Fridays with Fred: Beloit’s brush with the Irish Literary Revival

Take an adventure through the letters of Ethel Bird, class of 1905.

Some years back I walked into the Beloit College Archives reading room and discovered a mysterious black leather suitcase wrapped in twine, perched on one of the tables. A note explained that someone had stashed the battered relic in an attic back in 1960 and that it had belonged to Ethel Bird, class of 1905. I cut the twine, opened the lid, and discovered stacks of letters, most dating from her time at the college. Far from dutiful and dull, Bird’s correspondence with her parents revealed a lively and teasing wit and provided a fascinating glimpse into the life of a woman student less than a decade after Beloit College became coeducational. A small group of letters described her experience as a social worker in Halifax, Nova Scotia after an explosion disaster in 1917. Ethel Bird had a distinguished career in social services and served for many years as the national secretary for immigration and foreign communities of the YWCA. She passed away in 1960.

In February of 1904, Bird was busy rehearsing for her part as Shawn in The Land of Heart’s Desire, a one-act play by the famous Irish author, William Butler Yeats. On February 10th she had an encounter with the legend himself: “Yesterday I spent all day ‘fasting’ in bed but arose and clothed myself in my right mind for supper and to go to the lecture. Mr. Yeats is the most fascinating thing ever! I think I have at no time been so fascinated by a lecturer. Afterwards, the people in the play were invited to meet him and he was so nice to us. But what do you think he said – I asked him how to pronounce my wife’s name – I had told him I was to be Shawn – and he said so prettily ‘Mary’ – then more tragically – ‘Ah do not pronounce it “Mare” as they did at Chicago, oh do not pronounce it “Mare.” I spelled it very fancifully but it is only Mary. I shall change the spelling in the next edition.”’

Yeats lectured on “Poetry, the Old and the New,” before an appreciative audience in Eaton Chapel. The Round Table reported that Yeats “outlined the difference between the Folk poetry, the poetry of the people, the many, and the Printed Poetry of the few…the mind that conceived the Irish land ballads was the same type of mind as that which wrote the Iliad.” Yeats also mentioned the work of the Gaelic League “as a factor in the literary renaissance, and in the moral uplifting of the country.” The newspaper described Yeats as “intense and dramatic, holding the attention of his audience…especially pleasing in his interpretation of his own poems.” Yeats stayed in Beloit as a guest of English professor Malcolm W. Wallace, who had previously primed the college for the visit with his talk about “The Celtic Movement.”

In a further article entitled “We Liked Yeats,” The Round Table noted that Yeats “had the difficult task of convincing an audience reared in the twentieth century, the age of electricity, of rag time, of cold intellectualism, of science, of automobiles, of unsentimentality that the culture of the printed page was not the real culture…He was generous in his confidences, unsparing in his efforts to make us feel the force of his assertions, and for this we thank him.”

Over the following work, Ethel Bird and her fellow thespians practiced daily, even rehearsing the play twice on performance day. She commented that they were all “tired out but in the mood and spirit…It all went off beautifully and people were delighted. I will wait till next week to give you details when I can wave my arms and gesticulate and describe it all.” The Round Table reported that “a large number of invited guests witnessed the presentation at Emerson Hall…The little play was given most artistically by five of the college girls and was a delightful treat.”

Beloit’s brush with the Irish Literary Revival would continue in later years, with visits from other distinguished authors, including Lady Gregory, who, along with Yeats and others founded the Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre.

Fred Burwell ’86
October 08, 2010

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