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WB Yeats: He cast a cold eye on church and State in Seanad career


WB Yeats, photographed in the 1920s.

WB Yeats, photographed in the 1920s.

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WB Yeats, photographed in the 1920s.

Over his six years in Seanad Eireann, WB Yeats is best remembered for his staunch views against the proposed divorce ban, his opposition to the growing closeness of (Catholic) church and state relations and the imposition of new censorship laws.

Despite being a well-known nationalist at heart, as well as a former member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Yeats accepted the nomination to the first Seanad in 1922 and a year later took his seat, finally joining, as he put it in his poem 'Among School Children', the "sixty-year-old smiling public men".

The first Seanad consisted of a mixture of members appointed by the President of the Executive Council, WT Cosgrave, and members indirectly elected by the Dáil. Cosgrave agreed to use his appointments to grant extra representation to the state's Protestant minority.

Yeats's speech on divorce on June 11th, 1925 remains his most famous Seanad contribution. He called the proposals to ban divorce "grossly oppressive" and eloquently argued against the political and moral pitfalls of the church-led proposals.

He claimed that by officially banning divorce the young Republic would inevitably alienate Irish Protestants from the state and "crystallise" the partition of Ireland.

In full flow Yeats told his fellow Senators: "If it ever comes that North and South unite, the North will not give up any liberty which she already possesses under her constitution. You will then have to grant to another people what you refuse to grant to those within your borders. If you show that this country, Southern Ireland, is going to be governed by Catholic ideas and by Catholic ideas alone, you will never get the North. You will create an impassable barrier between South and North, and you will pass more and more Catholic laws, while the North will, gradually, assimilate its divorce and other laws to those of England. You will put a wedge into the midst of this nation."

And on the issue of divorce itself, Yeats said: "This is a demand for happiness, which increases with education, and men and women who are held together against their will and reason soon cease to recognise any duty to one another."

As one who had so many lovers in his life, the idea of the State permitting just one relationship, post-marriage, seemed absurd to the ageing poet.

Yeats also famously weighed in against the draconian new censorship laws against 'immorality' in literature that were to be introduced under the Free State.

He told the House on June 7th, 1923 in a debate on the Irish censorship bill that: "I think you can leave the arts, superior or inferior, to the conscience of mankind."

But conservative Catholicism was the fundamental philosophy behind the censorship laws and Yeats could do little to halt the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929 which aimed to prevent the introduction of 'unwholesome' foreign influences like materialism, consumerism and immorality.

Though a proponent of the Irish language and fully aware of its importance to the country's cultural identity Yeats questioned the decision by the state to make the Irish language a compulsory subject in school.

Intriguingly he played a pivotal role in the design of the country's coinage up until the introduction of the Euro - but still his imprint can be found on every 'Irish' euro cent piece in the form of the harp on the rear of the coin.

From 1924 to 1926, the government created a committee headed by Yeats, in his role as Senator, to determine designs suitable for the coins.

Yeats, and a handful of colleagues, decided that the harp should be present on all coins and that all lettering should be in Irish.

The committee decided that people associated with "the present time" should not feature in any designs. This was mainly due to the political divisions which led to the Civil War. Yeats was well aware that today's hero could be tomorrow's villain.

And it was decided that religious or cultural themes should be avoided in case coins became relics or medals. Agriculture was essential to the economy of Ireland and this theme was chosen for the coins, which used designs featuring animals and birds.

In 1928, citing ill health, Yeats decided to step down from his position as Senator and did not seek a nomination at the next Seanad elections.

In as much as the Seanad structure allowed, he made a significant imprint in Irish politics. His outspoken views against the ban on divorce, which was only lifted here after a referendum in 1995, underlined his importance in the House, while his contribution to our national coinage design was enduring.

While many were surprised that Yeats agreed to enter such a restrictive sphere as politics he, in his own way, felt it would allow him to contribute to the establishment of the new Irish nation.

Irish Independent