We stood in the Drumcliff cemetery in County Sligo, shadowed by Ireland’s famous mountain Ben Bulben, gazing down at the famous poet’s grave. One of my fellow travelers asked uncertainly, “So was he a bit of a creep?”
We’d heard a lot about William Butler Yeats in the preceding days, including that when he visited a young lady at Lissadell House she’d locked herself in her room to avoid his randy advances. As is so often the case when learning about the person behind great works of art, we’d encountered just that: a person. Flawed, intriguing, and exhibiting facets edited out of his artistic works.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “Kind of a creep.” But vitally important, nevertheless. Wandering County Sligo in Ireland gave us the opportunity to contemplate the life and times of poet Yeats.
Yeats, An Overview
Ireland loves Yeats, and Yeats loved Ireland. Born in 1865 and descended from Anglican rectors, he was fiercely committed to his Irish nationality, despite the fact that most members of his Protestant, Anglo-Irish minority considered themselves more English than Irish. In 1923, he became the island’s first Nobel Prize winner.
“Do you know Yeats?” several Irish people asked hopefully during my travels.
“Of course,” I answered. But not really. I knew the name, but my full knowledge fit into three words: famous Irish poet. So here’s a quick overview of Yeats, if you’re in the same boat I was before my trip.
William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin in 1865. His father traded a law career for art soon after young William’s birth, so the future poet was exposed to art from an early age. Yeats went to art school and published his first poems while still a student. His most famous poems include “Easter 1916,” “The Lake Isle of Inisfree,” and “The Stolen Child.”
Yeats also wrote plays. He dabbled in Theosophy before devoting himself to the occult society known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Obsessed with his unrequited love for revolutionary and suffragette Maud Gonne, he stayed single until he was 53. Then he married young Georgiana Hyde-Lee, with whom he had two children. After years of failing health, he died in France, his wife George and his last mistress taking turns keeping vigil.
A Yeats Dinner in County Sligo
Armed with five minutes of skimming a Yeats poetry collection in a gift shop, I set off for a Yeats dinner in a private home, hoping to keep my ignorance hidden. I needn’t have worried. My host and hostess, Damien J. Brennan and Paula Gilvarry, didn’t embarrass me with a Yeats pop quiz.
The Yeats dinner is a lovely event. Their home overlooks Lough Gill, a lake that figures in four of Yeats’ poems. Diners can step out onto the deck and admire the lake and a small herd of cows. Brennan is a Yeats expert and former Irish tourism executive. Gilvarry is a chef and medical doctor. So whatever happens, they’ve pretty much got it covered.
The night I visited, I sat at a table set for 17. Eight folks from Seattle sat at a smaller table. We all faced the open kitchen, where Gilvarry and her assistants fixed our multiple courses. Brennan regaled us with tales of Yeats and read poems. The couple host at least five lunches or dinners weekly.
Not knowing whether I’d be a Yeats fan or not, I’d worried that a three-hour poetry reading would make my eyes glaze over and my head nod into the soup. But Brennan was a lively entertainer, giving us a few snippets of history and poetry between courses, and plenty of time to digest both the food and the culture.
My favorite part was hearing about Ireland’s fairy lore, which features in Yeats’ poetry. “Anything malevolent that happened was blamed on the fairy folks,” Brennan told us. If a cow died or its milk failed to turn to butter, Brennan explained, “People would ask, ‘What did you do to upset the fairy folks?’” And if a child turned out to have special needs, people claimed the fairy folks had stolen the child’s mind.
The fairies were nearby indeed. Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child” was set right outside the 40-foot floor to ceiling window behind my seat at dinner. I gather these lines are famous in Ireland:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Lissadell House in County Sligo
Yeats was a frequent visitor at Lissadell House, which he described as “gray, square and bare.” But he wasn’t there for the architecture.
He enjoyed calling on Eva Gore-Booth and her sister Constance, who eventually became Countess Markievicz, a leader of the 1916 uprising and the first woman elected to British parliament.
Tour manager Bartle D’Arcy gave us a fascinating tour of a house that’s hard to imagine living in. The rooms are huge and drafty, and the downstairs servants’ areas are especially gloomy. Plus, some former occupant was an amateur taxidermist—the stuffed bear and seal are especially unsettling.
D’Arcy brought the former residents back to life, especially the countess. Constance showed her revolutionary leanings at the age of 11 when she redistributed flour and other foodstuffs from the Lissadell kitchen to less privileged kids. After her role in the uprising, she served time in jail, accompanied by her dog, Poppett.
Of the sisters, Yeats wrote:
The light of evening, Lissadell
Great windows open to the south
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle. …
Eva was the gazelle, D’Arcy said. And she had to be, to outrun the poet’s unwanted advances.
Feet of clay, yes. But those clay feet support a much-beloved literary giant. While in Ireland, I wished I’d boned up on Yeats before my trip. I would have understood the country better, and gained the respect of his 4.6 million local fans. For more information about places to see, stay and dine in County Sligo and the rest of Ireland, visit the Irish Tourism Board online at Discover Ireland.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with travel, accommodations and some meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.