limited I admit, is that despair is the most venal sin because it indicates loss of hope.  But here Lawson seemed to be presenting hope as a disastrous evolution of expectation.  His argument seems to me to be as follows:  Black citizens, such as Douglass, had the expectation that as citizens within the constitution they would be equal with whites.  As this expectation has not been fulfilled over time black Americans are being forced to evolve from expectation to hope.  Once you can only hope you are not expecting.  So if there is no expectation there can only be despair because hope does not include the expectation of change. Lawson, himself, seems to be without expectation of equality for black Americans.  He seems to be despairing.

I may  have misunderstood the ideas and be misrepresenting the thrust of the argument as when I discussed it with group member, Emilio, on the walk home, we did not seem to agree on semantics.  Nevertheless we were both interested in the idea of social disappointment and how that might be applied to other nations or groups.  I thought of the suffragettes and votes for women (especially after the recent demonstration by Sisters Uncut at the premier of the new film, Suffragette, – and the supportive comments made by the film’s stars, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter).  Emilio said he would be blogging his thoughts on the seminar; these will be more erudite, I think, as he has been researching properly, unlike me – I have just mentioned novels and films. But one thing I did do, as I failed accurately to note down the Douglass quotation, was look up his speech.

Bill Lawson, University of Memphis, ‘Douglass, Memories and Disappointment.’ 7th October, School of English Research Seminar