Embroidery by Lily Yeats and Brigid O’Brien for Cuala Industries. Box 19, Boston College collection of Yeats family papers, MS.1986.054, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
The moment I got there I felt in touch with some other world — a most pleasant feeling, almost an exalted feeling; but I could get no quiet, and so saw nothing. This feeling remained with me all the time, and all the time of the drive home, and till I went to bed …
During the recent reprocessing of the Boston College collection of the Yeats family papers, I became acquainted with a little known side of this family of artists. Lily Yeats, an embroiderer, had an abiding interest in the supernatural, which she shared with her oldest brother, writer W. B. His fascination with the occult began in the 1880s, when he joined Madam Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and these philosophies influenced his writing. Lily experienced visions and psychic dreams her entire life, and the siblings often consulted each other over portents and visions.
Photograph of W. B. Yeats taken in New Haven, Connecticut in 1903. Box 8, Folder 31, Boston College collection of Yeats family papers, MS.1986.054, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
Reproduction of sketch of Lily Yeats drawn by her father, John Butler Yeats, in 1908. Box 10, Folder 3, Boston College collection of Yeats family papers, MS.1986.054, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
A fascinating and faintly mysterious story emerges from a series of Lily’s letters in our collection.
In July of 1914, Lily experienced one of her most intense visions after visiting Derrynane House in Glencullen, Ireland. She had a strange feeling at the property, and, when she went to sleep that night, dreamed of the house. She saw “a tall woman in the dress of … the forties or early fifties” walking with a younger man. Lily went “out of my own mind and into hers; I saw with her mind and felt with it.” The woman was thinking sadly of her youth and a man she had once loved in France: “I saw her lover — young man, thickset, very sallow, fine head, rather big; I thought he was a Pole or a Frenchman, and a musician or artist […] I saw him ill on a sofa — a lingering illness, slow consumption perhaps. I knew they had lived together, and knew no one knew.” She then described seeing the lover’s funeral.
Letter from Nancy Campbell to Lily Yeats, July 25, 1914. Box 1, Folder 46, Boston College collection of Yeats family papers, MS.1986.054, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
Photo of bust of Mrs. Fitzsimon in Glencullen House taken by the Campbells for me” is written by Lily Yeats on the reverse of this photograph. Box 8, Folder 19, Boston College collection of Yeats family papers, MS.1986.054, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
The next day she wrote to the current residents of the house, Joseph and Nancy Campbell, to ask if they knew who lived there previously and if there was any connection to France. She mentioned her vision, but included little detail, in order to get unbiased information. Mrs. Campbell replied, “I am so thrilled about the vision. Mr. Fitzsimon [her landlord] was up a few days ago, and I asked him about France. Apparently his grandmother (O’Connell’s daughter) was a great friend of a Comte de (I couldn’t quite catch the name) who was often staying here, and thought he was the rightful heir to the French throne, the head of the Bourbons. Would that fit in?” Daniel O’Connell was an Irish lawyer and politician who worked for home rule in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Campbells later discovered a volume of poetry written by the woman in question, Ellen Fitzsimon, and identified a poem they thought referenced the events in the vision. (Read the poem they likely meant, entitled “Lines addressed to E. F. T.”, and decide for yourself.) They also sent along a photograph of a bust depicting Ellen Fitzsimon.
Letter from W. B. Yeats to Lily Yeats, undated. Box 8, Folder 18, Boston College collection of Yeats family papers, MS.1986.054, John J. Burns Library, Boston College
Next, Lily consulted W. B., who conducted some research into the matter. In an undated letter, he wrote, “I have been looking into a life of O’Connell. A daughter of his ‘a few’ years after his wife’s death (1835) became melancholy because of some ‘sin’. There are two very moving letters by O’Connell to her urging her to submit to the directions of her confessor, and speaking of salvation and repentance.” The letters in question, written in the summer of 1839, appear in The Correspondence of Daniel O’Connell, but are attributed as being addressed to a different daughter.
Later, Lily sent her account to friend and literary scholar Oliver Elton. He found it fascinating and concluded that “if the professionals (Soc[iety for] Psych[ical] Res[earch, an organization based in London that investigated supernatural phenomenon]) went into it, they would worry at it and ask more questions – but the only most obvious one (to which you would answer ‘No’ at once) is whether you had had any inkling of the story of the place and persons before. You clearly hadn’t.” He typed up a copy of her handwritten account and sent the typewritten version back; it appears with her correspondence in our collection. At the bottom of the account, Lily added a brief addendum: “I have heard since that Mrs. Fitzsimmons [sp.] was engaged over in France to a man[,] a Count who considered himself the head of the Bourbons.” She does not provide a source for this information, or the name of the count in question.
Note by Lily Yeats on the bottom of the account of her vision, August 28, 1916. Boston College collection of Yeats family papers, MS.1986.054, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
What do you think? Was Lily’s vision real? Did Ellen Fitzsimon really have a French lover and was he really an heir to the House of Bourbon? Do “Lines Addressed to E. F. T” or any of Ellen’s other poems contain clues?
You can read about the O’Connell family (and see portraits of Daniel O’Connell’s daughters, including one of Ellen when she was young and one around the age she would have been in the vision) and the vision-provoking house on the Derrynane House website.
To learn more about the Yeats family, please consult the Boston College collection of Yeats family papers or contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Annalisa Moretti, Processing Assistant, John J. Burns Library, Boston College