In County Sligo, Ireland, explore the landscape that inspired WB Yeats – The Washington Post | Gmx Pharm


It began with immeasurable sadness. My relationship was over and I was drifting in the world. The great tree on which I had carved my future had been uprooted from the earth, its roots ripping open the once solid ground on which I had built my home. I had to get away from the grey, disheveled city I was in; away from the news, so full of divorce and death. Traveling would be better than sitting at home and living half a life staring at my feet and feeling sick. My thoughts went unbidden to Ireland, a place I had never been and therefore devoid of memory or memory. After thinking it over, I pulled a book by WB Yeats from the shelf and read:

I’ll get up and go now, forever night and day

I hear seawater lapping on the shore with faint noises;

While I’m standing on the pavement, or gray on the sidewalks,

I hear it in the core of the deep heart.

That lake was Lough Gill in County Sligo and promised everything I needed: rusticity, tranquility, time. Maybe I’d find my smile there, amidst that rolling greenery and birdsong.

Traveling can be like stepping over a ledge into an abyss: where will I sleep? who will i meet what will become of me When will I next take off my boots? The trick is to think positively; a traveler must be positive. The alternative is darkness. Also, with every trip comes the hope of bringing back another person.

Yeats was someone in need of comfort. His work depicts a man who believed his life ended before it really began. His poems are there less to brighten the day than to process it. Take, for example, his view of the world in The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the ever-growing vortex

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

things fall apart; the center cannot hold

Still I would go with him, let him be my guide to the other side of this swamp of misery.

Yeats was born in Dublin and grew up for an extended period in County Sligo on the north west coast. The imagery in many of his poems is drawn directly from the waters and valleys of this region, which he called the “Land of Heart’s Desires” and the rest of which is now known as Yeats Country. With that in mind I didn’t hesitate in the capital but jumped in a car and headed straight to Sligo, hurling myself towards the west coast.

‘We come to Sligo every year,’ a visitor from Belfast told me on the street when I arrived. “It’s like going back in time. It hasn’t changed since the ’60s!” It looked real to me: fringed bangs seemed to be in, as was loitering. And mutton chops were as common on men’s cheeks as they were on plates.

Unfortunately, the Yeats Society has been sidelined with construction and the opening of their new exhibit has been delayed. In a funk I roamed the city. At a local bookstore, I asked the owner for a recommendation of Yeats. He suggested Last Poems and pulled a copy off the shelf. “Do you know his poem ‘Politics’? ‘ he asked, handing me the book with the page open.

How can I, the girl standing there

Yet here is a traveled man who knows

And there is a politician

That has both read and thought,

And maybe what they say is true

Of war and war alarm,

But oh that I was young again

“Pretty fitting today, don’t you think?” he said while I worked hard not to cry. I bought the book and took it to the path that skirts the Garavogue River. Looking up sideways, I couldn’t help but notice that every mallard in the water had a male’s green head. There was not a speckled hen in sight. “You too?” I thought.

Modern life has descended restlessly on Ireland. Rural pride borders on an expanding and inescapable suburbanism. The Sligo Famine Memorial, a statue of a family of three huddled together, their bare feet, their clothes loose on their emaciated bodies, erected to commemorate those who died in the potato famine of 1845-52, now stands between a grocery store and a Pub that pumps the smell of hot grease to the sky.

It’s different in the country. At Hazelwood, on the shores of Lough Gill, I walked through a Jurassic forest of brambles, sedges and ferns and trees draped in soft moss. The earthy root-cellar smell of the wet forest made me hungry. I found a pub nearby, where I was greeted by each guest in turn. A peat fire filled the room with the smell of scorched earth. While the bartender poured me a cloudy black pint, we talked about Yeats, whom he considered “the best poet since Shakespeare.” No one ever humiliates a local boy who has done good, especially one who was awarded gold by the Nobel Prize Committee in 1923. Her family won awards: a year later, his brother Jack received silver at the Olympic Games in Paris – not for sport, but for painting. His award-winning work The Liffey Swim depicts the annual race on the River Liffey in Dublin.

The bartender shook my hand as I left and said good luck, a better goodbye I thought than goodbye could ever be.

As night fell I drove to my hotel at Rosses Point on the peninsula that stretches across the north side of Sligo Harbour. I went for a walk at dusk. I was traveling alone; A herd of Charolais cattle grazed in a paddock. “Why is life an eternal preparation for something that never happens?” Yeats wrote in his diary on September 16, 1909. Before me lay the images of 30 years; everything I had done had brought me here. My heart tore. Were the green meadows, the ghostly cows, the hazy air in the falling light enough to make life worth living?

That night I held a dream-shattered sleep, the windows rattling against a blustery storm. It lasted until morning, and at breakfast I asked the waiter if it should keep up.

“Ah, we screwed up pretty bad this spring,” he said. “But it’s not always like that. We have almost 30 degrees Celsius in summer.”

“Thirty degrees?” Such heat (roughly 86 degrees Fahrenheit) seemed unimaginable when looking out over the gray sea.

“Well, maybe 29. Or 28. Sure, it was 27.”

I left before he could haggle down to freezing temperatures. “It gets better!” he called after me. “Come back and you will see!”

Ireland can seem like a riddle with no answer and the people like a tribe that wished they had never been found. Both are reflected in the country’s sparse signage, which advises travelers that there are things to see but is placed in such a way that it takes no small amount of luck to find one. After many frustrating turns, I decided to aimlessly roam the backcountry trails and encounter scenes that were new to me and therefore more pleasant surprises than destinations.

With no such prior expectation, I was flattened by the arching Gleniff horseshoe like the rim of a god’s coliseum. So is the Glencar waterfall, which cascades over rocks like a ribbon of salt over the edge of a dark tablecloth. Life surrounded most of the streets, the trees bending over them, the tips of their branches touching to create a leafy canal. Lined with tall, dense hedges, it was like traveling down a green vein. Ireland has the aspect of a human heart—a real one: Aortic Peninsula on the west coast and an inner hinterland where “hill heaped upon hill,” as Yeats wrote, rolls with a smooth, muscular sheen.

And mountains. Driving through the right atrium of County Leitrim, mountains rise steeply, the grass giving way to gray streaks of stone. Closer to the coast, Ben Bulben dominates the landscape, jutting out of the earth like a large doorstop. The mountain is said to be the final resting place of Diarmuid and Gráinne, two fugitive lovers of Irish mythology. Yeats is also buried in a humble grave at Drumcliffe Church.

There I took out my book and found the poem “Under Ben Bulben” engraved on his tombstone: “Cast a cold eye / To life, to death. / Riders, pass!” Being under that mountain as I read was comforting; it was a kind of clarity. From Yeats’ original view of this alien landscape, to a book, to me, and then back again. It was a testament to the course of my life as well as Yeats’s. I had felt on the brink of devastation. But there is life in bending with the times, and if you know his words and perspective, you might live on one day. Hope was the key to that kind of immortality that gave the courage to see the peeking light break through the darkness.

Every day I’d passed walkers on the side streets bent against the driving rain. One day I stopped to offer a ride. “Oh no thanks,” she said, her face windswept and dripping, her smile infectious. “It will pass. Look, here comes the sun.”

Patterson is a writer from Gladstone, Manitoba. His site is Find him on Twitter: @JRPatterson9.

Rosses Upper, Rosses Point, County Sligo

The Yeats Country Hotel is situated at the end of Rosses Point Peninsula, overlooking Sligo Harbour, Coney Island and Oyster Island. A nearby golf course provides a country club feel, and the hotel’s spa offers seaweed baths and massages. Breakfast included. Rooms from about $80.

Rosses Upper, Rosses Point, County Sligo

Named after Yeats’ childhood home on Rosses Point, Elsinore offers traditional Irish, Italian and vegetarian dishes. Located in the Yeats Country Hotel. Open daily from 8:00am to 10:30am for breakfast and from 6:00pm to 8:00pm for dinner. Entrees start at around $16.

The Yeats Society is hosting an exhibition about the people and places that influenced the Irish poet’s life and career. Poetry readings and literary events are held here regularly. The Hyde Bridge Gallery upstairs features work by Irish and international artists. Yeats Building open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; Hyde Bridge Gallery open until 4pm Admission to Yeats exhibition approx $5 per person; gallery free. Children under 12 free.

This forest, the setting for Yeats’ The Song of Wandering Aengus, sits on the shores of Lough Gill and features a long walking trail. Open daily all year round.

Glencar lake and waterfall

A 50 foot waterfall mentioned in Yeats’ The Stolen Child is at the end of a short paved path. Open daily all year round.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning a trip. For travel health advice information, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention interactive map of travel advice by destination and the CDC’s travel health advice website.

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