co. sligo and yeats

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

– W.B. Yeats, from “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”

Such is the beauty of Yeats’ words that a trip to Ireland would just have to include a trip to co. Sligo, where William Butler Yeats spent much of his childhood and considered his spiritual home. A land of mountains and lakes, it is obvious why he wanted this to be his final resting place.

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid,
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago; a church stands near,
By the road and ancient Cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase,
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

– W.B. Yeats, from from “Under Ben Bulben”

He is buried with his wife, George, in St Columba’s Church of Ireland in Drumcliffe, just north of the town of Sligo. When we pulled in to the parking lot of the church, we were astounded by the number of visitors on the same pilgrimage as me. I soon realized, though, that it wasn’t Yeats who was the draw, it was church service on a Sunday morning that had the car park full.

Yeats’ gravestone is flat and, but for the person interred beneath, would easily be one to pass by in favor of the more charming stones in the cemetery. In this photo, with Ben Bulben in the distance, the back of Yeats’ grave is in the right foreground.

Next day, Monday, I left Bridget on O’Connell Street in Sligo while I headed over to the Yeats Memorial Building to brush up on my heretofore meager knowledge of the poet and playwright. Housed in one main room, the Yeats Society has erected a series of panels depicting Yeats’ life and career highlights, from early family photographs to those of Yeats’ peers, including Maud Gonne and Lady Gregory, and descriptions of his achievements. And if you have 15 minutes to spare, you can watch a DVD of Yeats country, with narration that includes snippets of poems from the man. I knew what I needed to do next …

Visit the Lake Isle of Innisfree. So it was off to pick up Bridget and head west from town to Lough Gill, along a meandering road, turning left at the white farmhouse, the woman at the Society said. And there it was …

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

– W.B. Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

And that was it for co. Sligo, or so we thought, but I’ll save that for another day. From there we headed south to continue our journey through Ireland. Days later, we found ourselves in Coole Park, Lady Gregory’s home in the country. We took a stroll within the walled garden, making a beeline for the Autograph Tree, where the famous – from George Bernard Shaw to J.M. Synge (and of course, our hero, WBY) had carved their initials so many years ago. The tree is now protected from molesters by a fence, and truly, impossible for me to pick out whose initials were whose, but fortunately they have a board with the names listed beside their number. See how many you can pick out …

An absolutely magnificent beech tree, but I only got one shot, looking up, because my camera battery was threatening to run out of juice and we still had the Cliffs of Moher ahead of us. But I too am getting ahead of myself. The cliffs will have to wait for another day.

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