Late in 1888, young Willie Yeats finished his first major book, The Wanderings of Oisin (a Gaelic name, pronounced “Usheen”), at the age of 22.
The challenge then, as now, was to get it published and into the hands of readers. He had a publisher in mind but, in order to be able to approach him, the convention of the time was that the author needed to guarantee the sale of a certain number of “subscriptions” first. He had to bring in contacts who’d declare their commitment to purchasing a number of copies.
Friends and family stumped up but most of them were poor. One friend, the well-connected John O’Leary, a Nelson Mandela figure in Irish nationalism, made all the differences to the book’s fortunes. By claiming the young poet for the Irish cause, he brought in the necessary quota of subscribers, enabling Willie to make his approach to his chosen publisher, Kegan Paul.
The book came out in 1889, receiving good reviews, especially in London. Another Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, was prescient: “Books of poetry by young writers are usually promissory notes that are never met. Now and then, however, one comes across a volume that is so far above the average that one can hardly resist the fascinating temptation of recklessly prophesying a fine future for its author. Such a volume Mr Yeats’ ‘Wanderings of Oisin’ certainly is. Here we find nobility of treatment and nobility of subject matter, delicacy of poetic instinct, and richness of imaginative resource.”
But by June, the book had sold only 28 copies on the open market and Kegan Paul was threatening to sue.
O’Leary stepped in again, paying the necessary £2 3s 10d and negotiating that a more amenable publisher, T Fisher Unwin, would take the remaining stock and republish.