Published: December 2005
The Cuala Press began as a family affair. In 1902, Elizabeth and Susan Yeats founded a small printing press in Dundrum, Ireland. With the help of their distinguished brothers—William Butler served as an editor and author and Jack as an illustrator—the sisters’ company published almost exclusively Irish writers and illustrators, including W.B. Yeats himself, John M. Synge, Douglas Hyde, Katherine Tynan, Lady Gregory, George Russell (AE), and Frank O’Connor. Though the sisters began with little knowledge of the print industry and a half-century-old Albion hand press they had acquired through a newspaper advertisement, by Elizabeth’s death in 1940, the Cuala Press had become one of the most important literary publishing houses in Ireland—and the only mainstream Irish business of its time to be staffed and managed entirely by women.
Originally called the Dun Emer Press, the enterprise took on a new name in 1908, when the Yeats sisters moved the business to Dublin, whose ancient name was Cuala. The press itself was part of a women’s craft cooperative that was founded, according to its prospectus, “to find work for Irish hands in the making of beautiful things.” The press provided women with the rare opportunity to train in printing, painting, and drawing, as well as in Irish language, dance, and culture. Women contributors—artists and authors—were also featured prominently in Cuala’s publications, in sharp contrast with their customary role in the fine printing industry: coloring illustrations that had been designed by men.
Among the works produced by Cuala was a series of 153 hand-colored Christmas cards, 15 of which are featured here. They are drawn from Boston College’s extensive Irish Collection at the John J. Burns Library, which includes many Cuala works—from limited-edition booklets and art prints, to bookplates, proofs, and misprinted pages. Each of these Christmas cards was hand-printed, and utilizes original works of art that have been paired with seasonal greetings or poems.
In 1940, following Elizabeth’s death, the press was directed by William Butler Yeats’s widow, George, who ran the business until 1946. The press was revived in 1969 by William Butler Yeats’s children, Michael and Anne, and closed its doors in 1986.