I'm coming down the airy roads at the northern tip of the Wild Atlantic Way after a family weekend in Donegal when the sad news breaks on the car radio of the death of the great playwright Brian Friel. He was nearly 90 and had a good rich innings God rest him, but it was still a shock.
In the spirit of the old Ireland whose ethos he garnished through his works and words, I said three Hail Marys and a Glory Be for him at the news.
I met him once socially in Glenties about 20 years ago. He was a gentle soul, a man of the people, as well as a genius. They gave him a standing ovation in all the Dublin theaters on the night he passed in a gesture that was right and fitting and moving.
A half-hour later down the homing road the skyline, as always, was suddenly filled with the heavy beetling brow of Benbulben the signature Sligo mountain. Even at that hour of a chilly enough evening there was still a significant flush of visitors to the Drumcliffe grave of another Ulster genius of the arts, William Butler Yeats. I was not tempted to join the throng.
True to the command on his tombstone I became another horseman who passed by, casting a cold enough eye at life, at death. It was not because I suffered at school several times for not knowing reams of his Nobel-winning poems off by heart.
It was because, despite his justified international fame, he was not ever, in my view, a poet of the people of Sligo. As a hack he inflicted a great deal of suffering upon me long after I had left school and was plying this trade too many times in coverage of the Yeats Summer School.
The Yeats Summer School at this stage is virtually as famed as the poet himself. It attracts Yeats scholars from all over the world, year after year, to dissect damn near every line of every work the astonishingly prolific poet created during his long life.
In plain language of the type which the academics and professors avoided in their dissertations, it was very difficult to extract a genuinely interesting yarn for the plain people from the many hours of lectures. I suffered more there than in the classrooms and, very often, the stories I filed at the end of the day were spiked unused by the sub-editors above in Dublin.
Through those years though I learned quite a deal about William Butler Yeats and, frankly, I was not impressed by a man from the Big House and the controlling ascendancy in Sligo of his life and times.
A genius surely, and a great one, but a sour and dour enough elitist gentleman who looked down upon the peasant people, the landless laborers who, incredibly, were forgetting their rightful place in his society and launching the revolution which created his 'terrible beauty.”
Here was a man who belonged to the world of parlors and dining rooms and servants bowing the knee who would never have been able to dwell in a clay-and-wattle cottage in Inisfree or anywhere else for that matter. He was definitely not a man who was a part of the plain people below Benbulben who are among the merriest and liveliest along the full length of the Wild Atlantic Way.
He was, indeed, a man who was dolefully lovelorn about the beautiful Maud Gonne almost all his life. He proposed to her about 10 times and was always rejected even after her divorce.
The one poem in which he only partially glimpsed the soul of his community was “The Fiddler of Dooney.” Towards the end of his life as a senator he often railed and ranted against many of the fundamental qualities of the new state.
There is a livelier and richer Sligo than the Yeatsian facet. If you feel like heading up that wedge of the Wild Atlantic Way anytime soon I have a bit of solid advice and guidance for you all.
My beautiful balladeer friend Mai Hernon, now living in Cincinnati and singing away, is organizing groups who can visit Drumcliffe, yes, but can also savor the other Sligo of the musics and the monuments and the dancing and the craic. Ye can reach her either at www.secretirelandtoursLLC.com or directly to [email protected]
And the tours will bring ye much further afield too. Mai will be pleased that I have mentioned her project, but any of you who follow my advice will be even happier. Mark my words.