Gleeson, Evelyn (1855–1944), designer, was born 15 May 1855 in Knutsford, Cheshire, the daughter of Irish-born Edward Moloney Gleeson, a medical doctor. Her father had a practice in Knutsford but on a trip to Ireland he was struck by the poverty and unemployment and, with the advice of his brother-in-law, a textile manufacturer in Lancashire, he founded the Athlone woollen mills in 1859, investing all his money in the project. The family moved to Athlone in 1863 but Evelyn was educated in England, where she trained as a teacher and later studied portraiture in London at the Atelier Ludovici, in 1890–92. She went on to study design with Alexander Millar, a follower of William Morris, who thought that she had an exceptional aptitude for colour-blending. Many of her designs were bought by the exclusive Templeton Carpets of Glasgow.
She took a keen interest in Irish affairs and, as a member of the Gaelic League and the Irish Literary Society, mixed with the Yeats family and the Irish artistic circle in London, and was inspired by the revival of Irish ideals in art and literature. She was also involved in the suffrage movement and was chairwoman of the Pioneers, a women's club in London. In 1900 an opportunity arose to make a practical contribution to the Irish renaissance and the emancipation of Irish women. She was suffering from ill-health but her friend Augustine Henry (qv), botanist and linguist, suggested she move away from the London smog to Ireland and open a craft centre with his financial assistance. She seized the opportunity and discussed her plans with her friends the Yeats sisters, Elizabeth (qv) and Susan (qv), who were talented craftswomen and had direct contact with William Morris and his followers. They had no money to contribute to the venture but were enthusiastic and could offer their skills and provide contacts. She sought advice from W. B. (qv) and Jack Yeats (qv), from Henry (who lent her £500), and from her cousin T. P. Gill (qv), secretary of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction.
During the summer of 1902 she found a suitable house in Dundrum, Co. Dublin, ten minutes from the railway station. The house, originally called Runnymede, was renamed Dun Emer, after the wife of Cú-Chulainn (qv), renowned for her craft skills. The printing press arrived in November 1902, and soon three craft industries were in operation. Susan Yeats ran the embroidery section, since she had trained with Morris's daughter; Elizabeth Yeats operated the press, having learned printing at the Women's Printing Society in London; and Gleeson managed the weaving and tapestry, and looked after the financial affairs of the industries. W. B. Yeats acted as literary adviser, an arrangement that often caused friction, and Gleeson's sister, Constance McCormack was also involved.
Local girls were employed and trained, and the industries sought to use the best of Irish materials to make beautiful, high-quality, lasting products of original design. Church patronage accounted for most of their orders and in 1902–3 Loughrea cathedral commissioned twenty-four embroidered banners portraying Irish saints. They also made vestments, traditional dresses, drapes, cushions and other items, all beautifully crafted and mostly employing Celtic design. The first book published was In the seven woods (1903), by W. B. Yeats, cased in full Irish linen.
Gleeson was in demand as an adjudicator in craft competitions around the country and at Feis na nGleann in 1904 she praised the workmanship of the entries but was critical of the lack of teaching in design. She gave lectures and tried to raise the status of craftwork from household occupation to competitive industry. There were tensions with the Yeats sisters, who complained that she was bad-tempered and arrogant. In truth she had taken on too much of a financial burden, even with the support of grants, and she was anxious to repay her debt to Augustine Henry (which he was prepared to forego). The sisters snubbed her, and omitted her name in an interview about Dun Emer in the magazine House Beautiful. Millar, her design teacher in London, likened the omission to Hamlet without the prince. In 1904 it was decided to split the industries on a cooperative basis: Dun Emer Guild Ltd under Gleeson and Dun Emer Industries Ltd under the Yeatses.
Work continued, and the guild and industries exhibited separately at the RDS and oireachtas crafts competitions. In 1907 the National Museum commissioned a copy of a Flemish tapestry; it took far longer than anticipated to complete, but the result was beautiful and was exhibited at the Arts and Crafts Society (1910). The guild won a silver medal at the International Exhibition in Milan in 1906. The guild and industries both showed work at the New York Exhibition of 1908; the guild alone showed work in Boston. By now cooperation had turned to rivalry, and there was a final split as the Yeats sisters left, taking the printing press with them to their house in Churchtown. Gleeson wrote off a debt of £185 owed to her, on condition that they did not use the name Dun Emer.
The business thrived at Dundrum, with her niece Katherine MacCormack and May Kerley assisting with design. Later they moved the workshops to Hardwicke Street, Dublin. Gleeson became one of the first members of the Guild of Irish Art Workers, in 1909, and was made master in 1917. The Irish Women Workers’ Union commissioned a banner from her about 1919, and, among numerous other notable successes, a Dun Emer carpet was presented to Pope Pius XI in 1932, the year of the Eucharistic Congress. She died at Dun Emer 20 February 1944, aged eighty-nine.