Custom and Ceremony

The first volume of R.F. Foster’s acclaimed biography of William Butler Yeats (The Apprentice Mage) appeared in 1997.  Yeats’ son and daughter (now in their 70’s) chose him to be their father’s official biographer after their previous choice, F.S.L. Lyons, passed away, and Foster has been working on this project for the past 17 years.  Best known for his history Modern Ireland 1600-1972, Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford.  Like Yeats, Foster hails from the once-mighty Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy.  These people were forcibly settled in Ireland by the British Crown to keep down the wild Irish Catholics by taking their land, language, and identity.  (To his great credit, Foster does not shy away from exposing Ascendancy prejudices toward the Irish people.)

Yeats was proud of his people’s heritage, bragging to the Irish Senate in 1922 that the Anglo-Irish are “no petty people, we are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell.”  The appointed Free State senator explained to Lady Gregory, “[W]e Protestants did not like to boast while we were the oppressors, of our intellectual superiority and moral courage, but now under a Catholic majority we can do so.”

Richard Ellman’s Yeats: The Man and the Masks (which...

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