Celebrating 150 years of WB Yeats, the true poet of Easter 1916
Published 12/06/2015 | 10:50
Tomorrow sees the 150th anniversary of the birth of WB Yeats. Dermot Bolger delves behind the public Yeats to visit the sanctuary where he raised his family, and argues that his poem, Easter 1916, should be key to next year’s Rising events
Two months ago, I found myself passing through Gort in Co Galway, on my way home from doing a reading in a school.
It's an area I'm rarely in, and after stumbling across signpost after signpost that all led me down a maze of tiny roads, I fulfilled a life's ambition by finally finding my way to Thoor Ballylee.
This is the tall, fortified, 16th Century tower house into which William Butler Yeats moved his young wife Georgie soon after their marriage, not long after the Easter Rising. He used this ancient tower as a retreat from the world during the next decade, which saw him simultaneously experience horror and joy.
The public horror he witnessed occurred with the advent of the Irish Civil War. He observed the caustic bitterness of this divisive conflict and chronicled its pulse of "great hatred, little room" from the perspective of this restored tower.
Despite the oak doors and high walls of Thoor Ballylee, Yeats knew that his young family was not safe here. As a poet who had engaged for decades in the task of trying to imaginatively shape the type of independent Ireland that might come into being, he was determined to play a role in this new Ireland by taking the dangerous decision to become an outspoken member of the first Free State Senate.
Between 1922 and 1928, the Senate functioned as the necessary de-facto opposition needed to make any democracy work, until de Valera led his Fianna Fail party into the Dail.
Senators such as Yeats did this despite an anti-Treaty campaign of violence against them that included kidnapping, attempted assassinations and 37 senators having their homes burnt down.
De Valera declared himself not opposed to arson attacks on senators, "particularly if these burnings are done efficiently". Even his fanatic former muse, Maud Gonne, tried to instigate attempts to burn out the Yeats family, according to letters from Georgie.
But if Yeats witnessed public trauma from his tower, he experienced great private joy there too. A daughter, Anne, arrived in 1919, followed by a son, Michael, in 1921. A new family were being born alongside the new nation.
Not that Yeats was much of a conventional father - perpetually engaged with poetry, politics, the theatre or the occult, and not adverse to finding solace in the arms of rich female admirers when he left his young family behind in Dublin or in this extraordinarily beautiful Galway tower.
But even if Yeats thought that "playdates" were treats for philandering 60-year-old poets rather than for seven-year-olds a father dutifully collects, Thoor Ballylee was still a sanctuary where he and his young family found refuge and peace.
Stumbling across it, with its idyllic bridge and adjoining small thatched cottage, I knew I was standing in a scared spot. Lovers of literature across the globe long to make a pilgrimage here one day and stand, like I did, gazing up at the tower in which Yeats wrote some of his greatest poems.
Many who have travelled long distances in recent years will no doubt have been as shocked, as I was, to find the tower was not open.
Thankfully, plans are in place to re-open this iconic building to the public from Sunday, thanks to the fundraising work of an energetic local committee.
This month, €10,000 was raised at a special auction of memorabilia relating to Yeats, held on the roof of Thoor Ballylee itself.
The main attraction was a first edition of the autobiography written by Maud Gonne, the woman once accused of plotting to burn the roof over the poet's family's head.
The re-opening of Thoor Ballylee this weekend is appropriate because tomorrow sees the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Nobel Prize- winning poet.
It is also apt because anniversaries are about healing.
In 1966, the hand of his old adversary, De Valera, could be seen in how any public reading of Yeats' great poem, Easter 1916, was banned from official commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Rising.
Back then, Yeats was still regarded as being as politically suspect as Sean O'Casey, whose classic 1916 play The Plough and the Stars was also banished from official events.
The irony is that Yeats is the true poet of 1916, in that he lived long enough to write poems celebrating Roger Casement, The O'Rahilly, Connolly and others he admired.
Next year his deeply considered works should be central to any celebrations of the 100th anniversary.
Seamus Heaney once described Thoor Ballylee as the most important structure in Ireland. In truth, it is a toss-up between this and the Joyce Tower in Dublin.
What each has in common is that literary pilgrims have travelled to them recently and been stunned to find them closed.
The Joyce Tower is now open, thanks to the great work of volunteers who freely staff it. From this weekend Thoor Ballylee will be open (for the summer at least), thanks to the Trojan efforts the local committee.
Huge work needs to be done at Thoor Ballylee after bad flooding some years ago.
However, if we are to truly honour one of the great figures of world literature and the 150th anniversary of his birth with more than just a grave and lip service, then Thoor Ballylee is a building that deserves the full support of the State.
No future pilgrim should stand outside it, like I did two months ago, genuinely moved to gaze at its exterior and genuinely excluded from entering those special rooms within.