Oh to be in Sligo and the magic of Yeats country
Come away, human child to the waters and the wild...
Four miles northeast of Gort in County Galway lies Thoor Ballylee. The sixteenth-century tower house was purchased by Yeats in 1916 and served as his summer home for twelve years. It was here that he was inspired to write "The Tower Poems" and "The Winding Stair."
A surprisingly good negotiator, Yeats bought the abandoned tower for a mere 65 pounds, a bargain even at that time. Isolated, in disrepair, and impossible to heat, Thoor Ballylee was hardly a treasure for anyone but the poet who found not only a refuge but a poetic image here.
Roaming the large rooms, winding my way up the spiral staircases, I came to understand his love of these rooms, the solitude provided by the surrounding woodlands, the beauty of the tiny lake that pooled at one side of the tower. I could easily picture the poet in the grand wicker chair on the second floor with his books spread before him, or pacing up and down the winding stairs, composing his verse. As old, damp and moldy as the tower is, there is also a certain habitable quality, a sense that here, removed from society, surrounded by beauty, a person could live in poetry.
A stop in Coole Park, the 1,000 acre estate once home to Lady Augusta Gregory, a great friend and supporter of Yeats, was also inspirational. Among the grassy lawns and winding paths grows the "autograph tree," a giant copper beech tree on which famous writers and artists carved their names at the request of Lady Gregory. Yeats himself was the first to carve his initials into the tree with the likes of J.M. Synge, John Masefield, and Sean O'Faolain to follow.
Of particular significance to anyone familiar with Yeats' poetry are the swans of Coole that swim in the turlough, a unique type of disappearing lake found only in limestone areas of Ireland. We were lucky enough to visit on a day when the lake was present and we gathered at its edge to read a few of Yeats' poems, "The Wild Swans at Coole" among them. Sadly, there were no swans to be seen at Coole on this day and we were left only with Yeats' description:
"But now they drift on the still water / Mysterious, beautiful; / Among what rushes will they build. / By what lake's edge or pool / Delight men's eyes, when I awake some day / To find they have flown away?"
Back in Sligo, walking the banks of the Garavogue River at night, a swan, white and mysterious, came paddling through the dark and throwing some magic and otherworldliness into an otherwise unremarkable night. "Have you escaped from Coole?" I asked as it passed by.