W.B. Yeats: Catholic’s Legendary Literature Guest

Yeats visited Catholic to speak in 1904, archival documents show. Courtesy of George Charles Beresford

By Iain Higgins

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was the foremost poet of the Irish Literary Revival – a movement at the turn of the last century that sought to institute a national literary tradition separate from that of English literature. Early on in Catholic University’s history, Yeats visited the school during a tour of the District, drawing a large crowd and speaking on the importance and legacy of Ireland.

Irish literature had yet to assume its own identity in the early 19th century and before, something Yeats, among others (James Joyce, J.M. Synge), hoped to change. In an attempt to publicize Irish literature in the American eye, Yeats embarked on a number of lecture tours across the United States. Every few years he would venture over from Europe and speak at universities, primarily those interested in the revitalization of Irish culture and language. One such university, strong in its Irish roots, was Catholic.

Bishop Thomas Shahan, rector of the University, advocated for Irish independence in language, culture, and politics to the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1894. This spurred the Order, which was a fraternal Irish Catholic group, to donate a sizable amount of money to Catholic for a chair of Gaelic Languages and Literature, and this new chair position would in turn attract the attention of W.B. Yeats. The only other American university to have a similar chair position was Harvard, elevating Catholic’s academic import to Irish revivalists.

Yeats came to Washington, D.C. in the winter of 1903, and was involved with the Catholic University faculty from his arrival. It was Professor Maurice Francis Egan of the English department who introduced Yeats to President Roosevelt. Egan also acted as escort in bringing the great poet to the campus of Catholic on February 21st, 1904. At 8 PM, in the Assembly Room of McMahon Hall, a large number of students gathered to hear Yeats speak. He stressed the need for the Irish language, the importance of Irish culture, and praised Irish Americans for upholding the tradition of their ancestors in a foreign land.

His oration is accessible in part through the Catholic University archives, and his masterful rhetoric deserves to be read. As one of the most important poets of the English language, his presence that winter at Catholic is invaluable for the university’s reputation, and an honor that should not be taken lightly.

(Special thanks to Dr. Gregory Baker of the English department for assistance in the composition of this article.)

Letter from William Butler Yeats to Thomas J. Shahan, March 8, 1904, thanking Shahan for his hospitality and commending the Catholic University of America.

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