In search of Ireland, as Yeats knew it

Ireland reveres its storytellers. William Butler Yeats once graced the nation's 20 note, as James Joyce now appears on the 10. Important sites in writers' lives are preserved, and a handful of poets and writers are national icons more easily recognized than any politician or sports star.

Why? Perhaps because its writers best capture Ireland's mythic view of itself, or perhaps because poets have always occupied an esteemed spot in Irish culture.

Either way, Ireland enjoys one of the world's most illustrious literary reputation, with four Nobel Prize-winners - Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney - and almost as many poets, playwrights, and novelists as fieldstones in its emerald pastures.

Because Ireland is so entwined in poetry, a traveler must understand its poets to understand the Irish character - and vice versa.

Chief among the poets is Yeats, whose inspiration welled mainly from the scenic district where he spent the best years of his life and which now bears his name.

"Yeats created a new Irish identity which was, in part, to provide an ideological base for the new nation-state," says Frank Kelly, owner of the Book Nest, a small bookstore in Yeats's beloved Sligo. "This identity was formed from Irish myths and legends as well as folklore, much of which was rooted around Sligo."

Start your Yeats exploration at the Dublin Writers Museum (18/19 Parnell Square North). The magnificent 18th-century Georgian mansion, just five minutes walk from O'Connell Street, in the heart of the city where the poet was born, houses the books, letters, portraits and personal items of Dublin's literati over the past 300 years.

With Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory in 1905, Yeats founded what became Dublin's famous Abbey Theatre, a former morgue at the Liffey end of Marlborough Street. As its director and dramatist, Yeats nurtured the Abbey into a center of the Irish literary revival called the Irish Renaissance.

The theater premired raucously controversial plays, which were often disrupted by riots. But that was the old Abbey, which burned in 1951; the new Abbey has little of the same romantic character. Nonetheless, tickets are hard to come by, so book early.

After Yeats returned to Dublin from Oxford in 1922, a year before he won the Nobel Prize, he bought a Georgian mansion at No. 83 Merrion Square. That same year, he became a senator of the new Irish Free State, illustrating the passionate blending of his art and his politics. In "A Vision," Yeats mounts an elaborate attempt to explain the mythology, symbolism, and philosophy that underlie his writing.

But the essence of Yeats won't be found in Dublin. The landscape that influenced and inspired him is in the northwestern counties, mainly Sligo, Galway, Donegal, and Leitrim, loosely forming a region now known as Yeats Country.

Three miles south of Sligo on scenic R286 is Lough Gill and the legendary Isle of Innisfree, the subject of some of Yeats's most famous lines. At lakeside beneath Parkes Castle, you can catch a small ferry to the island.

Farther south in County Galway, you can visit a tower house Yeats bought for 35, a real estate bargain even in 1917. The restored medieval structure became one of the central symbols in his poetry, most obvious in "The Tower."

Today, many rare first editions of his work are displayed there, just off the N66 Highway north of the village of Gort.

Two miles northeast of Gort is Coole Park, the home of Lady Gregory, Yeats's patroness. Her house is gone, but if you wander into her old walled garden, you'll find a copper chestnut tree inside an iron railing. It served as Lady Gregory's "guest book" and still bears the carved initials of George Bernard Shaw, Sean O'Casey, and Jack Yeats, among others.

In life, as in literature, endings are part of the story. Yeats is buried with his wife, Georgie, in the churchyard at Drumcliffe in County Sligo, under the poetic epitaph he wrote for himself just days before his death: "Cast a cold eye on life, on death, Horseman pass by."

The love of his life, Maud Gonne, lies with her children in Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery, a gothic graveyard where some of Ireland's greatest political, social, and artistic figures are buried.

Finally, if you are a dedicated Yeats disciple and have plenty of time, consider enrolling in the two-week Yeats Summer School (Yeats Memorial Building, Douglas Hyde Bridge, Sligo; phone 011-353-71-42693).

The course covers not only his writing, but his contemporaries, Celtic myth, and his historical impact on Ireland.

But you needn't buy a ticket or book a seat for the best Yeats attraction of all: County Sligo. In every drumlin, you might see a word of his poetry, and in every lough, a line.

You never know what you'll find, and it's best to remain open to the unexpected, because in Yeats Country the magic is in the place, not the pages of a guidebook.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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