I’ve had a persistent Yeats obsession since I was about sixteen. Over the past two decades I’ve come back to his poems again and again, been involved in three (varyingly successful) productions of his plays, and amassed enough books by or about him to cause a fair amount of the shelf-space problem in our flat. But in that same two decades I hadn’t visited Sligo – or even Ireland – until last week, when my wife’s extended family converged on Rosses Point for a 90-strong reunion.
Between the flights out and back in a tiny propeller plane borrowed from Indiana Jones; between the beaches and the speeches and the freak sunny weather; and between enough intermittent pints of Guinness to supply a day’s worth of calories, I learnt more about Yeats in a long weekend than I could have done from a month in a library.
Our only explicit piece of Yeats tourism was a visit to Drumcliff churchyard to see his grave (for me it’s undeniably Yeats’s grave, even if it isn’t 100% certain his was the body buried there after being retrieved from the ossuary in Roquebrune). Yeats left instructions for his burial in the final section of “Under Ben Bulben”. The rest of the poem is an uncomfortable (albeit beautifully-written) mix of prejudice and bombast, but the closing lines are wonderful:
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 an 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!
Every detail is physically there at the site. Stand at his grave and you’ll see Ben Bulben in the middle-distance to your right; an inscription in the church commemorates the Rev John Yeats (rector in the early nineteenth century); the church itself is only a few feet from the grave; the inscription is carved as instructed (its “horseman” not a prosaic rider but one of the supernatural wild hunt who rode the mountain in local legend). I couldn’t find the ancient cross until I realized we’d come in by the back route, and in Yeats’s day neither the car-park nor the main road would have been there: between the (also post-Yeats) tea rooms and the road there’s an old stone cross.
I realized that these lines aren’t a collection of loosely-related details but a precise physical description of the site (and when Yeats threw in the reference to his rector-ancestor he’d have known it was inscribed in the church, just as he’d have known it was likely people would visit his grave with these lines in their heads).
But there were two things during our visit – neither explicitly Yeats-related – that left a deeper impression on me. One was the geography of Sligo itself: the sudden mountains, seascapes and changeable skies, all of which put Yeats’s subject matter and lifelong artistic project into a new context for me.
The other was on our last night. At dinner with some of my wife’s family we heard about a tragic incident from the late 1970s when a boat ran aground on a sandbank. After closing-time several young men had decided to free the boat (at night, in angry seas, and after a lot of alcohol); only one survived. Nearly thirty-five years later there are still people in Rosses Point who remember and tell the story (something hard to imagine in a city).
On the flight over I’d been reading Yeats’s The Tower. The second section of the title poem contains the following two stanzas (in between a story about a local landowner whose servant cut off a farmer’s ears and a recap of one of Yeats’s own Red Hanrahan stories):
Some few remembered still when I was young
A peasant girl commended by a song,
Who’d lived somewhere upon that rocky place,
And praised the colour of her face,
And had the greater joy in praising her,
Remembering that, if walked she there,
Farmers jostled at the fair
So great a glory did the song confer.
And certain men, being maddened by those rhymes,
Or else by toasting her a score of times,
Rose from the table and declared it right
To test their fancy by their sight;
But they mistook the brightness of the moon
For the prosaic light of day –
Music had driven their wits astray –
And one was drowned in the great bog of Cloone.
I’m guessing that most people who know this story today know it from Yeats’s poem, and perhaps could tell you that the “song” was written by a Gaelic poet called Anthony Raftery in the early nineteenth century in praise of a local girl called Mary Hynes. But this wasn’t always the case, and once upon a time a group of men headed out after closing time and one of them drowned; and local people told the story, and re-told it, and Sligo is a place of small settlements where people remember.
Yeats goes on to observe that Raftery, like Homer, was blind – and in doing so he creates an equivalence between a local story and the epic origins of Western literature. For him this was nothing strange: the younger Yeats who’d collected folk-tales knew that all myths begin as local stories, just as the older, modernist Yeats knew that the big stories told by civilizations are just complicated extensions of the ways communities remember and re-tell things.
I’ve supposedly known this for years, but I didn’t understand it until last week.
On our way to the airport the next day we stopped in Strandhill for coffee and were wowed by the sight of dolphins in the bay, leaping out of the water close to the shore. My favourite of all Yeats’s poems, “Byzantium”, ends with a reference to “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea”, but on that beautiful afternoon the sea was neither tormented nor torn (unlike the sky on the flight home, but that’s another story).