Bob's joy at Yeats
The anti-poverty activist and rock singer Sir Bob Geldof tells Sorcha Crowley Yeats is Ireland's Shakespeare and Sligo must push for a Yeats' Institute of Literary Excellence
Unless we know who we are there isn't a future. And Yeats told us who we are and helped shape the future of Ireland in the 20th century.
So argues Yeats admirer Sir Bob Geldof both in person and in an incisive two-hour documentary on the poet, 'A Fanatic Heart'.
Written by Geldof and biographer Roy Foster, it features readings by celebrity contributors including Sting, Noel Gallagher, Elvis Costello, Edna O'Brien, Bono, Van Morrison, Shane MacGowan, Olivia O'Leary, Liam Neeson, Stephen Fry, Dominic West, Richard E. Grant, Bill Nighy, Anne Enright, Colin Farrell, Ardal O'Hanlon, Tom Hollander and many others.
By his own admission, Geldof "ain't no David Attenborough" but what shines through the documentary is his love of Yeats lyricism but also his story and his legacy.
The documentary is nicely bookended by Sligo locations which played pivotal roles in the young Yeats life: Elsinore Pilot's cottage at Rosses Point, Lough Gill and the Lake Isle of Innisfree, Lissadell and finally, Drumcliffe Churchyard.
"It won an IFTA which I was thrilled about and I'm off to San Francisco Film Festival this week for it," says Geldof.
He first discovered Yeats as a teenager during the 1966 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, and it "shook me up."
'To hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore' - that use of language becomes the country. He was busy creating a new country out of the ruin, and the devastation of the famine, migration, defeat and loss of language. He succeeds and it's extraordinary!"
Would Geldof have been a friend of Yeats if he was around in Dublin at the turn of the century?
"Well I'd have tried to but I'd have been awe-struck by the actual talent of that moment. People knew they were in the presence of a great genius. They thought he was nuts with his Order of the Golded Dawn stuff but what he was trying to do, he was anti-clerical, anti-religious. What he was saying was 'the Irish are not this b******s that you're being told by either themselves or the Brits. You are a Homeric people. You have these heroes who are on equal par with the Greeks, or the Germans or the British or whomever. You are Arthurian, you are Homeric. And me, the other intellectuals are going to go around and we're going to save this culture because unless you know who you are right now, you're going nowhere. Unless we know who we are there isn't a future'," argues Geldof.
"And then he said but you're never going to understand this for fifty years after I'm dead.' Bingo. Fifty years to the day we get a woman president who's involved in human rights.
"That's to me where the whole thing shifts, really shifts and we become the proper, mature, modern, 21st century country," he said.
Before filming for the documentary in 2016, Geldof admitted he had never been to Sligo specifically to visit as a Yeats tourist.
What does he think of our approach to Yeats currently?
"I don't think it's enough. I spoke to the San Francisco Chronicle and the Examiner and they were just going on about the beauty of the place. They didn't understand the history but they were impressed by the intellect of the people.
"They knew the poetry because so much of it has fallen into the vernacular, things like 'A Fanatic Heart', 'Things that fall apart, that cannot hold', the 'foul rag and bone shop of the heart'...they were take aback that somebody had written that for the first time. In the same way you're taken aback by the words that Shakespeare invented.
"He is our Shakespeare and that's why I say Sligo must push for this.
"That out of this strange, bereft county, with the great poor having been wiped out or taken off the land....We begin out of pure horror (of the Famine). I know this is a cliché but no one outside of Ireland quite gets, is that the Famine was far worse in terms of actual numbers, the devastation to the country than any famine that we responded to in the mid-Eighties in Africa," he says.
In the documentary Geldof describes how Yeats was influenced as a boy by the servants in Merville at his Sligo grandparents home about local folklore and faery stories.
He was inspired again by tales told in the pilot's cabin at Elsinore in Rosses Point.
"All the faery lore - it's not silly. When Edna O'Brien talks about it, it's not silly at all. It was used to put people down. Shane McGowan and Edna talk about faery lore from when they were children," says Geldof.
He believes Yeats is Ireland's Shakespeare and while Sligo is very like Brönte country in England, Yeats is of a far higher significance artistically and culturally to Ireland than the Brönte sisters were to England.
"This guy is bigger than that for Ireland. He is our Shakespeare. These sites (in Sligo and elsewhere) should be protected the way the British protect anything to do with Shakespeare because he's fundamental to their story and this guy becomes bigger as time goes on, with what he achieved," he says.
"You can be so proud of him. The cradle of all this is where you live (Sligo). That's absolutely it. He imagined what a place should be and set about achieving that, not with bullets but with brains and talent and bravery.
"He was deep amongst the crowd with the cudgels and he rejects out of hand (violence) and quite rightly says 'nothing comes of this'. As Shaw said, 'Blood. That cheap fluid'. Nothing comes of it.
"He saw them through. He became a man of the State. He argued for divorce, against censorship that made so many of our geniuses leave the country and be appreciated elsewhere. He's a giant. A f*****g giant of world literature. For me he is the great revolutionary, a bedrock of intellectual constitutionalism."
'A Fanatic Heart' DVD is now available to pre-order via Amazon, HMV and in bookstores from next week.