‘Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know’ – A contemplation of John Yeats

In Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, Colm Tóibín’s new non-fiction book, the Enniscorthy writer turns his incisive gaze to three of Ireland’s greatest writers, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats and James Joyce, and their earliest influences: their fathers. To celebrate the extension of Yeats; Portrait of a Family, The Model’s seminal exhibition that celebrates the life and work of the Yeats family, we thought it may be an interesting exercise to take a look at the exhibition through the lens of John Yeats and the influence he had on his children.

John Yeats spent much of his life as an impoverished artist. Though a trained barrister, John Yeats gave up law, instead he turned to painting. This move proved hazardous for his family, who struggled financially as a consequence of their father’s choice. John had six children with his wife, Susan Pollexfen. Their four surviving children were William, Susan, Elizabeth and Jack.

John, a famously restless spirit, was the son of a Co Down Church of Ireland rector He was a prize-winning student at Trinity and went on to become a barrister. Though accomplished, he did not settle into the legal world – often sketching in court, for example – and, to the alarm of his wife’s family, decided to abandon law and become an artist. Portraiture suited his lively temperament, his inveterate interest in people and his appetite for conversation. His subjects included many of the leading figures in Irish cultural life at the time. Technically he was more than capable, though in a significant proportion of his work he can come across as an underachiever, unsure of how to resolve a painting. Although given to moments of self-doubt, rather than feeling overawed by the respective achievements of his two sons, he genuinely felt that his talents were more than the equal of theirs, in both artistic and literary spheres.

In Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, it is interesting to view the complex relationships between one of the most artistic families in the English language and their father, but also illustrates the surprising ways they surface in their work. For John, his influence on his children came in a surprising form. After his move to New York, at the age of 68, his influence on his son’s poetry came to be profound; safely at a distance in the US, it was possible for him to write to William often, and fervently, about his work. Whether Jack, who had also become a painter, took direct and deliberate inspiration from his father remains a mystery. While William noted that his father was a ‘brilliant letter-writer’, Jack was much more inclined to claim Sligo County as the main source of his inspiration rather than the father he helped to support till John Butler’s death in 1922.

In the Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, Tóibín remarked that “In this world of sons, fathers become ghosts and shadows and fictions. They live in memories and letters, becoming more complex, fulfilling their sons’ needs as artists, standing out of the way.” Whether John B. Yeats fulfilled his sons needs as artist is a mystery lost in time. He did, however, cast a very long shadow.