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‘But fumble in a greasy till’
Mr Yeats' new poem is critical of those who are opposed to Sir Hugh Lane's plans for a new art gallery Photo: © National Portrait Gallery, London

‘But fumble in a greasy till’

A new poem by W.B. Yeats

Published: 8 September 1913

We reproduce here a poem that was published today in The Irish Times. It is by the Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, and was finished yesterday. It was written by Mr. Yeats in the light of the ongoing debate in Dublin over the proposal to build a municipal art gallery to house paintings offered to the city by Sir Hugh Lane. 

An accompanying editorial in the paper states that while Irish Unionists might not appreciate the events to which Mr Yeats refers in order to evoke the Irish romantic spirit, his message is clear: 'We want a prosperous Ireland', they explain, 'but we must not sacrifice to it the sweeter qualities which have formed the character of our people.'

W.B. Yeats reading the first verse from his new poem.
Recording extracted from Citizens: Lockout 1913-2013 by Athena Media and available in full here

Romance in Ireland
(On reading much of the correspondence against the Art Gallery)

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the ha’pence to the pence,
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone,
For men were born to pray and save?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone -
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play;
They have gone about the world like wind.
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman's rope was spun;
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone -
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide?
For this that all that blood was shed?
For this Edward Fitzgerald died?
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone -
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were,
In all their loneliness and pain,
You'd cry, 'Some woman's yellow hair
Has maddened every mother's son' -
They weighed so lightly what they gave
But let them be, they're dead and gone:
They're with O'Leary in the grave.

W.B. Yeats
Dublin, September 7th 1913.


Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.