I’ve just returned from visiting ‘Yeats Country’, namely, Co. Sligo on the west coast of Ireland, following in the poet William Butler Yeats’ footsteps. Yeats had a very varied life; he was: a poet and a playwright; interested in theosophy and the occult; a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin; appointed Senator in the first Irish Senate in 1922; a lover of Irish myth and folklore; and passionately involved with a number of women. Any of these would make an interesting post. However, today, I’m looking at places which stirred his imagination as a child.
W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) by George Charles Beresford
Sligo and the surrounding countryside were dear to Yeats throughout his life. The Yeats family actually lived in London but his artist father, though talented, was rarely able to finish a painting, and, as a result, his maternal Pollexfen grandparents, owners of a successful shipping-line in Sligo, were called on for financial help. As a child, Yeats spent many happy months with his Pollexfen grandparents.
Loch Gill from Dooney Rock. ‘In a sense, Sligo has always been my home,’ Yeats wrote, ‘(I) longed for a sod of earth, from some field I knew, something of Sligo to hold in my hand.’
Looking at the map, Sligo appears to have a large natural harbour but appearances are deceptive. When we visited, the rain was slanting down, the wind cut you in two and my fingers swiftly turned white. Yeats enthusiast Adrian O’Neill was our guide and I was not surprised to learn that over sixty ships had gone down here in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Rosses Point, looking across to Oyster Island on the right and Mount Knockarea in the distance
There are treacherous currents, razor-sharp underwater rocks, and storms from the Atlantic can send huge waves surging down the channel between Oyster Island and Rosses Point. Woe betide any ship that ignored the 1819 Metal Man beacon on Perch Rock in the channel which pointed ships away from the hazardous rocks by Dead Man’s Point to safer waters.
The Metal Man beacon with Coney Island behind. The Metal Man was cast in 1819 and painted to represent a Royal Navy Able Seaman of that date. He is pointing towards the safe passage for ships
But I could also see why the young Yeats loved it. The local fishermen had stories to tell of smuggling (tobacco from the West Indies), piracy and ghosts as well as tales of fierce storms, heroism and tragedy. There were other stories, too, of the Sidhe (pronounced Shee), the fairy people, who lived under the hills.
Pilot House, Rosses Point. Yeats wrote: ‘The place, close to the Deadman’s point at the Rosses where the disused Pilot House looks out to sea through two round eyes like windows.’ Rumour had it that the pilot also signalled to smugglers waiting to land an illegal cargo.
Opposite Oyster Island a poignant statue of a young women stands with arms outstretched, looking out to sea. She represents all those women whose menfolk never returned.
Our guide, Adrian O’Neill, studies the inscription. If the photo is a bit fuzzy, it’s because my fingers were numb with cold.
The young Yeats also frequented Lough Gill, to the east of Sligo, and one of the places he visited was the Holy Well at Tobernalt, which is a natural spring, sacred since pre-Christian times, with a healing stone just below the well. Recently, the holy well was ‘brought up to date’ by the Roman Catholic church with fifteen ‘stations’, holy statues etc, and it attracts hundreds of pilgrims. It looks nothing like it did when Yeats knew it and it took some ingenuity to photograph it without the modern encumbrances.
Tobernalt holy well
The holy well was incorporated into Christianity early on, and on Garland Day, the last Sunday in July, it is the focus of a Christian festival. The date is also the ancient Celtic festival of Lughnasa, which marks the beginning of the harvest season.
The sacred tree
Just behind the well is a sacred tree, in Irish, bilte, where people tie small strips of material for good luck, or to make a wish. I have seen similar trees in Scotland, where they are known as clootie trees.
Dooney Rock: Yeats wrote: ‘When I play my fiddle in Dooney/ Folks dance like a wave of the sea,’recalling a blind fiddler who used to play there every Sunday.
Nearby is Dooney Rock, a dramatic geological collision where the 75 million-year-old gneiss rock from the Ox Mountains meets the much younger limestone. The floor is carpeted with leaf litter. I had to climb up fifteen feet or so to the ledge you can see in the photograph. It was fine going up but coming down was another matter – the leaf litter floor was slippery and, in the end, I slid down inelegantly on my bottom, using my hands as paddles.
The trees in Dooney Wood
Wandering down the footpath to the lough has a quiet magic of its own; the leaves were still a fresh green and you could see through the trees.
Looking across Lough Gill
A path takes you along the lough side. The views are spectacular but, only partially visible, which adds to their magic. Ungainly herons perch on small islets. As Yeats put it: ‘There lies a leafy island/ Where flapping herons wake’. We did indeed see a heron.
What struck me time and again on this trip was how many people we met who loved Yeats’ poetry and could quote him at length. Love of Yeats’ poetry seems to be in the Irish DNA. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, his citation read: For his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation. This is obviously still true today.
Parkes Castle from the boat on Lough Gill. The weather is still sunny – a state of affairs which did not last long.
A day or so later, we took a boat trip round Lough Gill starting at Parkes Castle on the opposite shore to Tobernalt; and the pilot pointed out various places of interest – accompanied by a suitable Yeats’ quotation. He obviously assumed that we, too, knew the poems because, every now and then, he’d stop and expect us to fill in the missing word – which we did. But, alas, the weather changed and, much though I wanted to stay up on the open deck, cold and wet eventually drove me downstairs to shelter from the elements. I peered out past the raindrops running down the window, hoping to see the Lake Isle of Innisfree.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree?
The pilot’s view was that the actual island was more imaginary than real, and he pointed out a wooded island which might – or might not – have been Yeats’ Innisfree. This time, he wasn’t going to recite the poem to us himself – he would leave that to Yeats who recorded it a year or so before his death. There was a click and then we heard Yeats’ voice, a slow, gravelly monotone with a lot of hissing in the background. It could have been monotonous, but it wasn’t. Instead, it was hypnotic.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, / And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made: / Nine bean-rows will I have there; a hive for the honey-bee, /And live alone in the bee-loud glade….
Glencar waterfall. There is a smaller waterfall downstream.
Later, we went to Glencar Waterfall, of which Yeats wrote: There is a waterfall… that all my childhood counted dear’ and he often re-visited it.
‘Where the wandering water gushes/ From the hills above Glencar/ In pools among the rushes/ That scarce could bathe a star/ We seek for slumbering trout/ And whispering in their ears/ Give them unquiet dreams.’
There had been a lot of rain and the rivers were in spate – the waterfall plunged over the rocks and the ‘pools’ now swirled fiercely with agitated water. It wasn’t a place for ‘slumbering trout’ – perhaps another day.
Benbulben dominates the landscape in Sligo and you can almost always see its distinctive profile: limestone base, with 90 ms of black shale – rich in fossils – topped by more limestone.
Finally, we went to Drumcliffe, which lies under the shadow of Benbulben, where Yeats is buried. He died in the south of France in 1939 and requested that he be buried at Drumcliffe where his grandfather was once rector. His body was moved here in 1948.
St Columba’s church door at Drumcliffe.
A pair of brass swan door handles, a gift from the Yeats Society of Perth, Australia, make a dramatic statement on going into the church. They are a reminder of Yeats’ love of Irish Mute swans which can always be seen on the nearby loughs – they don’t migrate.
6th Century High Cross depicting, from the top down: a possible Last Judgement, Daniel in the lion’s den, David slaying Goliath, a lion, and Adam and Eve. Photograph by Britta Dwyer
Drumcliffe was originally the site of a monastery, set up in the 6th century by St Colum Cille (Columba), and a beautifully carved high cross stands behind the church
Yeats’ grave. It lies immediately outside the church door. There was a steady stream of visitors while we were there.
He wrote his own epitaph, which reads:
Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death
Horseman, pass by!
W. B. Yeats
June 13th 1865
January 28th 1939
It reminded me of the epitaph on the poet John Keats’ grave in Rome: Here lies one whose name was writ in water. Both reflect the transitory nature of human life. Neither poet has been forgotten.
Elizabeth travelled with Ace Cultural Tours. www.aceculturaltours.co.uk
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