The Land of Heart’s Desire: The Yeats Trail

Despite the heroic efforts of  my 11th grade English teacher, I am a literary simpleton.  I  like poetry that rhymes and I routinely confuse Yeats with Keats.  Tragic, really.  My father, far more cultured and literate than I, mentioned an interest in a Yeats tour of Ireland as part of our mini “Gathering 2013.”

With a little Irish luck and a lot of Google maps,  I discovered Coole Park, home of Yeats’ literary patron Lady Gregory  and Yeats’ summer home are next to our ancestral family land in Gort, Ireland. A logical and convenient place to start our tour.   I like to imagine my great-grandfather and Yeats crossing paths in the woods, accompanied by other literary geniuses (George Bernard Shaw, JM Synge and Sean O’Casey) that spent time at Lady Gregory’s home.

Thor Ballylee, Yeats' summer home

Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’ summer home
The tower at Thor Ballylee

The tower at Thoor Ballylee

Yeats’ bought his home in Gort, renovated it and called it Thoor Ballylee, a nod to his passion and interest in local lore and culture.  The bucolic, riverside setting  provided Yeats with an inspirational retreat from the world.  Yeats once said: “To leave here is to leave beauty behind.”   He penned The Tower  and The Winding Stairs and Other Poems while living at Thoor Ballylee.

Coole Park House, home of Lady Gregory

Coole Park House, home of Lady Gregory

Coole Park, a short distance away from Thoor Ballylee, was a hub for the Irish Literary Revival. Yeats often wandered the grounds with Lady Gregory and fellow writers, seeking peace, solitude and inspiration.  It was the setting for many of his poems including The Wild Swans at Coole” and “In the Seven Woods.”   In the garden, an ancient tree bears the signatures of notable visitors to Coole Park.  It’s easy to imagine the writers gathered under its branches, casually adding their mark for posterity.

Into the Seven Woods

Into the Seven Woods

Although the house was demolished in 1941, you can still wander the sheltered wooded paths and along the lake to count the “nine and fifty swans.”

Connemara cottage

Connemara cottage

Along the R345 road

Along the R345 road

Our trail led us from Gort further west to  Connemara.  Yeats visited here often and spent his honeymoon in Renvyle.  A few wrong turns off the highway through Connemara, I’m overwhelmed by the scenery and stop to take a picture. I immediately regret only booking 2 days in this beautiful place.  It is a land of peat smoke, unspoiled majesty and melancholy beauty. It is the “Ireland of Ireland.”  We continue the road less traveled to the sea and spend our time imagining a summer spent in a Connemara cottage.

Lough Gill

Lough Gill

Although Yeats was born in Dublin and spent time in London, it was the mountains, lakes and lore of Sligo that inspired him to write some of his most memorable verse, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

“…arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,  And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:  Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,  And live alone in the bee-loud glade…”

We drove a circular route around Lough Gill to Dooney Rock of  fiddler fame to the boat launch that ferries visitors out to the Isle in summer.  From a distance, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to “arise and go” live on the tiny island, but Yeats often wrote about the familiar landscapes of home when he was far away and homesick.

Heading west, the majestic and magical Knocknarea, with it’s stunning cairn over the burial tomb of Maeve, Queen of Connaught, inspired Yeats to write “The Land of Heart’s Desire” and “The Hosting of the Sidhe.”  Add a rock to her 40 foot high cairn for good luck, take one away at your peril.

Ben Bulben

Ben Bulben

Sadly, the lovely Lissadell House was closed, due to an ongoing legal dispute, so we ended our Yeats trail where the man himself rests, Drumcliff.  Yeats died in France and told his long-suffering and exquisitly tolerant wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees “If I die bury me up there [at Roquebrune] and then in a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.”  Although it took far longer than one year, Yeats was eventually buried according to his wishes under the shadow of Ben Bulben in the busy Drumcliff cemetery.

Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!

Things to Know

Thoor Ballylee was severely damaged by floods in 2009 and has yet to reopen.  Visitors can walk the grounds and peek through the windows.  It’s worth stopping by, if only to absorb the atmosphere of the place.

Coole Park was an unexpected surprise.  Despite the fact no house remains, the grounds and gardens are lovely.  The tea room and small museum are worth your time. Check dates and times before you go.

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