The Magic of Yeats Country Lives On

Summer school students, including Bridget English, second from left, outside McGarrigle’s Pub on O’Connell Street in Sligo
Summer school students, including Bridget English, second from left, outside McGarrigle’s Pub on O’Connell Street in Sligo

By Bridget English, Editorial Assistant
February / March 2008

For almost fifty years now, Sligo has played host to the Yeats International Summer School, a two-week program featuring readings, performances, and lectures by respected academics on W.B. Yeats’ life and work. The school attracts students of varying ages and backgrounds from a multitude of countries who are drawn together by their love of the poet’s work.

As early as 1913 the poet W.B. Yeats declared, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone. It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” To many living in Celtic Tiger Ireland these lines have never seemed truer.

The new prosperity has most definitely touched the town of Sligo where the strikingly modern architecture of The Glass House Hotel juts out onto the River Garavogue like a great glass ship. But just across the street, standing in contrast, is a stately old brick building dedicated to the life of Ireland’s most famous poet. It is here that a group of over one hundred students, professors and lecturers from around the world gather for the Yeats International Summer School, and where, at least for two weeks every summer, the Ireland of Yeats’ poetry is very much alive.

The Yeats Memorial Building, filled with letters and photographs of the poet’s life and work, is an ideal place for the study of all things Yeats. And the town, despite its modern trappings, remains the most genial and magical of settings.

Sligo was the beloved vacation spot of the poet’s childhood (his great-grand-father was rector of the parish of Drumcliff, where Yeats is now buried) and served as the site for most of his folklore collecting and as the inspiration for many of his poems. And from my very first night, when a local man told me I was “with the fairies” because he doubted something I’d said, I knew that this town was different from others I’d visited on my journeys through the Irish countryside.

Yeats quotes are festooned about the town where hotels, pubs and restaurants are named after the poet. Altogether the place has an underlying whimsy, a sense of folktale and fairies. In my boarding- house on the edge of town, I awoke in the mornings to grazing sheep staring at me through the bedroom window. In the kitchen, even the dish soap bore the image of a winking fairy.

Though Yeats prophesied the loss of “Romantic Ireland” he helped create the concept of a poetic Ireland. He distinguished Irish literature from English and declared it had a unique origin and power.

The Yeats Summer School attracts not only Irish and American devotees of the poet but fans from around the world.

This past summer school, which marked the 48th, happened over two weeks in July, and was no different. Students came from India, Italy, Germany, Canada, Greece, Serbia, Cyprus, and as far away as Korea, China and Japan.

In fact, one of the most rewarding aspects of the summer school was meeting these students and witnessing the reach of Yeats’ poetry and the affection with which he is held around the world.

An evening of Irish dancing in Strandhill, a nearby seaside town, was made all the more memorable by the exchange of cultures. In the midst of “mingling hands and mingling glances” conversations abounded with references to the poet and his work, and when the musicians opened up the microphone to anyone who wanted to sing a song, a professor from India sang a Yeats poem in Hindi, an American woman sang a Shaker song, and a young Irish man sang a song in Irish.

The School

Each day at the Yeats School included two lectures in the morning and a seminar in the late afternoon that pertained to the poet’s life and work. But our days were not exclusively spent in lecture halls; our afternoon breaks left us free to wander Sligo’s cobblestone streets, take day trips to Carrowmore, the megathic tombs and to Lissadell, the home of the Goore-Booths, where Yeats often stayed.

On a particularly sunny day, Professor Maureen Murphy, Associate Director of the Summer School, whose seminar on Yeats and Folklore greatly enhanced my knowledge of Ireland’s mythical history, took a group of students, myself included, to climb Knocknarea, the hill at the top of which Queen Maeve is said to be buried.

“The winds have bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea / And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say.”

These words from Yeats’ “Red Hanrahan’s Song of Ireland” perfectly described the clouds that appeared out of blue skies to gather at the top of Knocknarea. We climbed past the sheep and cows, up the rocky hillside, until the strength of the wind against our cheeks told us we had reached the peak. We were almost high enough to touch the low-hanging clouds that disappeared as mist into the air, and the grave of Queen Maeve, the Celtic warrior queen who once ruled the kingdom of Connaught, was directly in front of us. Though these days historians are doubtful that this mound is truly Maeve’s grave, Yeats did his best to perpetuate the myth by including the place in several of his poems.

From the top of Knocknarea the West of Ireland was visible, laid out in shades of green and gray with the Atlantic Ocean lapping at its edges.

“Under bare Bulben’s Head In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.”

Ben Bulben, immortalized in one of Yeats’ final poems, is a sight to be seen from the top of Knocknerea. However, it was a weekend trip to Thoor Ballylee and Coole Park, that turned out to be the most memorable of my time in Ireland.

Four miles northeast of Gort in County Galway lies Thoor Ballylee. The sixteenth-century tower house was purchased by Yeats in 1916 and served as his summer home for twelve years. It was here that he was inspired to write “The Tower Poems” and “The Winding Stair.”

A surprisingly good negotiator, Yeats bought the abandoned tower for a mere 65 pounds, a bargain even at that time. Isolated, in disrepair, and impossible to heat, Thoor Ballylee was hardly a treasure for anyone but the poet who found not only a refuge but a poetic image here.

Roaming the large rooms, winding my way up the spiral staircases, I came to understand his love of these rooms, the solitude provided by the surrounding woodlands, the beauty of the tiny lake that pooled at one side of the tower. I could easily picture the poet in the grand wicker chair on the second floor with his books spread before him, or pacing up and down the winding stairs, composing his verse. As old, damp and moldy as the tower is, there is also a certain habitable quality, a sense that here, removed from society, surrounded by beauty, a person could live in poetry.

A stop in Coole Park, the 1,000 acre estate once home to Lady Augusta Gregory, a great friend and supporter of Yeats, was also inspirational. Among the grassy lawns and winding paths grows the “autograph tree,” a giant copper beech tree on which famous writers and artists carved their names at the request of Lady Gregory. Yeats himself was the first to carve his initials into the tree with the likes of J.M. Synge, John Masefield, and Sean O’Faolain to follow.

Of particular significance to anyone familiar with Yeats’ poetry are the swans of Coole that swim in the turlough, a unique type of disappearing lake found only in limestone areas of Ireland. We were lucky enough to visit on a day when the lake was present and we gathered at its edge to read a few of Yeats’ poems, “The Wild Swans at Coole” among them. Sadly, there were no swans to be seen at Coole on this day and we were left only with Yeats’ description: “But now they drift on the still water / Mysterious, beautiful; / Among what rushes will they build. / By what lake’s edge or pool / Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day / To find they have flown away?”

Back in Sligo, walking the banks of the Garavogue River at night, a swan, white and mysterious, came paddling through the dark and throwing some magic and otherworldliness into an otherwise unremarkable night. “Have you escaped from Coole?” I asked as it passed by.

I returned to New York, not only with a reading list a mile long and a whole notebook full of notes, but a new vision. My stay in Sligo gave me a chance to see what Yeats saw, and a glimpse into the mind of the poet.

Though the debate continues about the effect Ireland’s economic prosperity has had on its culture, my two weeks at the Yeats Summer School convinced me that Irish literature and mythology still thrive in Yeats Country.

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