To mark the 150th anniversary of the birthday of Jack B. Yeats, poet, playwright and novelist Dermot Bolger pays tribute to Jack with a recording for Evelyn Grant's Weekend Drive on RTÉ lyric fm of his poem Fairground Ponies - listen above, and read Fairground Ponies below.

After a decade's absence, Dermot has begun writing new poems and among the unpublished ones is a small poem in memory of Jack B. Yeats. Yeats died in Portobello Nursing Home, but before that he made one last sketch of two fairground ponies for Teresa O’Sullivan, manager of Portobello Hospital, whom he had befriended.

This is Dermot's personal tribute to the great artist.

My name is Dermot Bolger.

This poem, Fairground Ponies, has been written to mark the 150th anniversary of Ireland's greatest 20th century painter, Jack B Yeats, who was born on the 29th of August 1871 and spent much of his childhood in Sligo. In later life he ceased being a factual illustrator, but chronicled the human heart.

Jack B Yeats, (Oh) Had I the Wings of a Swallow (1925)
Private Collection © Estate of Jack B. Yeats, DACS London, IVARO Dublin, 2021

Initially baffling his small audience with monumental works painted in a state he described as half-memory, the original landscapes distorted with vibrant emotional color. In conservative Dublin he was mocked but a new generation were mesmerized by the audacious free-floating freedom of his paintings.

Beckett was in awe of him. Joyce treasured the Yates painting, recognizing him as being an artistic force as great as his famous older brother.

Jack B Yeats, Roundabout Ponies

After his wife's death, Jack Yates entered an old folks home at Portobello Bridge in Dublin, where he loved to walk the canal part. Two days before he died in 1957, aged 86, he made his final drawing, which this poem is about.

Happy 150th birthday, Mr Yeats.


Fairground Ponies

(In memory of Jack B Yeats. Born August 29th 1871)

It might seem more apt to praise

Your monumental late canvases,

Where, freed from pictorial reality,

You plastered, in rich vibrant layers

The raw emotive colours of memory.

Your landscapes no longer external,

But infused, not with scenes you once saw,

But with the tumult of passion and grief

That such memories now conjured up,

Echoing the cathartic chaos of dreams

As they burst into such startling hues

Of jade and jasmine and kingfisher blue

That mere brushstrokes were not enough

To keep up as you moulded glistening daubs

Of paint into shape, using your fingertips.

So why do I consider your last ever sketch

To be equally wondrous? Two wooden

Fairground ponies swirl in joyous pursuit

On a carousel, designed to extract pennies

And delight from children in small towns.

Their innocent joy still engaging your mind

That remained enthralled by the breadth of life.

A frail old man propped up by heaped pillows

At the window of a Portobello nursing home:

Your fingers barely possessing the strength

To hold a pencil steady over a blank sheet,

A mere forty-eight hours before your death,

But continuing to do what came as naturally

As speech or sleep, creating faint sketches

That evoked joy, almost to your last breath.

Jack B. Yeats, Pilot Sligo River (1927)
Private collection © Estate of Jack B. Yeats, DACS London, IVARO Dublin, 2021
Image courtesy Whytes.com

Jack B. Yeats: Painting & Memory opens at the National Gallery Dublin from September 4th 2021 – February 6th 2022. The exhibition explores the role of memory in Jack B. Yeats' life and work, a selection of oil paintings spanning more than 40 years that takes in places and people Yeats remembered, his observations of humanity, and reflections on life and loss in his later years - find out more here.