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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Irish Poet W.B. Yeats in Boston in September 1911 to Discuss the Irish National Theatre

Portrait of W.B. Yeats by John S. Sargent, 1908
Courtesy of John J. Burns Library at Boston College 

 William Butler Yeats addressed an audience at the Plymouth Theatre in Boston on September 28, 1911 on the subject, "History of the Irish National Theatre and its Purposes."

As managing director of Dublin's 
Abbey Theatre, Yeats was touring the United States to introduce a new literary movement  in Ireland that he hoped would be "the awakening of the mind of Ireland."

Plymouth Theatre, located at Eliot Street (now Stuart) and Tremont Street, was a brand new playhouse, described as "a cozy, compact and home like-arrangement, with the seats in all parts of the house as near the stage as possible."  The Abbey players christened the new theatre with their productions. 

The Irish plays on opening night included The Shadow of the Glenn by John M. Synge, Birthright by T.C. Murray, and Hyacinth Halvey by Lady Gregory 

Yeats was introduced to the audience by 
George Pierce Baker, professor of dramatic literature at Harvard University, according to a Boston Globe story on September 29, 1911.

"In Ireland, we are putting upon the stage a real life where men talk picturesque and musical words and where men have often picturesque and strange characters, that is to say, the life of far away villages where an old leisurely habit of life still exists," Yeats told the audience in Boston. 

"The country life has for us the further fascination that it is the only thoroughly Irish life that is left.  All our patriotic movements go back to the peasant.  We try to recreate Ireland in an Irish way by mastering what he knows and by using it to understanding what the old manuscripts contain," he said.

Yeats and 
Lady Gregory came to the United States to promote Ireland's new theatre movement but also to defend it against opponents who rioted inDublin when the Playboy of the Western World by Synge was first performed.  Critics assailed the play as a slight upon the Irish character

Yeats told reporters that 'if Ireland is to have a literature, the Irish must not resent truthful portrayals,' according to a 
New York Times story on October 12, 1911.

Lady Gregory said that the controversy over Synge's play was due to misunderstandings about Synge's purpose, and "to something that might be called race sensitiveness," wrote the NY Times on November 20, 1911. 

When the Playboy debuted in Boston on October 16, 1911, the 
Boston Globe reported the play elicited 'some hisses, some cheers,' but that overall it did not cause "the excitement that some people had feared."

Yeats told the Globe he was 'very much pleased,' at the response to the opening night performance. 

"I would not have been surprised if there had been more of a disturbance.  It was very mild, indeed.  I am satisfied.  I am sure that the Irish people will appreciate the play in time here," he said.

When Yeats returned to Ireland in November, he reflected on his trip.  "At Boston, the Abbey Theatre company had a flattering reception.  The more intellectual the play, the greater the success we achieved in Boston.  I attribute this to the influence of the universities," Yeats told the New York Times, in a story published on November 26, 1911.

For theater in Boston today, visit 
Huntington Theater Company and ArtsEmerson.

Here is information about the W.B. Yeats collection at John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In 1988, the W.B. Yeats Foundation was formed by Professor James Flannery at Emory University in Atlanta.

For details on cultural activities in greater Boston, visit  For information on Boston's Irish heritage, visit

- Researched and written by Michael Quinlin

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Army & Navy Monument Unveiled on Boston Common on September 17, 1877

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

One hundred and forty years ago today, public officials, military leaders and the people of Boston unveiled the Army & Navy Monument at Flagstaff Hill on Boston Common to commemorate Massachusetts men and women who gave their lives during the Civil War.  

The unveiling on September 17, 1877 also marked the 247th anniversary of the settlement of Boston in 1630.

Over 100,000 spectators lined the streets of Boston as 25,429 veterans marched along a 6 1/2 mile route through the city and up to Flagstaff Hill. 

"All nationalities, all colors and conditions of men were represented," reported the New York Times.  "The Irish, Scotch, English, Portuguese and others were out in large numbers and carried the blood-stained flags under which they fought.  The colored men also turned out in large numbers and stepped as proudly to the strains of martial music as the men who had so enthusiastically take up the case which led to their freedom." 

The memorial was created by Martin Milmore, an Irish immigrant who moved to Boston from County Sligo with his widowed mother and three brothers in 1851.  He showed early signs of artistic genius as a student at the Brimmer Elementary School and Boston Latin, and got an apprenticeship with noted sculptor Thomas Ball by offering to sweep the floors of the studio every night. 

The monument project was initially conceived after the Civil War, in 1866, as a memorial to "fallen heroes who...aided in putting down the Southern Rebellion and in sustaining the Constitution of our Country and the Union of the States," according to the official program. 

"The deeds of our heroes, whom we proposed to honor, caused the chain to fall from 4 million of the human race.... And not only did they aid in restoring to liberty those upon whom the brand of servitude had been stamped for years, but they emancipated our own Southern brethren from the customs of the past, and placed them in new relations to humanity and progress, where they will enjoy a freedom never before known to them."

Milmore was awarded the commission in 1870, and the following year moved to Rome, Italy for five years, modeling his design in a setting of artistic inspiration.

Part of Milmore's genius was to depict the figures of navy and army not as admirals and generals but as ordinary sailors and soldiers.  This was an artistic perspective he had taken in his earlier Civil War works, including memorials in Roxbury, Charlestown and Framingham, MA, Claremont, NH, Waterville, ME and Eire, PA.

According to published specifications, the granite column is seventy feet, and has the shape of a square fort with bastions.  Four bronze figures, eight feet in height, represent peace, history, army and navy.  Atop the column is a bronze statue, eleven feet in height, representing the Genius of America. 

The Genius of America "represents a woman, majestically proportioned, clad in a flowing robe...upon her head is a crown of 13 stars.  The head is slightly bowed, and the eyes cast down.  There is nothing of haughtiness nor defiance in attitude or expression.  The figure does not symbolize America the conqueror, proud in her strength and defiant of her foes; but rather America the mourner, paying proud tribute to her loyal dead, whose bones lie upon every battlefield of the great South, toward which her face is turned." 

Mayor Frederick O. Prince said, “If the commemorated dead could arise and speak to those they have met in battle, their words would not be words of anger, but of peace and good-will.  Why then, should it not be otherwise with the living?

“The genius of the artist has with great felicity placed the statue of Peace looking to the South,” Prince continued.  “Let us hope that…it is an assurance that the past is forgotten; that there are to be no irritating or disturbing memories; that the South, when it looks to the North, shall see not the sword of victory, but the fraternal hand grasping the olive-branch of reconciliation and friendship.”

In a further sign of reconciliation, Confederate officers were invited to attend the ceremony, joining Union Generals Joseph Hooker and George B. McClellan. 

Charlestown native Charles Devens, a Union General and Massachusetts judge, was orator of the day.  He also characterized the monument as a gesture of peace, not war.

“The monument bears no words of boasting or unseemly exaltation, and the assertion of the justice of their cause, though firmly made, is yet not made in any harsh or controversial spirit,” Devens said. 

“Let us endeavor to lift ourselves to a higher level of patriotism which despises any narrow sectionalism, and rejoices in the nationality broad enough to embrace every section of the Union, and each one of its people, whether high or humble, rich or poor, black or white.”

- Essay by Michael Quinlin

The Army Navy Monument, also called the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial, is on Boston's Irish Heritage Trail.  Read more about Irish immigrant sculptors