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Pop sensation Imelda May wants to tell more women's stories as she talks 'emotional' documentary

The Irish songwriter fronts Sky Arts' new documentary, Lily & Lolly: The Forgotten Yeats Sisters

Imelda May in Lily & Lolly: The Forgotten Yeats Sisters© Red Shoe Productions
Nicky Morris
TV and film writer
Updated: March 8, 2024
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Imelda May is calling for more "balance" within the world of music and culture. In her new Sky Arts documentary, Lily & Lolly: The Forgotten Yeats Sisters, the Irish singer, songwriter, and presenter shines a light on the too often untold stories of women who have been airbrushed from history.

The film, released on International Women's Day, tells the remarkable tale of Susan (known as Lily) and Elizabeth (Lolly) Yeats, the sisters of poet William Butler Yeats and artist Jack Butler Yeats, who were instrumental in the Irish cultural and literary revival of the 1920s but have inevitably been overshadowed by the achievements of their brothers. 

"I'm a big believer in balance. I've worked in the music industry all of my life, writing and producing," said Imelda, 49, who began her music career in Dublin in the 1990s and has performed with the likes of Bono, Ronnie Wood, Noel Gallagher, and Rod Stewart.

Imelda May performing on stage © C-Major
Imelda May began her music career at the age of 16 in Dublin

"Years ago in interviews, instead of being asked about either the writing process or producing my own albums, which is quite unusual for an artist to do, I'd be asked about my hair, my clothes, and my makeup. I found it incredibly dull."

Imelda's new documentary looks back at Lily and Lolly's lives over four decades, during which they published over 70 titles from leading Irish authors, including John M Synge, Ezra Pound, Lady Gregory, and WB Yeats. 

In 1902, they founded Dun Emer Guild, which specialised in printing, bookbinding, weaving and embroidery. Hiring only female employees, the business promoted women's economic and cultural independence.

Lily & Lolly: The Forgotten Yeats Sisters© Red Shoe Productions
Lily & Lolly: The Forgotten Yeats Sisters tells the story of Susan (Lily) and Elizabeth (Lolly) Yeats

"The quality of work that they did was incredible," said Imelda. "And how and why they did it, the whole story from start to finish is incredible.

"They did it because they had to. They couldn't feed themselves, so they had to do something about it and then when they did, they did it better than anybody else. 

"They started a whole workforce that was only women. They produced embroidery that was so incredible it was commissioned by the church initially for small projects and then they went off to the Vatican."

While filming at the site of the Yeats sisters' grave, Imelda was moved by its neglected state in comparison to their brother William's, which is surrounded by "coach tours, coffee shops and memorabilia". 

Imelda May in Lily & Lolly: The Forgotten Yeats Sisters© Red Shoe Productions
Imelda was emotional during her visit to Lily and Lolly's grave

"Considering his sisters funded him and gave up their lives to keep the family going, I was really taken aback that it was in tatters and the one thing that got me most was that the lettering had come off," she said.

"They made such beautiful books with beautiful lettering and the fact the grave was falling apart I found really sad. We decided to fix it up and I got all emotional and that was not the plan."

Much like Lily and Lolly's business, the Sky documentary was produced by an all-female team – something that was important to Imelda, who hopes for a more "balanced" view within the world of music and culture. 

Imelda May performing at Cambridge Folk Festival in 2016
© Sky Arts/Phil Carter
Imelda has performed alongside Bono, Ronnie Wood, Noel Gallagher, and Rod Stewart over the years

"I remember there was a moment for me, coming home to Ireland after being away. To find out the information of what had happened, who do you ask? You ask your mother, your grandmother, or your sisters," she said. "That's who gives you the full whack of what's going on. You certainly wouldn't say, 'I want to hear only from the men in this room, I want to hear no women speak,' because it wouldn't be a balanced view."

"It's not saying that anybody's what the men are saying aren't true, but it's just not balanced. I'm not getting the whole story. That's what's happened within culture and history, is we're getting one side of it and it's not the full picture," she continued.

"Women have always been writing. Women have always been creating art and music. I want to see a balanced view of the art world and history and culture and I want to hear from the women as well as the men."

Lily & Lolly: The Forgotten Yeats Sisters airs on Sky Arts, Freeview and NOW on March 8 at 8pm.

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