Yeats Country: The land of heart's desire
Sligo, Leitrim, Galway
Published 09/05/2015 | 00:00
Independent.ie travel editor Pól Ó Conghaile visits the Sligo, Leitrim and Galway of WB Yeats's poetry
You'd find it hard cramming a cabin onto Innisfree.
This iconic isle, elevated to almost mythical status thanks to its starring role in one of WB Yeats's most famous poems, is in reality no more than a quarter-acre hump poking out of Lough Gill. Tough trees sprout from its mound. A thin concrete jetty is barely visible on its shore.
When Yeats wrote 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', he was a young man living in London. His journey there was one of the imagination, his vows to build a cabin of clay and wattles, erect bean rows and a beehive and enjoy "lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore" mere metaphors.
The poem travelled far and wide. It trips off every schoolchild's tongue. But the isle itself is almost always completely deserted.
"When I reached the lakeshore, I found the opposite of a tourist site," as Russel Shorto wrote recently after making a pilgrimage to Innisfree for The New York Times's travel section. "I could barely make my way out to the water to get a view, so thick was the shoreline with trees and brush."
Glencar Waterfall, as featured in 'The Stolen Child'
The best bit? This sense of discovery, of a romantic landscape untouched, out-of-the-way and off-radar to all but the most intrepid tourists is not confined to this microscopic island. It's the nature of Yeats Country itself.
Sligo was Yeats's 'Land of Heart's Desire'. He spent much of his childhood here - including summer holidays at Rosses Point. This is the landscape in which he grew up, which inspired much of his poetry, and in which he was laid to rest. And yet - compared to Shakespeare's Stratford Upon Avon, say or Joyce's Dublin - it is barely known beyond these shores.
Not far from Innisfree, you'll find Hazelwood demesne. With its picnic tables and preening ducks, this is the spot where Yeats set 'The Song of Wandering Aengus', a poem read by Michael Gambon in a short film commissioned by Tourism Ireland for the Yeats 2015 celebrations (yeats2015.com). Last time I visited, it was completely empty.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of Lough Gill, driving along the R287 towards Ballintogher, visitors can pull in at a car park by Dooney forest. A charming little woodland bowl here is dominated by Dooney Rock, plonked like a meteorite in the middle of everything. The place evokes 'The Fiddler of Dooney', whose music had folk dancing "like a wave of the sea".
Perhaps the two most recognisable natural wonders from Yeats's poetry are Glencar Waterfall and the awesome Benbulben Mountain.
Ben Bulben in Sligo
The waterfall, a short walk from Glencar Lake, dunks 50 feet or so down into a horseshoe-shaped pool. This is the place "Where the wandering water gushes / From the hills above Glen-Car / In pools among the rushes / That scarce could bathe a star", as Yeats wrote in 'The Stolen Child'.
Benbulben, overlooking Sligo Bay, is a showstopper. Carved by moving glaciers, it's one of the Wild Atlantic Way's most distinctive landmarks, though not the place for a casual climb (it can literally be sheathed in mist within the space of 20 minutes). Better to pull off the N15 and park at Gortarowey Forest, walking the foothills of its northern face.
Just a short drive away, Yeats himself lies buried in the small cemetery at Drumcliff. The inscription on his headstone is as simple as it is startling: "Cast a cold Eye / On life, on Death. / Horseman pass by."
Yeats isn't just associated with Sligo and Leitrim, of course. His drama is indelibly associated with Dublin's Abbey Theatre, there's an exhibition dedicated to his life and work at the National Library, and he and his family spent several summers at Thoor Ballylee, a 14th-century tower the poet bought and restored near Gort, Co. Galway.
Happily, Thoor Ballylee will soon open to visitors (as we go to press, efforts are underway to establish a Cultural Centre dedicated to Yeats and his literary legacy - see more at yeatsthoorballylee.org). You can also pop into the nearby Coole Park (coolepark.ie), Lady Augusta Gregory's former country estate and a place Yeats loved to visit. At the heart of it, a copper beech known as the Autograph Tree features the poet's carved initials.
Back in Sligo town, a short walk throws up several nuggets connected to Yeats's family. His parents were married at the Church of Ireland Cathedral, several of his brother Jack's paintings are found at The Model arts centre, and displays on Yeats himself can be seen in the Yeats Memorial Building and the Sligo County Museum.
Look out for Rowan Gillespie's bronze sculpture of Yeats outside the Ulster Bank building too, wrapped in his own words.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree is just the beginning.
With the 150th anniversary of Yeats's birth approaching, there's no better time to arise and go to the enchanting countryside that inspired him.