Monday 22 January 2018

Lissadell: WB and the spell of the extraordinary sisters

The Sligo estate has a remarkable cache of Yeats material

WB Yeats spent a lot of time at Lissadell House in Sligo.
WB Yeats spent a lot of time at Lissadell House in Sligo.
Eva and Constance Gore Booth at Lissadell House in Sligo.

Anita Guidera

Lissadell House is to throw open its doors to celebrate those who inspired poet WB Yeats and helped steer the course of literary history at the 150th anniversary of the poet's birth on 13 June.

That "old Georgian mansion", beneath "bare Ben Bulben", played a pivotal role in the life of the young Yeats in Sligo, and introduced him to some of the first women who became lifelong influences on his career.

It was home to the Gore Booth sisters, Constance and Eva, who inspired the immortal lines:

The light of evening, Lissadell,

Great windows open

to the south.

Two girls in silk kimonos, both

Beautiful, one a gazelle.

Eddie Walsh, the co-owner of the County Sligo mansion and curator of the upcoming exhibition which will coincide with the celebration of the poet's 150th birthday on 13 June at the house, lists the extraordinary women who will be saluted, including Lady Gregory, Maude Gonne and her daughter, Iseult, Dorothy Wellesley, Margo Ruddock, Olivia Shakespear and George Hyde Lees.

"We want to show the broader picture and the females who inspired him and I think Lissadell has a special significance in terms of feminism as it was home to one of the first Irish women to be involved in the Irish Suffragette movement," he explains.

Since purchasing and restoring Lissadell House, Eddie Walsh and Constance Cassidy have consciously set out to acknowledge and celebrate its famous residents and guests, many of whom were significant figures in Irish political, social and artistic life during and after the formation of the Irish state.

Most famous of all of course was Yeats who as a child, holidaying in Sligo, would visit occasionally with his brother Jack for cricket matches and horse racing.

After befriending Constance Gore Booth in London's Bloomsbury set he gained access to Lissadell's grand interior, even staying there for an extended time between 1894 and 1895, when he was given his own room on the first floor.

"He came back to Sligo for this six month period and re-engaged with his roots, finding his creativity and imagination, after which he produced some of his most magical and poetic works," explained Eddie Walsh.

Today, the Yeats Gallery at Lissadell, opened by Leonard Cohen in 2010, houses what is considered to be one of the most significant collections, from the first published poems of a teenage Yeats in Dublin University Reviews to what was probably the last letter ever written by him.

But it is the deeply poignant photograph of the ailing poet, on his deathbed in Hotel Ideal Sejour in Menton in France, a white cat on his lap, that for Eddie Walsh, is the jewel in the crown.

The picture taken shortly before the poet's death on 28 January 1939, was discovered tucked among the pages of 'John Sherman and Dhoya' an early publication by the poet, which had been given to Belfast poet, RND Wilson by Yeats' widow, George Hyde Lees on his death and is now part of the collection at Lissadell.

"This is just a lovely, lovely picture and it is so important because it was a new image that had never previously been seen," explains Mr Walsh.

"What gives it added resonance is that the cat was called Minnaloushe, the same name as Iseult Gonne's cat which suggests that even as he is lying there towards the end he has named a cat after a person so deeply and intimately connected with him in his past."

Among the most recent acquisitions is the table from Coole Park where Yeats would have dined so often with Lady Gregory.

Lissadell House is as close today as it has ever been to the place Yeats first began to frequent, almost a century and a half ago.

The views across Sligo Bay through the great windows have been restored, the initials of Constance Gore Booth scratched on a windowpane are still visible and the corridors and rooms are once more filled with the sounds of youthful conversation.

And today, as then women remain to the fore.

"We want to continue that strong feminist tradition and it's easy to do that when you have a very strong co-owner, and four very strong daughters," adds Mr Walsh.

Irish Independent

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