We had been advised to spend the first five minutes of the exam perusing the paper, marking off our choice of questions. I spent the first fifteen minutes of my Leaving Certificate English exam in a state of shock when I discovered that William Butler Yeats, my poet of choice, was nowhere to be found on the paper. Shock developed into panic as I searched frantically for the missing question. Beads of panic sweat joined the beads of thermo-regulatory sweat on my forehead: the state examinations have a tendency to coincide with a heat wave.
I glanced at the girl in front of me hoping that my Yeats page was stuck in her exam paper but all I saw was a focused student who thrust herself into the task. Had I known that she would complete a PhD in English and become a published author I would not have compared my panic with her composure. For me, the unbelievable had happened. After only studying WB Yeats – he was guaranteed to appear on exam papers every second year – he was replaced with a poet whom I’ve buried in my subconscious. It was my first venture in gambling and I should have spread the bet (i.e. studied more).
You can’t blame me for betting my future on the twentieth century’s greatest writer, Irish Parliamentary Senator, Nobel Prize winner and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, the National Theatre of Ireland. WB Yeats was born in Dublin on 13th June 1865 and spent much of his childhood holidays in his mother’s native county Sligo, a region which provided much inspiration for his later work and is his final resting place.*
What has WB Yeats got to do with a travel blog post? Plenty! The Yeats Country trail is an engaging tour of the places of importance in WB’s life. You can begin the trail anywhere but we started in Coole Park, near Gort in County Galway which was home to Lady Augusta Gregory, a life-long friend of WB’s, fellow writer and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre. It was at Coole Park that Yeats and the heavyweights of the Irish Literary Revival regularly met, and evidence of their visits are visible on the park’s Autograph Tree into which they carved their initials.
The next stop on our Yeats trail was Thoor Ballylee, a Norman tower-like castle near Coole Park and summer home to Yeats during the 1920s. The museum inside the castle gives an excellent insight into the life of the Nobel Prize winner. 2015 saw the 150th anniversary of Yeats’ birth and Thoor Ballylee opened its doors to the public for the writer’s birthday celebrations.
Next stop on the trail is County Sligo, the heart of Yeats country. The Sligo County Museum has a selection of artefacts covering many facets of Yeats’ life but head for the Lough Gill region to see the landscape which inspired much of his poetry. Here you will find Innisfree, the lake isle of Yeats’ most recited poem of all. Glencar Waterfall and Dooney Rock are also in this area. The poem “Down by the Sally Gardens” was inspired by a song Yeats heard in Ballisodare, a village south of Sligo town. Another site on the Yeats Country Trail is Lissadell House in Balinfull in North Sligo. It was during his childhood WB and his artist brother Jack B met Constance Gore-Booth (aka Countess Markiewicz), a leading figure in the Irish independence, workers and suffragette movements, the first woman MP elected to the British Parliament, and one of the first female government ministers in the world. Our final stop on the Yeats Country Trail was Drumcliffe Church and Graveyard where Yeats is buried. Although he died in France in 1939 his remains were returned to Drumcliffe in 1948 with the following thought-provoking epitaph on his gravestone as per his burial instructions in the poem “Under Ben Bulben”:
Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by
Yeats’ literary work is impressive on its own earning him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, Ireland’s first Nobel recipient. The ten years previous to his Nobel Prize were ones of political and social upheaval in Ireland with an unsuccessful but influential rebellion (1916 Rising), a War of Independence (1919-1921) and Civil War (1922-1923). Whilst Yeats was a nationalist he was a cultural revolutionary eschewing violence believing in the power of words over weapons and that from the arts a national identity for an independent Ireland could be formed. Possibly his greatest poem, September 1913, demonstrates this best and is a hopping-mad criticism of a lazy, corrupt and cowardly element in Irish society. The expression “fumble in a greasy till” is still used today in Ireland in reference to corruption.
What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save;
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
September 1913 (Verse 1)
The Yeats Country Trail covers the landscape which inspired Yeats but he drew inspiration from another source: Maud Gonne, his muse. The unrequited love story filled pages with timeless poems of lyrical beauty and diverse emotions. After multiple proposals from Yeats, Maud Gonne married fellow militant nationalist Major John MacBride and lived unhappily ever after. MacBride was later executed for his part in the 1916 Rising. In an unbelievable twist of fate, the Irish Government Minister responsible for the operation to re-inter Yeats’ remains from France to Drumcliffe was Sean MacBride, son of Maud Gonne, and also a Nobel Prize winner (1974 – Peace Prize).
Yeats’ legacy is immense and I often wonder if the importance of the arts in Irish society and identity is an impact of Yeats’ literary and non-literary work. The ultimate validation for an Irish writer is inclusion on the Leaving Certificate school syllabus, although the jury is out on whether this removes the enjoyment factor. Yeats gambled on Maud Gonne and I gambled on Yeats. Both of us were disappointed. To paraphrase Yeats, my own life up to that point was a preparation for something that never happened. But Yeats’ loss is the literary world’s gain. Great poetry can be born of much torment and I’ll leave you with the words of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who, in the 19th century, was of a similar opinion:
“What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music.”
Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or
Check out my Planning a Trip to Ireland post for other destinations in Yeats’ home country.
* NOTE: Approximately 1 month after publishing the original version of this post it was confirmed that the remains in Drumcliffe are not those of WB Yeats. Further information can be found in this Irish Times article.