Irish Film Institute -[BLOG] Framing Yeats: The Life and Works of W.B. Yeats on Film

[BLOG] Framing Yeats: The Life and Works of W.B. Yeats on Film

Framing Yeats: The Life and Works of W.B. Yeats on Film

The works of W.B. Yeats have left such an indelible mark on the world that their effects still ripple through popular culture, modern literature and cinema 150 years after his birth. This month, the IFI celebrates Yeats’s anniversary with Images from a Past Life: W.B. Yeats on Film,  a series of events which includes free Archive at Lunchtime screenings of W.B Yeats: A Tribute and Coole Park and Ballylee on Saturday 27th June. In today’s blog from the IFI Irish Film Archive’s Tiernan MacBride library  we look at the influence of the great writer’s enduring works on generations of Irish and international filmmakers as well as at the extraordinary  footage of the travels that inspired Yeats’s own work in 1928.   

Bat Eyes (2012)

Drawing on W.B. Yeats’s Maude Gonne-inspired poem When You are Old, this award-winning Australian short film depicts the awkward confusion of first love and the power of poetry to transform everyday life. During an eye examination, Adam is transported back to a school memory, where he mocks short-sighted Jenny “Bat Eyes” Barrett as she reads Yeats’s poem to the class. Emboldened rather than cowed by Adam’s cruelty, Jenny determines to teach him about the beauty of the poem and the power of a single moment to stay with your forever. She tenderly seduces Adam, reciting the poem to him and creating a potent memory of youth which will help Adam to finally understand the work years later. The poem is repeated four times during the film; its meaning changes with each reading, colouring each distinct scene with its tone and rhythm and amplifying the film’s themes of love and loss.

Bat Eyes
Jenny (Mia Morrissey) recites When You are Old to Adam (Ben James) in Bat Eyes.
Copyright The Voices Project 2012.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

In Million Dollar Baby Frankie Dunn is a gruff boxing trainer who regularly retreats from his troubled life into the peace provided to him by the works of W.B. Yeats. Denied by his biological daughter, Frankie gets a second chance at fatherhood with Maggie, who he trains to be a fighter. In one touching scene, Frankie soothes Maggie with lines from Yeats’s poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree as she recuperates in hospital from devastating injuries. The poem’s expression of a yearning for escape at its beginning is contrasted with the harsh reality of life at its end, something which is mirrored in the dramatic events of the film. In Million Dollar Baby Frankie translates the poem from Irish into English for Maggie but in reality Yeats didn’t write his poems in Irish. Indeed, though he was an Irish Nationalist who supported the Irish language and its literature, he couldn’t understand Irish well enough to read it, let alone write in it. [1]

Million Dollar Baby
Frankie (Clint Eastwood) reads The Lake Isle of Innisfree to Maggie (Hilary Swank) in Million Dollar Baby
Copyright Warner Brothers 2004.

Dancing at Lughnasa (1998)

Dancing at Lughnasa is a “superbly crafted and deeply moving film” [2] which tells the story of the Mundy sisters in 1930s Ireland. The family is held together by Kate, played by Meryl Streep, who strives to maintain their fragile way of life which is threatened by external forces. The five sisters often clash bitterly, but they share a long history of laughter, sadness and secrets and their intense loyalty towards each other forms the emotional core of the film. In one moving sequence, the sisters reminisce over old photographs, but attempt to escape from the ensuing melancholy by singing Down by the Salley Gardens together. While the sing-song rhythms of Yeats’s poem set to song lend the work a light, positive tone, the work expresses the sisters’ regrets over past loves and potential lives unlived, as well as serving to foreshadow their future sorrows. 

 Dancing at Lughnasa
The Mundy sisters Christina (Catherine McCormack), Maggie (Kathy Burke), Kate (Meryl Streep), Agnes (Bríd Brennan)
and Rose (Sophie Thompson) sing
Down by the Salley Gardens in Dancing at Lughnasa. Copyright Ferndale Films 1998.

Words Upon the Window Pane (1994)

Director Mary McGuckian adapted, produced and directed Words Upon the Window Pane, which is based on W.B. Yeats’s one act play of the same title. In this supernatural drama the spirits of the 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift (Jim Sheridan), his wife Stella (Bríd Brennan) and his lover Vanessa (Orla Brady) appear during séances held in 1920s Dublin. Swift is held to account for his poor treatment of both women and the spiritualists present watch in horror as members of their party are possessed by the ghosts and forced to re-enact 200 year old events. The film explores poetry, madness and tortured love as well as the occult, something in which Yeats had a lifelong interest. The play and subsequent film elaborate on Yeats’s belief that spirits can re-live tragic moments in their lives, caught in a purgatory where they “go over and over some action of their past lives, just as we go over and over some painful thought.” [3]

 Words upon the window pane
Corbet (John Lynch) and Miss McKenna (Geraldine Chaplin) in
Words Upon a Window Pane. Copyright Pembridge Pictures 1994.

Yeats and Friends at Hotel Gardens at Algeciras (1928)

This three minute silent film documents the visit W.B. Yeats made to Spain with his wife Georgie in 1928. The film shows the couple on a ship bound for Gibraltar and again with their friend Jean Hall in the gardens of the Cristina Reina Hotel in Algeciras. Professor Ann Saddlemyer painstakingly tracked down the amateur footage, captured by Hall’s husband, when she learned of its existence from letters written to Georgie Yeats by Hall. Once it was transferred to a safety negative, the original silver nitrate celluloid was temporarily buried in the ground due to its dangerous instability and is now safely stored by the British Film Institute. [4] Yeats was suffering from serious ill health at the time and his meditations on death, immortality and artistic creation emerge from stark images drawn from his travels in the poem At Algeciras – A Meditation Upon Death.

 Yeats film
Georgie Yeats, Jean Hall and W.B. Yeats in Yeats and Friends at Hotel Gardens Algeciras.
Copyright Ann Saddlemyer.

By Eilís Ní Raghallaigh

The information in this blog is drawn from the IFI Irish Film Archive’s clippings, image, document and book collections. These collections contain thousands of files, images and articles relating to all aspects of Irish and Irish-interest film and television production. They are available to view in the Tiernan MacBride library within library opening hours, or by appointment with the IFI librarian. Dancing at Lughnasa, Words Upon the Window Pane and Yeats and Friends at Hotel Gardens Algeciras form part of the IFI Irish Film Archive’s Film Collections and they are available to view by appointment. Please direct all queries regarding the viewing of films to the IFI Irish Film Archive’s Moving Image Access Officer.  More information about Dancing at Lughnasa and Words Upon the Window Pane can be found in the IFI’s Irish Film Directory which is a valuable resource for Irish cinema research.



[1] Davis, W. (2005, 26 February). Fighting words. The New York Times. Retrieved June 25, 2015, from

[2] Dwyer, M. (1998, 25 September). Spellbinding summer. The Irish Times.

[3] Iliopoulos, Spyridon, 1951- (1985) ‘Out of a medium’s mouth’ : Yeats’s art in relation to mediumship, spiritualism and psychical research. PhD thesis, University of Warwick. Retrieved June 25, 2015, from

[4] Saddlemyer, A. (n/d). Yeats and friends at hotel gardens Algeciras. From talk given by Ann Saddlemyer, notes available in the IFI Irish Film Archive’s Tiernan MacBride Library.



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