Tuesday 12 November 2019

A society fit for a superstar

Fireside poetry readings, a summer school and a priceless archive: the Yeats Society is on a mission to spread the word of WB, writes Graham Clifford

Members of Sligo Yeats Society, Sligo, Maura McTighe and Niamh Devaney, at the Yeats Building, Sligo
Members of Sligo Yeats Society, Sligo, Maura McTighe and Niamh Devaney, at the Yeats Building, Sligo
Artist Nick Purdy at work on a Yeats mural in Sligo.
The Yeats Building in Sligo.

Outside the large old windows Sligo is waking at pace. Trucks search for parking spaces, taxis dart by and locals go about their morning.

But inside the former bank, now home to the Yeats Society beside Hyde Bridge, we sit quietly in a semi-circle by the open peat fire watching the dancing flames.

It's Wednesday morning and here during the year the Yeats Poetry Circle sees locals gather to read aloud the great man's works - but also the masterpieces of others blessed with the ability to mould words into timeless passages.

I'm kindly welcomed into the group by local lady Paula Lahif - today the theme is the poetry of rural life and country living. I take my seat, look up at the high ceilings and, surrounded by pictures of Yeats, clear my head of unnecessary thoughts.

Someone has just finished reading Patrick Kavanagh's 'The Great Hunger'. A discussion on how the smell of cut grass evokes memories of youth and home flows before another beautiful poem - 'A Nun takes a Veil' by Bernard O'Donoghue is read with respect and care. We discuss the importance of poetry to the young and of its impact on the mind and soul.

"In many ways I see it as the saviour of the country, there's huge healing in poetry. It's like a good sermon in the church," says Mary O'Donnell.

For an hour or more every Wednesday morning poetry enthusiasts, some of them poets in their own right such as Andrew Hegarty, Dermot Lahif and Frank L Ludwig, take time out to read their favourite pieces here and share the beautiful word. They take a break during the summer and resume again in the autumn.

"It's a wonderful way to spend a morning and we'll read anything from the profane to the spiritual!" jokes Brían O'Sullebhán.

In many ways this is the perfect introduction to the Yeats Society. Nothing can beat the living, breathing embodiment of the great man's work as seen around that peat fire. He's partly, some would say largely, responsible for making Sligo Ireland's poetry capital and this year the Society plan to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Yeats's birth in some style.

"Of course it's a very important year for us as a society and for Sligo as a town. It's impossible when thinking about Yeats to separate Sligo from the poet. It inspired him so much of course," explains Martin Enright, President of the Yeats Society.

And Maura McTighe, who has been involved with the society for over 30 years and is currently the Chair of the Summer School Committee eloquently sums up Yeats's relationship with this beautiful part of the north-west.

Over coffee in Lily's and Lolly's café, part of the Yeats Memorial building, she tells me: "Sligo in a sense owns Yeats… as Yeats in his own way owned Sligo."

In this special year for the town, one of Yeats's poems is read every day at 1pm in Hargadon's pub on Sligo's O'Connell Street. In its own way it's a simple but symbolic gesture of recognition and the daily ritual is attracting large crowds.

With Yeats in its DNA Sligo, through the work of the Yeats Society, aims to not only educate the world of his amazing body of work but attract visitors to the area so they can see for themselves the countryside that inspired Yeats.

"You see Yeats's grandfather was born in Sligo. His father John Butler Yeats courted Susan Pollexfen in nearby Bundoran and Rosses Point and fell in love and married here in 1863. While William himself was neither born here nor died here, his heart belonged in Sligo. To understand Yeats, students and readers of his poetry need to understand Sligo," says Martin Enright.

Established in 1958 the Yeats Society has grown in strength year-on-year ever since. While its original purpose was to organise a Yeats Summer School, the first of which took place in late August 1960, it has been an invaluable source of information and resources for Yeats scholars and students.

A simple browse through the amazing Yeats picture photography collection can captivate. The Society's library includes more than 3,000 titles and 54 years of audio-visual archive which is available to scholars for research purposes - and the Yeats Art Gallery is open to the public all year round for local, national and international exhibitions.

And the Society continues to focus on the future working with students at IT Sligo and the recently formed Young Yeats group to promote the poet's work and help maintain his legacy. Like Yeats himself, the Society dedicated to his memory has become part of the fabric of this historic and rich coastal Irish town.

WB & Me

Dave Fanning


I studied English in University College Dublin and worked as an English teacher in Walkinstown for a short period of about 18 months, before joining Radio Dublin.

There are references to Yeats and his poetry all around us, in movies and music, in political speeches and even in the Marvel comics. He has been a source of inspiration for songwriters, film-makers and writers all over the world. Yeats tends to have a presence, rather than an influence in, many songs and movies.

You’d be surprised where you would see references to Yeats. There are a lot of “slouching towards Bethlehem” references in the movies and even in the Star Trek e-books. And of course, Woody Allen stole from Yeats left, right and centre.

The Smiths were the biggest rock band of the 80s and even though Morrissey would have been much more Oscar Wilde, he mentioned Yeats and Keats in his song ‘Cemetary Gates’ which was really important for a lot of people of a particular generation.

Irish Independent

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