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 frantically searched 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 heat waves.
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).
WB YEATS TRAIL
What has WB Yeats got to do with a travel blog? Plenty! Not only was Yeats one of the greatest writers of 20th century, he won the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature, became an Irish Parliamentary Senator, and co-founded the Abbey Theatre. In other words, Yeats is a big deal.
WB Yeats was born in Dublin on 13th June 1865 and spent much of his childhood holidays in his mother’s native county of Sligo, a region which provided much inspiration for his later work. The WB Yeats trail I write about here incorporates more than just the Sligo sites.
You can begin the trail anywhere but we started in Coole Park, near Gort in County Galway. Coole Park 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. 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.
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. 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. Countess Markiewicz was the first woman to be elected to the British Parliament, and was one of the first female government ministers in the world.
Our final stop on the WB Yeats trail was Drumcliffe Church and Graveyard where Yeats is buried. Although Yeats 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
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. He believed 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 scathing criticism of a lazy, corrupt and cowardly element in Irish society. The expression fumble in a greasy till is still used today in Ireland with 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.
The WB Yeats 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).
However, soon 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.
THE LEGACY OF WB YEATS
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.