In County Sligo, Ireland, discovering the landscape that inspired WB Yeats
I’ll get up and go now, forever night and day
I hear the water of the lake lapping in a low voice near the shore;
While I’m standing on the pavement, or on the gray sidewalks,
I hear it deep in my heart.
That lake was Lough Gill, County Sligo, and it promised everything I needed: rurality, tranquility, time. Perhaps I would find my smile there, among this rolling green and the chirping of birds.
Traveling can be like stepping over a ledge in an abyss: where am I going to sleep? Who will I meet? What will I become ? When will I take my boots off next? The trick is to think positively; a traveler must be positive. The alternative is darkness. Moreover, with each trip comes the hope of returning a different person.
Yeats was someone who needed comforting. His work shows a man who believed his life was over before it really began. His poems are not so much about brightening the day as about accepting it. Take, for example, his worldview in “The Second Coming”:
Spin and spin in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things are falling apart; the center cannot hold
Yet I would go with him, let him be my guide across this swamp of misery.
Yeats was born in Dublin and grew up for long periods in County Sligo on the north west coast. The imagery in many of his poems comes directly from the waters and glens of this region, which he called the “Land of Heart’s Desire”, and which others now know as Yeats Country. With that in mind, I didn’t hesitate in the capital but jumped into a car and raced straight to Sligo, hurtling towards the west coast.
‘We come to Sligo every year,’ a Belfast woman told me on the street when I arrived. “It’s like stepping back in time. It hasn’t changed since the 60s! It seemed true to me: fringed bangs seemed to be in fashion, as was the lounging. And mutton chops were as common on men’s cheeks as they were on plates.
Alas, the Yeats Society was lined with construction work and the opening of its new exhibit was delayed. In a funk, I prowled the city. At a nearby bookstore, I asked the owner for a Yeats recommendation. He suggested “Last Poems” and pulled a copy from the shelf. “Do you know his poem ‘Politics?’ he asked, and handed me the book open to the page.
How can I, this girl standing there,
Yet here is a traveled man who knows
And there is a politician
Who both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war alarms,
But oh how young I was
“Quite appropriate these days, wouldn’t you say?” he said, as I worked hard to stop myself from crying. I bought the book and took it on the path along the Garavogue River. Looking up from the page, I couldn’t help but notice that every mallard duck in the waters had the green head of a male. There was not a speckled hen in sight. “You also?” I thought.
Modern life has settled uneasily in Ireland. Rural pride rubs shoulders with an expanding and unavoidable peri-urban. The Sligo Famine Memorial, a statue of a destitute family of three, huddled barefoot, their clothes loose over their emaciated bodies, erected to commemorate those who died in the Potato Famine of 1845 in 1852, stands today between a grocery store and a pub that pumps the smell of hot grease skyward.
In the countryside, things are different. At Hazelwood, on the shores of Lough Gill, I passed through a Jurassic forest of brambles, sedges and ferns, and trees covered in soft moss. The earthy smell of the rainforest made me hungry. Nearby, I found a pub where I was greeted by each customer in turn. A peat fire filled the room with the smell of scorched earth. As the bartender poured me a cloudy black pint, we talked about Yeats, whom he considered “the greatest poet since Shakespeare.” No one ever degrades a well-made local boy, especially one gilded by the Nobel Prize committee in 1923. It was an award-winning family: a year later his brother, Jack, took silver at the Paris Olympics – not for sport, but for painting. His winning entry, ‘The Liffey Swim’, depicts the annual race on the River Liffey in Dublin.
The bartender shook my hand when I left and said, “Good luck,” a better parting, I thought, than “goodbye” could ever be.
As night approached, I drove to my hotel at Rosses Point, on the peninsula that clings north of Sligo Harbour. I walked around in the falling twilight. I was alone on the road; in an enclosure, a herd of Charolais cows was grazing. “Why is life a perpetual preparation for something that never happens? Yeats wrote in his diary on September 16, 1909. Before me were the pictures of 30 years; everything I had done had brought me here. My heart sank. Were the green fields, the ghostly cows, the hazy air in the falling light enough to make life worth living?
That night I slept like a broken dream, the windows slamming against a windy storm. This continued into the morning, and at breakfast I asked the waiter if he was supposed to keep up.
“Ah, we’ve had a rough patch this spring,” he said. “But it’s not always like that. We reach close to 30 degrees centigrade in the summer.
“Thirty degrees? Such heat (around 86 degrees Fahrenheit) seemed unimaginable against the gray sea.
“Well, maybe 29. Or 28. Sure, that’s 27 years.”
I left before he could haggle to freezing temperatures. “It’s getting better!” he called me. “Come back and you will see!
Ireland may seem like an unanswered riddle, and people like a tribe that would rather never be found. Both are reflected in the country’s sparse signage, which tells travelers there’s things to see, but is placed in such a way that it doesn’t take luck to find anything. After many frustrating turns, I decided to wander aimlessly through the backcountry lanes, stumbling across scenes that were new to me and therefore were pleasant surprises rather than destinations.
Without such prior expectation, I was knocked down by Gleniff’s horseshoe arch, like the edge of a god’s colosseum. Likewise, the Glencar Waterfall, which spills over the rocks like a ribbon of salt on the edge of a dark tablecloth. Most of the roads were locked in life, the trees bent over them, their branches touching to create a verdant channel. Bordered by high and thick hedges, it was like traveling in a green vein. Ireland looks like a human heart – a real one: from the aortic peninsulas of the west coast and inland hinterland where “hill piled upon hill”, as Yeats wrote, rolls along with a smooth, muscular sheen .
And the mountains. On the road through the right atrium of County Leitrim, the mountains rise violently, the grass giving way to streaks of gray rock. Closer to the coast, Ben Bulben dominates the landscape, rising from the ground like a large door stop. The mountain is said to be the final resting place of Diarmuid and Gráinne, two lovers of Irish mythology. Yeats is also buried in a modest grave at Drumcliffe Church.
There I pulled out my book and found the poem inscribed on his tombstone, “Under Ben Bulben”: “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Rider, pass! Being under that same mountain while I read was comforting; it was a kind of clarity. From Yeats’ original look at that foreign countryside, to a book, to me, then back. It was proof of the passing of my life as well as that of Yeats. I felt on the verge of devastation. But there is life in yielding to the march of time, and knowing your words and your visions could one day endure. Hope was the key to this kind of immortality, which gave the courage to see the light stealthily breaking through the darkness.
Every day, on the small roads, I passed walkers bent against the pouring rain. One day I stopped to offer someone a ride. “Oh, no, thank you,” she said, her face whipped and dripping wet, her smile contagious. ” It will pass. Look, the sun is coming now.
Rosses Upper, Rosses Point, County Sligo
Situated at the tip of the Rosses Point peninsula, Yeats Country Hotel offers views of Sligo Harbour, Coney Island and Oyster Island. A nearby golf course gives it a country club feel, and the on-site spa offers seaweed baths and massages. Breakfast included. Rooms start around $80.
Rosses Upper, Rosses Point, County Sligo
Named after Yeats’ childhood home at Rosses Point, Elsinore offers traditional Irish, Italian and vegetarian dishes. Located at Yeats Country Hotel. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. for breakfast and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. for dinner. Appetizers start around $16.
The Yeats Society is organizing an exhibition on the people and places that influenced the life and career of the Irish poet. It regularly hosts poetry readings and literary events. The Hyde Bridge Gallery upstairs features works by Irish and international artists. Yeats Building open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Hyde Bridge Gallery open until 4 p.m. Admission to the Yeats exhibit approximately $5 per person; free gallery. Free for children under 12 years old.
This forest, the setting of Yeats’ “The Song of Wandering Aengus”, sits on the shores of Lough Gill and offers a long walking path. Open every day, all year round.
Glencar Lake and Waterfall
A waterfall about 50 feet high, mentioned in “The Stolen Child” by Yeats, is located at the end of a short paved boardwalk. Open every day, all year round.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advice can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDCs travel health advice web page.