Oh to be in Sligo and the magic of Yeats country


As early as 1913 the poet W.B. Yeats declared, "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone. It's with O'Leary in the grave." To many living in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland these lines have never seemed truer.

The era's prosperity  most definitely touched the town of Sligo where the strikingly modern architecture of The Glass House Hotel juts out onto the River Garavogue like a great glass ship.

But just across the street, standing in contrast, is a stately old brick building dedicated to the life of Ireland's most famous poet. It is here that a group of over one hundred students, professors and lecturers from around the world gather for the Yeats International Summer School, and where, at least for two weeks every summer, the Ireland of Yeats' poetry is very much alive.

The Yeats Memorial Building, filled with letters and photographs of the poet's life and work, is an ideal place for the study of all things Yeats. And the town, despite its modern trappings, remains the most genial and magical of settings.

Sligo was the beloved vacation spot of the poet's childhood (his great-grand-father was rector of the parish of Drumcliff, where Yeats is now buried) and served as the site for most of his folklore collecting and as the inspiration for many of his poems.

And from my very first night, when a local man told me I was "with the fairies" because he doubted something I'd said, I knew that this town was different from others I'd visited on my journeys through the Irish countryside.

Yeats quotes are festooned about the town where hotels, pubs and restaurants are named after the poet. Altogether the place has an underlying whimsy, a sense of folktale and fairies. In my boarding- house on the edge of town, I awoke in the mornings to grazing sheep staring at me through the bedroom window. In the kitchen, even the dish soap bore the image of a winking fairy.   

Though Yeats prophesied the loss of "Romantic Ireland" he helped create the concept of a poetic Ireland. He distinguished Irish literature from English and declared it had a unique origin and power.

The Yeats Summer School attracts not only Irish and American devotees of the poet but fans from around the world.

This past summer school, which marked the 48th, happened over two weeks in July, and was no different. Students came from India, Italy, Germany, Canada, Greece, Serbia, Cyprus, and as far away as Korea, China and Japan.

In fact, one of the most rewarding aspects of the summer school was meeting these students and witnessing the reach of Yeats' poetry and the affection with which he is held around the world.

An evening of Irish dancing in Strandhill, a nearby seaside town, was made all the more memorable by the exchange of cultures. In the midst of "mingling hands and mingling glances" conversations abounded with references to the poet and his work, and when the musicians opened up the microphone to anyone who wanted to sing a song, a professor from India sang a Yeats poem in Hindi, an American woman sang a Shaker song, and a young Irish man sang a song in Irish.

The School
Each day at the Yeats School included two lectures in the morning and a seminar in the late afternoon that pertained to the poet's life and work. But our days were not exclusively spent in lecture halls; our afternoon breaks left us free to wander Sligo's cobblestone streets, take day trips to Carrowmore, the megathic tombs and to Lissadell, the home of the Goore-Booths, where Yeats often stayed.

On a particularly sunny day, Professor Maureen Murphy, Associate Director of the Summer School, whose seminar on Yeats and Folklore greatly enhanced my knowledge of Ireland's mythical history, took a group of students, myself included, to climb Knocknarea, the hill at the top of which Queen Maeve is said to be buried.

"The winds have bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea / And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say."

These words from Yeats' "Red Hanrahan's Song of Ireland" perfectly described the clouds that appeared out of blue skies to gather at the top of Knocknarea. We climbed past the sheep and cows, up the rocky hillside, until the strength of the wind against our cheeks told us we had reached the peak.

We were almost high enough to touch the low-hanging clouds that disappeared as mist into the air, and the grave of Queen Maeve, the Celtic warrior queen who once ruled the kingdom of Connaught, was directly in front of us. Though these days historians are doubtful that this mound is truly Maeve's grave, Yeats did his best to perpetuate the myth by including the place in several of his poems.

From the top of Knocknarea the West of Ireland was visible, laid out in shades of green and gray with the Atlantic Ocean lapping at its edges.

"Under bare Bulben's Head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid."

Ben Bulben, immortalized in one of Yeats' final poems, is a sight to be seen from the top of Knocknerea. However, it was a weekend trip to Thoor Ballylee and Coole Park, that turned out to be the most memorable of my time in Ireland.