Thursday 18 January 2018

‘The opposite of a tourist attraction’ - New York Times visits Lake Isle of Innisfree

‘Craggy loveliness’ in Sligo

A man rows by the uninhabited Isle of Innisfree in Lough Gill, Co. Sligo circa 1968. Photo: RDImages/Epics/Getty Images
A man rows by the uninhabited Isle of Innisfree in Lough Gill, Co. Sligo circa 1968. Photo: RDImages/Epics/Getty Images
Glencar Waterfall, Co. Leitrim
Stand up paddling with, Sligo
Hazelwood, Co. Sligo: The setting for Yeats's 'The Song of Wandering Aengus'
Pól Ó Conghaile at Dooney Rock Forest Park, Co. Sligo.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

The New York Times has arisen and gone to the Lake Isle of Innisfree, as the 150th anniversary of W.B. Yeats’s birth approaches.

The paper’s latest Emerald Isle adventure sees author Russell Shorto sojourn to Sligo and Leitrim in search of one of the most famous islands in poetry.

“Yeats named the poem after an actual place, an island in the middle of Lough Gill, a lake that spreads itself languidly across five miles of furiously green landscape in County Sligo in northwest Ireland,” he writes.

Despite the poem’s ubiquity, and the fact that the island's name has been appropriated by cosmetics, B&Bs and a local tour boat, Shorto says it still retains the capacity to charm.

“When I reached the lakeshore, I found the opposite of a tourist site,” he continues. “I could barely make my way out to the water to get a view, so thick was the shoreline with trees and brush.”
The Lake Isle of Innisfree, made famous by Yeats's poem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

2015 is the 150th anniversary of Yeats's birth on June 13, 1865, with Yeats 2015 ( seeing a host of events, readings, plays and celebrations to mark the occasion.

Even so, this tiny island (you’d have a hard time fitting a clay and wattle cabin – let alone a bee-loud glade – on this quarter-acre hump) is remarkably undersold as an attraction… and perhaps the better for it.

Visitors can take a tour of Lough Gill on the Rose of Innisfree (, €15/€7.50pp), and local SUP (Stand-Up Paddling) operators SUPforall (, below) run regular tours, kicking off on the River Bonnet and proceeding to the lake., Sligo 3.JPG
Stand up paddling with, Sligo

Stand-Up Paddling with Supforall on Lough Gill

On my last visit, the waters were glassy-calm around the tree-covered mound, the only sign of man in the shape of a small concrete pier.

I had to pull back branches and thorns to beat a path forward.

“It’s tiny, and looks like a bur, a bristling seed pod, almost angrily sprouting trees and brush from its humpy back,” as Shorto writes.

He goes on to laud the “craggy loveliness” of Yeats Country highlights, including Glencar waterfall, Ben Bulben (“like a natural acropolis”) and Slish Wood – places that seem “carved to suit his poetry, rather than the other way round.”

Glencar Waterfall, Co. Leitrim (1)(1).JPG
Glencar Waterfall, Co. Leitrim

Glencar Waterfall, Co. Leitrim

Last Saturday, when the New York Times story appeared, a new walking trail was launched at Knocknarea. Queen Maeve’s Trail ( begins in Strandhill, following a new series of pathways, wooden steps and raised boardwalks to sweeping views over Sligo Bay.

The paper has a daily circulation of some 1.8 million.

Sligo itself is described in the piece as “an ancient and lively enough little center, dominated by its cathedral and ringed with pubs where there’s nonstop rugby and soccer on the telly and you can order not just Irish stew and Guinness, but also chicken curry and New Zealand sauvignon blanc.”

But Yeats Country itself makes the lasting impression.

“Yeats’s meditations weren’t urban, and neither was mine,” Shorto concludes.

You can read the full piece here.

NB: An earlier version of this story stated that Mr. Shorto described the isle as 'five miles long'. He was of course referring to Lough Gill, and not Innisfree.

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