Tuesday 13 November 2018

Church Island - Yeats' beloved Lake Isle of Innisfree ?

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Yeats had died and was buried in the south of France, in 1939, at the outbreak of World War Two. His remains were disinterred and brought back to Ireland in September 1948. by the Irish navy ship the L.E. Macha. I was in transition year class in Summerhill College, Sligo at the time. A deputation from the student body sought permission from the College President, Canon Casey

Sligoman and former Government press secretary, now retired, Joe Jennings revisits a theory first mooted by him in 'The Sligo Champion' as a cub reporter 47 years ago

On September 14 1948, the remains of the poet William Butler Yeats were lying in state, in a closed coffin, outside the City Hall, Sligo, so that the people could go there to pay their respects, before the coffin was taken to the grave in Drumcliffe churchyard, in north County Sligo for final burial in the land he loved.

Yeats had died and was buried in the south of France, in 1939, at the outbreak of World War Two. His remains were disinterred and brought back to Ireland in September 1948. by the Irish navy ship the L.E. Macha.

I was in transition year class in Summerhill College, Sligo at the time. A deputation from the student body sought permission from the College President, Canon Casey, to go downtown to pay their respects to Yeats. The President, speaking in Irish, refused.


So the opportunity was missed to pay our respects at Sligo City Hall. I spent much of the following Summer, exploring. Lough Gill - visiting Hazelwood, Dooney Rock, Slish Wood and Innisfree - places in and around the Lough that are associated with Yeats and his poetry. A fellow student and I hired a rowing boat from the local boatman, Jumbo McCarrick, at Riverside, where the short Garavogue River from Lough Gill flows gently towards Sligo Harbour. Jumbo's name is so inscribed on the McCarrick family tombstone in Sligo cemetery.

We set off on our odyssey to visit the Isle of Innisfree, rowing purposefully up-river past Ardowen, Hazelwood, Tobernalt and into the broad stretch of the Lough. We passed the lofty Dooney Rock- the setting for the Fiddler of Dooney,- on our right, then pushed onwards past Slish Wood - that hugs the Eastern Shore of the Lough. Soon, we sighted Innisfree!

Landing our boat on the island was tricky. It has a mainly rough rocky shoreline. The island itself, about one acre in area, is covered in rough shrubbery, It is probably the most inhospitable place in Lough Gill!

With difficulty we tried to have a look around Innisfree, Our verdict was instantaneous. This could not be the place Yeats had in mind when he composed the famous poem!

Thus the Innisfree we inspected suddenly presented us with an enigma! If this little island did not match the location described in the poem then it had to be some other island in the Lough.

The question was which one? Was Innisfree, in fact, because of its romantic-sounding name, the title Yeats used by way of poetic licence, to describe the idyllic island in the lake that he knew and visualised in his poem? Our quest had now become a serious scholastic exercise. As the sun was high in the sky we rowed with added zeal to check all sixteen islands in the Lough to discover and verify, if we could, which one matched the poet's own description of Innisfree?

We crossed and recrossed the county border between Sligo and Leitrim that divides the lake by an imaginary line between Parkes's Castle and the mouth of the Bonet River on opposite shores. Our test method was to try to match the descriptive lines from the poem with each island we checked.

One by one they began to fail the test, some islands had interesting names like Wolf, Hawk, Slish Wood east, and West, Fairy, Swan, and the tiny Black Tom's Island, We were down to two more islands to check One was Cottage Island that had been inhabited until the l940s when its last and best known resident, Beezie Gallagher, died on the island as a result of an accident by fire in her own home. We ruled out Beezie's island because it was too farm-like.

Much of its 14 acres was open land, used for tillage and pasture by generations of the Gallaghers, thus disqualifying it as a location where Yeats would choose to "live alone in the bee-loud glade."


Finally, we navigated the narrow sound at Clogherevagh and landed on Inis Mór otherwise known as Church Island, which is about a fifth of a kilometre, at its nearest point, from the boathouse on the lakeshore at Clogherevagh House. As we wandered through the lovely, spacious 40-acre island we both got an immediate and instinctive feeling that here, indeed, we had found the characteristics we sought, to identify and verify the probable location of the real Innisfree that inspired Yeats!

Simultaneously we both exclaimed - "This, must be it! " Here there was ample space for Yeats to build his cabin; room too, for his nine bean rows, and the hive for the honey bee.

In his "Reveries," published in l9l7, Yeats described how he had observed Innisfree from the Slish Wood side of the lake. It is in sight of and a little over one kilometre from Church Island.

Church Island contains a ruined monastic Church dating back to the sixth century. It was burned in 1416, two years after the sacking of Sligo Abbey. No one has lived there since.

There too, Yeats could have enjoyed the peace he sought - " save for the sound of lake water lapping with low sounds on the shore," and the therapeutic hum from the bee- loud glade.

Church Island has the sylvan splendour to be an idyllic place of retreat from the outside world. No wonder monks had chosen to live there centuries ago!

Across the sound, close by the shore on a sloped elevation at about fifty feet above the lake is Clogherevagh House, now called St. Angela's College of Domestic Science, a third level education facility. Clogherevagh House was originally built by the Gore Booth family, on land the property of the Wynne family, who were extensive land owners in the area gifted by Oliver Cromwell. The family of Maud Morris-Wynne lived there for years prior to and during the Troubles 1917 - 1921. They were a popular and well-liked family in Clogherevagh.

A stepped pathway leads down from the house to the private boathouse and jetty that was used by the Morris-Wynne family. The house was raided several times by the local IRA, as it contained legally held firearms used for hunting purposes and these were taken from the house by the Republicans. The trauma of it all was too much for the family, who eventually moved away.


During this period of Irish history, a resident of Number 3 Charles Street. Sligo, Mr.Pat Carroll, inherited a small farm of 11 acres in the townland of Kiltycahill, Calry , quite close to Clogherevagh House. Mr Carroll was a near relative of the Harte family whose corner greengrocery business at nearby number 9 Lower John Street was one of his favourite haunts. Pat continued to live in Charles Street and used his new farm to raise a herd of livestock.

Regularly, every other day, he walked the few miles from Sligo City to inspect the livestock and to check the lands. He always called to the Gate Lodge at Clogherevagh for a chat. Pat was a learned and avid reader who read the local weekly newspapers, - the Sligo Champion, and the now defunct Sligo Independent- from cover to cover. He was always welcome at the Gate Lodge where he entertained the residents with all the local news and gossip from Sligo.

This brings me to June 1950 when, a few days after I sat for the Leaving Certificate I was offered a position as a trainee reporter in 'The Sligo Champion'.

Some months later I discussed the theory I had about Yeats's Isle of Innisfree, with the Editor, Mr. Tom Palmer - since gone to his eternal reward. He instructed me to write a story about it for the next edition. The Champion was published on Friday.

Next day when the reporting staff were in the usual Saturday morning conclave discussing the editorial profile for the next issue there was a knock on the newsroom door in the Wine Street office. In walked Pat Carroll. A tall, reserved man, in his seventies, he enquired who had written the story about Yeats and Church Island? I said I had.


He paused for a second or two and then added - " I used to be there at the Gate Lodge very often and I recognised Mr. Yeats, coming and going, as he was a regular visitor at Clogherevagh. Very regular."

The Editor thanked Mr. Carroll and said it was greatly appreciated to receive observations like that from the paper's readers.

This voluntary and unsolicited statement by Mr. Carroll was, indeed, positive affirmation of our theory- one might call it circumstantial evidence. Yeats, during his visits to Clogherevagh , would have been entertained to boat trips on the Lough by the Morris-Wynne family.

These boat trips probably included visits across the sound to nearby Church Island where, as he strolled about or picnicked with his hosts on that enchanting location, Yeats may have been inspired to recall to mind and compose - sometime later - the three verses of The Lake Isle of Innisfree.

A few weeks ago I went back to Clogherevagh and sat on the sloping ground `above St.Angela's. As I looked from there across Lough Gill - one of the most beautiful settings in Ireland - I was moved to say a wee prayer for Pat Carroll. He made a young trainee reporter's day by ambling into the newsroom of The Sligo Champion to endorse the theory that W.B. Yeats substituted the name Innisfree for Church Island. His statement too, had helped to solve the enigma we encountered the day we first landed on what two Summerhill College students had first mistakenly presumed to be the real Innisfree.