Photography by Ciaran McHugh
Have you ever loved a poem or story so much you wanted to make it real for yourself ? Actually place yourself in it?
I’ve loved William Butler Yeats since I was in seventh grade and happened across a fragment from his play The Unicorn from the Stars. I hadn’t known such a level of writing was possible:
I saw a bright many-changing figure … it was holding up a shining vessel … then the vessel fell and was broken with a great crash … then I saw the unicorns trampling it. They were breaking the world to pieces … To bring about the old disturbed exalted life, the old splendor.
From that moment, Yeats’s voice became a powerful beam that lit my path, affirming for me that one could live a modern life with an enchanted consciousness.
As travelers, we have it in our power to go on quests that help us understand ourselves: sometimes by experiencing new things, sometimes by encountering the stories and ideas that have helped to create us and experiencing them yet anew, as the person we have become.
So I decided to go on a pilgrimage for Yeats: not only to places he lived, like his tower Thoor Ballylee, but places he evokes in the enchanted landscape
of his poetry: like Knocknarea in “The Hosting of the Sidhe,” and Glencar Waterfall from “The Stolen Child.” I wanted to visit the National Library in Dublin for its Yeats exhibition, to see his grave at Drumcliffe, to walk the city streets of Sligo, of course, but more than anything I desired to go to the wild places, the fairy places—to climb Ben Bulben if possible, to swim to the Lake Isle of Innisfree.
I chose to be in Ireland for Yeats’s birthday. It didn’t occur to me until after I reserved my ticket that this year would be his 150th birthday, his sesquicentennial. My airplane would land in an Ireland surging with love for its native son and greatest poet, for a man who gave an international life and power to its folklore and braided that magic with his own personal story.
This is the trip I took, a time that encompasses Yeats’s birthday, during
the solsticetide of the year. I am not exaggerating anything I tell you. When you go yourself, you will find it is just as I say. And you will find it is better.
Yeats Exhibition, National Library, Dublin
“I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic.”
The first station on my journey was the Yeats exhibition at the National Library in Dublin. Mentally exhausted from my overnight flight and the steep learning curve of immediately having to drive an unfamiliar Volkswagen Golf on the left side of the road, in and to a place I’d never been before, I took the bus into the city from my Airbnb in the suburbs.
Once I found the neoclassical library on Kildare Street, I settled in. The exhibition was deliberately my only project for the day, to funnel my whole energy toward until closing. The thoroughness of the show is astonishing: first editions of Yeats’s works, cloth-bound, gilt-embossed; a painting of a twenty-two-year-old Yeats as King Goll, by his father; drafts of his poems; his occult studies notebooks full of astrological symbols and notes
in his miniscule, precise, yet scrawling penmanship. A glass case holds his magical tools, made by his own hand and painted by him. I recognized these immediately from photos in an old library book on Yeats and the tarot: his wand, his knife, his cup, his pantacle (sic). It’s unsettlingly intimate to see someone’s magical tools on display, artifacts that had amplified his very life force.
Side rooms are dedicated to different themes, such as Yeats’s politics, the Abbey Theatre, and a whole room dedicated to the women Yeats had affairs with, even after he was married. Before being here, I didn’t know he had these affairs and the new information made me uncomfortable in my skin. I wrote in my notebook: “Think about this later. I wouldn’t want to be married to him.” I stayed until they closed the library and went to have brown bread, vegetable soup, and barley drink for dinner at a close-by vegetarian café before making my exhausted way “home.”
The next day, on the motorway, I practiced driving and exiting on the left, and going at roundabouts clockwise instead of counterclockwise. I knew that my brain had “flipped” when I realized I was enjoying myself, instead of just surviving! I took an interlude from Yeats and threaded down through Wicklow and Wexford, where there were some seals I wanted to meet, then slanted up west to meet Fungie the dolphin in Dingle Bay Harbor.
I deliberately planned my drive so that all of the hostels I stayed in were on water: whether a river, the Irish Sea, or the ocean. Because I love special roads, on the west coast I drove the spectacular Wild Atlantic Way as much as possible, using coastal hostels as a base. At the end of each day’s exploring, I returned from inland to be regenerated by the sound and scent of the waves.
Coole Park and Thoor Ballylee
From Dingle Peninsula, I traveled north, into what’s known as Yeats Country. To be near Coole Park and Thoor Ballylee, I stayed in the windswept folk-music town of Doolin, located at the edge of a vast lunar landscape of stone known as the Burren. As I drove to the interior forests and fields, the Burren was on one side of me, the frothing blue-green North Atlantic opposite and below. Cows, sheep, and horses live in rock-bounded pastures running right up to the edge of the land. This is a mythic landscape of northerly latitudes. None of it is tame.
Coole Park is where Yeats’s friend and patron Lady Augusta Gregory lived. You know it best from when he name-checks it in “The Wild Swans at Coole.” The estate was a refuge and a point of inspiration throughout Yeats’s life, particularly when he was a young poet. Lady Gregory’s great house is no longer extant but her gardens are, including a great grey wall covered by climbing roses. At the museum upstairs in the visitor’s center, I became fascinated by the natural history room with its descriptions of the environment around Coole: the layers of the forest, the elusive pine martens that still inhabit the storied Seven Woods, and the official name for the body of water where the great swans beat their wings—Coole Turlough. “Turlough” means “dry lake.”
Picking my way along the edge of the turlough I did not spy swans immediately but found their white feathers, jeweled with water from a recent rain. My blue boots got caked with mud, some of which is still trapped in their seams. I rippled my hands under the lake’s cool surface, overjoyed at being in physical contact with the water in a poem. When I stopped at one of the big stones on the shoreline to spread out my paper road map and plot my course toward Thoor Ballylee, a sound like someone pounding the dust out of a heavy rug carried over the water. I looked up and saw a great swan skim in for a landing. And yes, it’s true: their wings are so huge, they do bell the air!
I have heard the pigeons of the Seven Woods
Make their faint thunder, and the garden bees
Hum in the lime-tree flowers; and put away
The unavailing outcries and the old bitterness
That empty the heart.
I threaded my way through the Seven Woods, on a trail that follows the course of Yeats’s poem: through Shan-walla, Kyle-dortha, Kyle-na-no, and Inchy Wood. The oaks wore dense coats of fuzzy green moss, even up their branches. I really was walking through a poem— I had dropped into my own dream, Yeats’s memory, and also the poem’s unwritten future. In my time-traveling reverie, I was so quiet I surprised a red squirrel with tufted ears who, chagrined at being caught off guard, dashed out of sight. The trail skirted the edge of a pasture where a huge bull bellowed with love after a cow. I touched the bole of an ancient beech tree with the crown of my head.
It is a short drive from Coole Park to Yeats’s tower, Thoor Ballylee. I knew the tower immediately from my memory ofthe photo in my high school English literature book. But the photograph had not shown me the landscape around the tower. I did not know how tightly the structure hugged into the curve of a river. And I hadn’t foreseen the forest that rose around it. The tower was not isolated, but part of a fertile landscape and in relationship with a flowing riverbed. These are the things I would have missed if I hadn’t gone to see them.
I the poet William Yeats
With old millboards and sea-green slates,
And smithy work from the Gort forge,
Restored this tower for my wife George.
And may these characters remain
When all is ruin once again.
The Thoor had just been re-opened to visitors for Yeats’s sesquicentennial. Lucky for me, because I had been preparing myself to risk trespassing or just wander around outside, haunted by frustrated longing. Inside, there were some living touches that just broke my heart, like the fact that someone had placed bouquets of flowers in makeshift coffee-mug vases on the big table in the dining room. I sat on the windowsill, resting my back against the stone bones of the tower, and gazed down to the river.
When you climb the stair in the Thoor itself, there are no landings—you step right off into the rooms. The only room that is furnished is the master bedroom, which has plastered walls and a hardwood floor. It seems a strange and incongruous attempt at domesticity inside of something so old, forceful, and built to withstand a siege. On the wall of the bedroom is a broadside of a poem Yeats wrote about his wife waking in the night and speaking a kind of “automatic” trance-like speech. A delicate small spider was threading her web in front of the poem.
I continued up the winding stair to the battlements, imagining the persuasions Yeats must have used to convince his wife to live in a drafty old Norman tower—a domestic experiment that only lasted a couple of years before she had them out of there. Thoor Ballylee is the ultimate man cave.
I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of
a stair is my
From the battlements, you look out over the forested landscape. Micro-forests of moss grow on the face of the stones and flowers poke out from between. You can separate nothing here, no human structure, from its biome. Like the spider spinning in front of Yeats’s poem, the natural world, the fae world, refuses to remain still. Above the trees wafts the scent of loam and spice and woodfire—the same scent continuous between Thoor Ballylee and Coole Park.
The sounds of piping appeared in the air. I know enough from fairy stories to know that if you hear the sound of piping in an ancient tower, best to follow it, if only to see what happens. In one of the chambers off the stairway, a student was playing a Japanese flute. All of the visitors at that moment came to listen.
Back outside the tower, I explored down the river, where the other visitors didn’t go, first in one direction where I sat in the crook of a tree whose low-hanging branches skimmed the water’s surface. I looked at my blue boots and wondered how many poems they were going to find themselves in before the trip was through. I followed the river in the other direction until I arrived at an abandoned mill, made of stone, its wooden wheel still intact among the pools. Leaves of liana vines shimmered, creating coves within the little river. I knew that Yeats had walked here, surveying the extent of his holding.
That evening, I returned to the sea, to Doolin to hear the traditional music at the pubs, exhausted from inhabiting many times and dimensions at once.
After Doolin, I was driving north to Aughris Head when I caught my first glimpse of Knocknarea. I had planned to put my things up at the bed and breakfast and then go back out, but the moment I saw the mountain, it seized me like a tractor beam and drew me towards it.
The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth–na-Bare;
Coalite tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling, Away, come away …
You can see Maeve’s tomb, a huge dome of light grey stone that crowns the mountain, from as far away as you can see the mountain itself. I intuited my way to the trailhead, parked, and started to climb. The day was clear and windy. At any moment, ascending the mountainside, you can turn and see the world behind and below you receding into a patchwork. I took my shoes off and went alongside the path, in order to touch the body of the mountain with my bare feet. Everything was dazzling: the lofty wind, the altitude and radiant sun. Close to the summit I dove into a covert and huddled up next to the side of the mountain, to feel the warmth of the earth without having to battle the air. Then it was time to see the tomb.
You can wander all over the top of Knocknarea: there are many other Neolithic traces to discover. But I stayed close to Queen Maeve and the rock walls that divide off the sheep pastures on the mountain. Tufts of sheep’s wool drift across the wiry grass. When I cast my eyes to the northwest across the blue water of Sligo Bay, I gasped to recognize Ben Bulben, the other mountain that awaited me on my quest. I recognized its profile immediately from the map in Song of the Sea.
To me, Sligo feels held between these two mountains, masculine Ben Bulben to the north and queenly Knocknarea to the south. Knocknarea is a female mountain, if ever a mountain were. Whether she has absorbed some of the character of Maeve or whether Maeve partook of her character, when you’re on that summit and you can see in every direction in the sweeping wind, the clouds tumbling over themselves through the sky, water shining so far you below and the bleating of sheep carrying on the air, you feel like a warrior queen. You feel as though you could leap into the sky and fly.
Lough Gill, Dooney Rock, Innisfree, Dromahair
My next stop was Lough Gill, the lake that surrounds Innisfree, and upon the shore of which the blind fiddler of Dooney used to play.
I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.
Dooney Rock is an outcropping alongside Lough Gill. The rock is covered with mature beeches, their gnarly roots diving like porpoises over and under the soil, sometimes with deep hollows fallen away in the earth beneath them. Because it was midsummer, they were strewing bristly nuts all over the carpets of rich green moss. The trails and forest floor were soft so I took off my Keds and carried them in my hands as I clambered up a low tree near the shoreline. I need to put these in my pack, I thought, and did, for safekeeping. Then it was time to stand in Lough Gill, to actually have my skin in contact with the rippling water. I waded in and wriggled my toes. Afterwards, I didn’t put my shoes back on.
I continued exploring the woods. Every next moment, the sun would glint through the branches and leaves, lighting everything up like a chlorophyll paradise. I closed in on the rock, and finally began my clamber up the side of it. At the top, I moved inwards to where a huge beech grows. I curled my body around its base, my belly and thighs against its barky skin. I thought about Yeats’s fiddler, blind, perched on the face of that mossy rock. Perhaps, like a prophet or seer, in some ways he had to be blind to stay here. This place is so saturated with beauty that if I were to live here, I think I would go mad with it.
Okay, Laura, now it’s time to find the proper way down, I thought. I opened my bag for my Keds, and … They weren’t there.
To this day, I know I put them in my bag. There was no way, after following from one dapple of light to another, from one glorious tree to the next, that I was ever going to find them. I had been led on an enchantment! Oh my gosh, I thought, The Other Crowd took my shoes. Fortunately, I was between hostels so my blue boots, the only other pair of shoes I had packed, were in the Golf. Swearing softly and laughing because They had fairly got the better of me, I put on my boots and went on my way, around the shore of the lough, to Innisfree. I resolved that if the Lake Isle of Innisfree was within swimming distance, I would swim to it.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore …
You can hike for a look at Innisfree and Ireland wants you to; they know their treasure. From the lookout deck, though, I saw a spit of land sticking out a short hike to my left and …
Innisfree was within swimming distance. I bushwhacked down to that spit, stowed my backpack in the woods, stripped and changed into my grey surf suit, stuffed my wallet and keys into a baggie to keep dry, and then zipped the baggie against my breastbone. I struck out toward the isle. The water of Lough Gill was dark with tannins yet silvery, clean, and cool under an overcast sky. As I swam across, a flotilla of standup paddleboarders was listening to a reading of the poem from their guide, who perched on a concrete reinforcement at the edge of the island. I raised my head out of the water to hear the poetry, my hair streaming. As they pushed off, one of the boarders called to me, “You look like a mermaid.”
I hauled out on the shore and padded, barefoot and dripping, onto the soil of the isle. It is forested, its paths protected with straw. I could hear the soft patter of rain on the leaves and on the lake. I stood there, breathing. I could not believe what I was living. I was, once again, in the heart of a poem.
He stood among a crowd at Dromahair …
And he had known at last some tenderness.
Damp and famished, I circled the Lough, following the road into Dromahair where I hoped I could find somewhere to eat. I found a pub called Stanford’s with a thatched roof, a newsprint photograph of Yeats in the window, and warm orange fire crackling in the hearth. I nourished myself with vegetable soup, brown bread, and Guinness, explaining to the proprietor, Fergus McGowan, whose family has held this pub for six generations, why I was wet and that the faeries boosted my shoes. He smiled and laughed: “You’ve got a story, there. You should tell it.”
I still cannot believe the epic, timeless stretch of this day. I drove to my new base in the surfing town of Strandhill, where I melted into the golden primordial broth of a seaweed bath at Voya, ate a huge plate of Malaysian sambal, took a crazy long hike through the dunes to see an ancient church while dodging snails whose shells look like gems, and then collapsed into bed. I have no idea where I got so much energy on this seemingly limitless day, unless it was from Yeats, or from the sun—for this was the eve of the summer solstice, so even at eleven o’clock, as I was finally falling asleep, the sky was still swollen with light.
Glencar Waterfall and Drumcliffe Cemetery
From Strandhill, I drove up and inland. This was the day I was going to see Yeats’s grave. First, I was going to the waterfall of Glencar.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters, and the wild …
I felt myself gravitating toward the aspects of Yeats’s life that were wilder, that had to do with the landscape and nature spirits. I wanted to see not just the “sights” themselves, but the whole biomes of which many American voices in the sonic mélange around me. Again, I loitered in the cemetery until I got a chance to take the photograph I wanted, and I left a feather on Yeats’s grave.
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid
It really is true that Yeats is buried “under Ben Bulben.” When you approach his grave from the church side, behind it is Ben Bulben’s southern face in profile, perfectly framed by two great trees.
I waited by a tree whose trunk was braided with husky vines. Near my hand, two snails at rest formed a yin-yang with their shells. It went through me in a surge then that to find what we are looking for in an old graveyard, we should look to the trees. Not at the stones. The old tree I was loitering so casually beside had roots that were intertwined underground with the dead and had been nourished by them. Yeats and all of the people in the cemetery are part of those trees.
I put my cheek against its trunk.
Ben Bulben and Sligo Town
After spending another night in Strandhill, it was finally time to go to the city: to Sligo, Yeats’s town in the west. My challenge was to find a way to access Ben Bulben before I ran out of time. The mountain’s vertical faces were too steep for me to climb, but I couldn’t even find a way to get to it. From the distance, it beckoned, but seemed unreachable.
The urban energy of Sligo was an intense contrast after the open spaces of ocean and country. I navigated to my hostel, the statue of Yeats on the corner marking the turning, a protective presence. My room looked out over the Garavogue River, where a flotilla of sixteen swans cruised in procession over the dark water.
Despairing of reaching the mountain, I planned to drive up to see a Yeats play being staged on Streedagh Beach. But after I’d walked two miles to the remote performance site, the play was late in starting and the sky opened up to rain. I couldn’t waste any more of the day, so, frustrated, I started back to town—and on the way back, passed a sign for the Ben Bulben Forest Trail! I would never have seen the sign if I had not made the abortive attempt to see the play. Keep this in mind when you are traveling in Ireland: you often will be fairy-led, so stay open to possibilities, always.
Ben Bulben rears up from the surrounding countryside like the prow of an ocean liner, a train on the move, or a sphinx, with a rhododendron forest below him. When you walk the trail, his northern face rises vertically beside you, so far away and huge that sheep grazing in buddy pairs on his downward slope are white flecks, but with a presence so expansive you feel like you could touch him simply by reaching out your hand. In the mossy woods, shamrocks grow in lush clumps around the bases of trees and alongside ancient stone walls.
Back in Sligo, I used the water like a talisman to orient myself as I explored downtown. Dining quayside at Fiddler’s Creek, I sat by the fire, but also where I could see the Garavogue. Even downtown, there were men fishing for salmon on the river.
The next morning, before driving back to Dublin, I had beans on toast and tomato in the Yeats Memorial Building, in the café named for his sisters, with my favorite portrait of Yeats looking on. I felt watched over and taken care of by him, and not only him, but also the spirits, here and throughout my entire journey. “Indeed there are times when the worlds are so near together that it seems as if our earthly chattels were no more than the shadows of things beyond.”
To walk these places is to inhabit a poem, and see through a poet’s eyes, but in a way intrinsic to you. I have my version of Yeats, the wilder version. The drawing-room version—the pince-nez version, of gauze, taxidermied birds in display-cases, and china sets—exists too, but that Yeats is for someone else. I wanted the faery Yeats, to be outside where the sky, water, and trees are. I wanted to beat across the atmosphere like a mythic storm of Faerie, hosting with the Sidhe, who now possess a pair of my shoes as my token of passage.
All photos are from Irish photographer Ciaran McHugh’s “Into the Twilight – The Landscape of WB Yeats” collection. Learn more at Ciaranmchugh.com.
Article from the Winter 2015 Issue #33
Print // Digital // Subscribe