The Dun Emer Press
Background to the Dun Emer Press
The Dun Emer Press was established in 1902 by Elizabeth Corbett Yeats (1868-1940) as part of the Dun Emer Industries. The Industries were the brainchild of Evelyn Gleeson (1855-1944), an active suffragette, nationalist, and socialist. Having studied art in London, Gleeson was influenced by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement; she was equally engaged by Irish cultural nationalism and the potential for a new craft guild in Dublin that would employ Irish women and develop their skills. The Dun Emer enterprise was part of a larger Revivalist movement to develop Ireland’s cultural and economic independence, engaging creatively with Ireland’s mythical past while aspiring to a modern, culturally-confident, and nationally-distinctive future. This was a creative and transformative period in Irish history: the intersections between the archaic and the avant-garde created a heady challenge to contemporary cultural forms and political power structures.
When the Irish Literary Society was established in London in 1892 by William Butler Yeats, T.W. Rolleston, and Charles Gavan Duffy, Gleeson became its first secretary. In London, Gleeson was friendly with Elizabeth and Susan (Lily) Yeats who, in the late 1880s, were living in Bedford Park, the experimental community populated by intellectuals, artists, and writers including Madame Blavatsky, John Todhunter, and Florence Farr. Both Elizabeth and Lily Yeats were accomplished artists. Having been educated as a teacher, Elizabeth Yeats taught art and published several books on techniques for watercolour painting. Lily Yeats (1866-1949) was an assistant in embroidery to May Morris at Kelmscott House. These three Irish women were embedded in richly diverse and cosmopolitan networks that were central to cultural, political, artistic, and aesthetic developments in London and Dublin.
In 1902, in preparation for her new enterprise at Dun Emer, Elizabeth Yeats attended the Women’s Printing Society in Westminster, a society founded by Emily Faithfull and Emma Anne Paterson; Faithfull, who was dedicated to improving the working conditions and employment opportunities of women, had established the radical and feminist Victoria Press in 1860. It was at the Women’s Printing Society that Elizabeth studied composition, type-setting, design, and press mechanics. Emery Walker, an influential advisor to Elizabeth Yeats and a faithful supporter of the Dun Emer Press, was another important formative influence. He had played a critical role in the development of the private press movement through his involvement in the Kelmscott Press, and later, the Doves Press. Walker had revolutionized typography and book design, disseminating his ideas through lectures for the Arts and Crafts Society and through his partnership with William Morris. In 1888, he famously used “magic lantern” slides to illustrate a talk on the history of typography for that year’s Arts & Crafts Exhibition, a lecture which is considered a pivotal moment for many of his contemporaries.
Once settled in Dublin, the three women brought their distinctive skills to bear on the Dun Emer cooperative venture. Evelyn Gleeson led work in tapestry and hand-tufted rugs; Lily Yeats was in charge of embroidery; Elizabeth Yeats was to direct the publishing department. To fund the enterprise, Gleeson used her inheritance and borrowed £500 from her close friend, the Irish botanist Augustine Henry (1857-1930). She acquired a property called ‘Runneymede’ a few miles from Dublin as a base for the new project, immediately renaming it Dun Emer, which translates from the Gaelic as “the Fort of Emer”. In Irish mythology, Emer, the wife of the legendary hero Cúchulainn, was famed for her wisdom and her skill in weaving and embroidery. Living up to its name, Dun Emer became a stronghold of Irish design and creativity. By 1905, thirty women were employed and, that year, the guild had exhibited in venues in Leeds, Belfast, London, Cork, Berlin, and Bristol, amongst others. The Dun Emer Press operated until 1908 when, following an extended period of tension and antagonism between Gleeson and the Yeats sisters (both personal and financial), the industries disbanded. Gleeson retained the Dun Emer name for her book bindery and weaving guild. Elizabeth and Lily Yeats relocated to another premises in Dublin, taking the name of their new townland, Cuala, as the name for their reformed Industries, of which the imprint was a constituent part. The publishing house had changed location and its name to the Cuala Press, but the staff and equipment remained the same.
The Dun Emer Press
The Dun Emer was a pioneering private press in the Irish context and, in international terms, it prefigured the many modernist presses which emerged in the following decades. While influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain, the volumes produced by the Dun Emer are distinctive, notable for their restrained and minimalist aesthetic, demonstrating an affinity for modern typography and design. This tendency towards modest and spare design meant the reader’s focus was on the text rather than on superfluous decorative elements. William Butler Yeats was the literary editor for the press, and his extensive network assisted with securing both authors and subscription readers. The works selected for publication reflected the social, political, and cultural interests and priorities of the press. Production values were crucially important; the limited-edition books were produced by Irish women workers using Irish paper and linen casing.
Dun Emer’s first prospectus explicitly stated its objective to revive the art of book printing in Ireland:
Though many books are printed in Ireland, book printing as an art has been little practised here since the eighteenth century.
The Dun Emer Press has been founded in the hope of reviving this beautiful craft.
A good eighteenth century fount of type which is not eccentric in form or difficult to read has been cast, and the paper has been made of linen rags and without bleaching chemicals, at the Saggart Mill in the county Dublin. The pages are printed at a Hand Press by Miss E. C. Yeats, and simplicity is aimed at in their composition.
The first book printed has been “In the Seven Woods” a new volume of poems, chiefly of the Irish Heroic Age, by W.B. Yeats. The edition is limited to 325 copies, and the book will not be republished in this form. (Dun Emer, “The First Prospectus”, 1903)
An Albion Press, similar to the type used at both the Kelmscott and Doves Presses, was chosen. As described above, it was equipped with Caslon typeface and a special rag paper, produced at Saggart Mills in Dublin, was commissioned. A distinctive design aesthetic developed over these formative years and was to persist into the established aesthetic of the Cuala Press. The Dun Emer books tended towards a small quarto format with a page size of 21cm x 14.5cm. The paper was lightly toned and Elizabeth Yeats used a fourteen point type font with a purposeful use of white space and wide margins. The Dun Emer hand-printed books had a clear, simple format. Red ink was deployed for the colophon, as well as occasional headings and notes.
Figure 1: Cover of In the Seven Woods by W. B. Yeats
In the Seven Woods, a collection of poems by W.B. Yeats, was the first book produced by the Dun Emer Press (Figures 1 & 2). The colophon at the end of the main text read:
Here ends In The Seven Woods, written by William Butler Yeats, printed, upon paper made in Ireland, and published by Elizabeth Corbet Yeats at the Dun Emer Press, in the house of Evelyn Gleeson at Dundrum in the county of Dublin, Ireland, finished the sixteenth day of July, in the year of the big wind 1903.
Figure 2: Colophon at the end of Yeats's In the Seven Woods
In a mischievious parody in Ulysses, James Joyce later mocked the self-importance of this colophon and the anthropological pretensions of some elements of the Celtic Revival. In the first episode of Ulysses, Buck Mulligan acts as a native informant for the character of Haines, an Englishman visiting Ireland to study its folklore, presenting him with material for his studies:
That’s folk, he said very earnestly, for your book, Haines. Five lines of text and ten pages of notes about the folk and the fishgods of Dundrum. Printed by the weird sisters in the year of the big wind. (Joyce 1993: 13)
Presented in one of the most lauded cultural artefacts of Irish modernism, Joyce’s satire has played a role in unfairly caricaturing Elizabeth and Lily Yeats as eccentric spinsters and mere handmaidens to their more famous brother. It was later reinforced by another reference to the Dun Emer Press:
To be printed and bound at the Druiddrum press by two designing females. Calf covers of pissedon green. Last word in art shades. Most beautiful book come out of Ireland in my time. (Joyce 1993: 403)
Joyce’s allusion and his intentions had been variously interpreted: while it is evidently an acerbic satire on the pretensions and cultural dominance of the Yeats circle in Irish cultural life during the Revival period, others have argued that it may have reflected his own frustrations with finding suitable publication outlets. Dun Emer’s appearance in Ulysses, while presenting an insider joke, simultaneously demonstrates the impact of the industries in the cultural landscape of Dublin at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Figure 3: Elinor Monsell's pressmark from Katharine Tynan's Twenty One Poems
In 1907, commissioned by W.B. Yeats, Elinor Monsell designed a pressmark that featured the mythological Emer leaning against a tree (Figure 3). Just three years previously, in 1904, Monsell created the famous logo for the Abbey Theatre – a woodcut depicting Queen Maeve and an Irish wolfhound (Figure 4). The distinctive aesthetic developed at Dun Emer was widely admired and their limited edition books quickly became collectors’ items. Publishing only new writing, the 11 books produced by the Dun Emer Press (please see below) demonstrate its avant-garde ambitions and position it within the crosscurrents of the Irish Revival and an emerging modernist sensibility and aesthetics. In 1907, along with the new pressmark, the names of the printing staff are included in the colophon of Katharine Tynan’s Twenty One Poems. From that point onwards, this also became a regular feature of the books published by Elizabeth Yeats.
Figure 4: Monsell logo for the Abbey Theatre depicting Queen Maeve with a wolfhound
Like other sections of the Dun Emer, the printing press had an all-female workforce, training young Irish women in the technical aspects of printing and promoting the economic independence and self-development of these young apprentices. Such a philosophy was influenced by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement in England. However, the objectives of the Dun Emer Industries also aligned with those of radical Irish nationalist organisations such as Inghinidhe na hÉireann and the Gaelic League: Gleeson had stated that she wanted to “find work for Irish hands in the making of beautiful things” and that the “education of the work-girls is also part of the idea, they are taught to paint and their brains and fingers are made more active and understanding: some of them, we hope, will become teachers to others, so that similar industries may spread throughout the land” (Dun Emer General Prospectus, 1903). Despite the ostensibly conservative political and gender politics of Elizabeth and Susan Yeats, their daily praxis and their collaboration with Evelyn Gleeson is both illuminating and reflective of broader tensions and intersections between various strands of feminism, Irish nationalism, the Arts and Crafts movement, and early modernism.
Figures 5 and 6: Dun Emer Industries price lists
Books published by the Dun Emer Press
1) In the Seven Woods by W.B. Yeats, published in August 1903 (325 copes at 10s. 6d.). Cased in full Irish linen, with a paper label printed in red and pasted on the front cover (Figures 1 & 2)
2) The Nuts of Knowledge by Æ (George Russell), published in December 1903 (200 copies at 7s. 6d.). The first use of an image for decoration, An Claidheamh Soluis (the Sword of Light), from a drawing by Æ appears in red within the volume (Fig. 7). The book was cased in quarter natural Irish linen with blue sides and lettering in black.
Figure 7: Æ's An Claidheamh Soluis illustration from The Nuts of Knowledge
3) The Love Songs of Connacht, collected and translated by Douglas Hyde, with a preface by W.B. Yeats, published in July 1904 (300 copies at 10s. 6d.)
4) Stories of Red Hanrahan by W.B. Yeats, published in May 1905 (500 copies at 12s. 6d.). This volume included an illustration from a drawing by Robert Gregory, printed in black (Figure 8).
Figure 8: Robert Gregory's illustration from Yeats's Stories of Red Hanrahan
5) Twenty One Poems by Lionel Johnson, selected by W.B. Yeats, published in February 1905 (220 copies at 10s. 6d.).
6) Some Essays and Passages by John Eglinton, selected by W.B. Yeats, published in August 1905 (200 copies at 10s. 6 d.).
7) Sixteen Poems by William Allingham, selected by W.B. Yeats, published in November 1905 (200 copies at 7s. 6d.).
8) A Book of Saints and Wonders by Lady Gregory, published in September 1906 (200 copies at 10s. 6d.). This volume included an illustration in red (of a bell, waterfall and fish) designed by her son Robert Gregory (Figure 9).
Figure 9: Robert Gregory's illustration for The Book of Saints and Wonders by Lady Gregory
9) By Still Waters by Æ (George Russell), published in December 1906 (200 copies at 7s. 6d.). Again, this volume included the illustration by Æ of An Claidheamh Soluis.
10) Twenty One Poems by Katharine Tynan, selected by W.B. Yeats, published in August 1907 (200 copies at 10s. 6d.). For the first time, the colophon also names the staff of the press who worked on the volume: Esther Ryan and Beatrice Cassidy. This practice continued in subsequent books. In addition, the Dun Emer pressmark (designed by Elinor Monsell using a wood engraving) appeared for the first time on the title page (Figure 3).
Figure 10: Title page for W. B. Yeats's Discoveries: A Volume of Essays
Other Publications from the Dun Emer Press
In June 1908, Dun Emer published the first in a series of Broadsides that were illustrated by Jack B. Yeats. These broadsides contained poems and ballads, some traditional and some newly composed. The series continued monthly for seven years, but after the first issue published under the Dun Emer imprint continued under the newly re-named Cuala Press. There are a total of eighty-four issues. Each one was in folio format and printed on regular cartridge paper made at Saggart Mill. A Broadside was sold by an annual subscription and there was a limited edition of 300 copies of each one.
Other Occasional Publications
Hand-Coloured Prints – The first series of hand-coloured prints was issued in 1906.
Prospectuses and Announcements – Liam Miller (1973) has identified some ten of these, including a prospectus and price list for the Dun Emer Industries as well as those that were printed specifically for the press.
Privately Printed Leaflets and Booklets
1) One-page Programme of Performance of Deirdre by Æ by the Irish National Theatre Society at Dun Emer, 13 August, 1903.
2) A New Song Called Anna Liffey (8 pages), with a woodcut ‘Erin’ with a harp on the title page. Thirty copies printed for E.R. McClintock Dix.
3) Printing in Strabane (Irish Bibliographical Pamphlets I), Fifty copies in grey wrappers, Printed for E.R. McClintock Dix (32 pages).
Figure 11: Printing Room at Dun Emer c. 1903: Elizabeth Corbet Yeats at the Albion Press, Beatrice Cassidy rolling ink, and Esther Ryan correcting proofs (Miller 1973: plate facing page 36)
Archives and Papers
Augustine Henry and Evelyn Gleeson Papers, (MS 13,698). Dublin: National Library of Ireland. http://www.nli.ie/pdfs/mss%20lists/A19_HenryGleeson.pdf
Cuala Press Archive. Department of Early Printed Books and Special Collections. Dublin: Trinity College Library. https://www.tcd.ie/library/manuscripts/collections/cuala.php
Papers of Evelyn Gleeson and the Dun Emer Guild, Department of Early Printed Books and Special Collections. Dublin: Trinity College Library.
Leabhar Dun Eimire (1903-1905). Cuala Press Archive, Dublin: Trinity College Library.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Ken Bergin, Director of Special Collections and Archives at the University of Limerick, for his assistance. All images (except Figures 3, 4 and 11) are from first edition Dun Emer volumes that are held as part of the Gilsenan Yeats Collection at the University of Limerick.
 See Greta Lagro Potter. “An Appreciation of Sir Emery Walker.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 8, no. 3, 1938, pp. 400–414. May Morris was to comment that after the lecture “father was very much excited” and determined with Walker to start a new private press, later to become the Kelmscott Press. For more on Walker’s views on print culture, see Printing: An Essay by William Morris & Emery Walker. From "Arts & crafts essays by members of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society" (Park Ridge: The Village Press, 1903). Source: an Internet Archive copy of the book, contributed by the University of California Libraries. See also the website for the Emery Walker Trust: http://www.emerywalker.org.uk/emery-walker
 James Joyce (1993) Ulysses Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics. For more extended discussions of these allusions to the Dun Emer Press, see The Joyce Project [http://m.joyceproject.com/notes/010064dundrum.html]; Clare Hutton “The Irish Revival” in John McCourt (ed.) James Joyce in Context, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009, pp. 195-204; Murray, Simone. “The Cuala Press: Women, Publishing, and the Conflicted Genealogies of ‘Feminist Publishing.’” Women's Studies International Forum, vol. 27, no. 5-6, 2004, pp. 489–506.