WB Yeats and The Door of Reconciliation

The Yeats House

Did you know William Butler Yeats’ ancestors may have already carved a small piece into Irish History and modern language centuries before WB Yeats was born? The connection dates all the way back to 1492 and takes place in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

The Door of Reconciliation Story

Back in the 15th Century, two prominent Irish Families were involved in a bitter dispute over the position of Lord Deputy – The Butlers of Ormonde and the FitzGeralds of Kildare. In 1492 the feud came to a clash between the two families just outside the City Walls.

The Phrase “Chancing your Arm”

The Butler Family sought refuge in the Chapter House of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where the FitzGeralds sought to make peace and requested the Butler Family to come out and shake hands. The Butlers refused, fearing they would be attacked. As a gesture of Goodwill, Gerald FitzGerald ordered a hole to be cut in the door. Mr. FitzGerald then placed his arm through the hole in the door to prove his attempt at reconciliation was honourable. Thus the phrase “Chancing your Arm” was born – Mr. FitzGerald risked having his arm cut off, but Mr. Butler shook his hand through the door and the two Families declared peace.

What does this have to do with WB Yeats?

Here’s where it gets interesting!

If we follow Yeats’ Family Tree, his great-great-Grandfather Benjamin Yeats married Mary Butler, a direct descendant of the Butler Ormondes of Kildare, descendant of the first Earls of Ormonde. After their marriage, they decided to keep the name Butler in the Family. So this indicates that Yeats’ Great-Great-Grandmother was a direct descendant of the feuding Butler Family!

Of course, this story is only speculation, but historical facts do point towards Yeats’ ancestors already leaving their stamp long before William cemented his own imprint on Irish History.

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Biography of William Butler Yeats:

WB Yeats was born in Sandymount, Co Dublin on 13th June 1865 to a family of Anglo-Irish descent. His Mother Susan Pollexfen  was from a wealthy merchant family in Sligo. Shortly after his birth Yeats’ family relocated to his Mother’s hometown of Merville, which William would later describe as his childhood and spiritual home. In 1867 the family moved to England to support William’s father Johns career as an artist. They returned to Harold’s Cross, Co Dublin, in 1880 and William began attending Erasmus Smith High School. He began writing poetry aged 17, and later moved on to tales of Irish Mythology and Folklore. The family moved back to the UK in 1887.

William turned to Irish Mythology and Folklore for inspiration early in his career. In 1891 Yeats published his first works – the novella John Sherman and the short story Dhoya.  The Yeats family returned to London in 1887 and thus began William’s career as a poet. He co-founded the “Rhymer’s Club” which was a group of poets who met regularly in Fleet St., London. His first significant poem was the fantasy work “The Island of Statues”.

In 1896 Yeats met Lady Gregory who encouraged him to write more dramatic prose focusing on his Irish heritage. Yeats would then become acquainted with other Irish writes including JM Synge, Sean O’Casey and Douglas Hyde (he later became Ireland’s first President) who, among others, would forge the “Irish Literary Revival”. In 1899 the Irish Literary Theatre was founded to hold Irish and Celtic plays. Unfortunately it was not a long-term success and folded after 2 years. Yeats later helped found the Abbey Theatre which he remained heavily involved with until his death.

In 1889 Yeats met 23 year old Maude Gonne, whom he fell hopelessly in love with and drew inspiration from for many of his later works. William proposed to Maude 5 times in total, but she continuously refused him and married Major John Mc Bride in 1903 which greatly depressed WB Yeats. Maude divorced her husband in Paris in 1905 and re-kindled her friendship with William. They spent one night together, but they would never become lovers. In 1916 Yeats was 51 and felt the time was right to marry and produce an heir. After Maude Gonne refused his final proposal, Yeats married 25 year old Georgie Hyde-Lees and they had 2 children together.

William Butler Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. In 1922 he was appointed to the first Irish Senate, again in 1925, and retired in 1928 due to ill health. He died in France on the 28th January 1939 aged 73. He was buried in France, but in 1948 his body was moved to his beloved Drumcliff, Co Sligo. Ironically, the man who oversaw Yeats’ re-burial was none other than Sean Mac Bride, son of Maude Gonne Mac Bride, the then Minister of External Affairs.