What better place to spend the first day of Reading Ireland Month than in the heart of Yeats Country in Sligo?
I was lucky enough to spend the day there yesterday, attending meetings to advance the links between Seamus Heaney and one of his literary heroes, WB Yeats.
We had a great trip, visiting Drumcliff Churchyard, where Yeats is buried, Lissadell House and the Yeats Memorial House in Sligo town centre.
Lissadell House was the childhood home of Constance Gore-Booth, later Constance Markiewicz and as a child, William Butler Yeats visited Lissadell for cricket matches and horse racing; and as a young man the poet made friends with the Gore-Booth sisters Constance and Eva, and often stayed at Lissadell during the years 1893-1895. Eva created a Sligo branch of the Irish Women’s Suffrage, which was where Lissadell was situated while Constance Markiewicz was an Irish National Revolutionary, and became the first female elected to the British House of Commons; although as a member of Sinn Fein she would not accept the seat. She was sentenced to death after the Easter Rising of 1916, but the sentence was commuted to imprisonment – following a public outcry both in Britain and Ireland – because she was a woman. The sisters died within one year of each other in 1926 and 1927.
At Lissadell, Yeats experienced “a very pleasant, kindly, inflammable family, ever ready to take up new ideas and new things”, and “an exceedingly impressive house with a great sitting room as high as a church and all things in good taste. Outside it is grey, square and bare yet set amid delightful grounds”.
He may not have agreed with Constance Markiewicz’s politics, but they were a great source of inspiration to each other and he was a lifelong admirer of her grit, bravery and determination.
ON A POLITICAL PRISONER
She that but little patience knew
From childhood on, had now so much.
A grey gull lost its fear and flew
Done to her cell and there alit,
And there endured her finger’s touch
And from her fingers ate its bit.
Did she in touching that lone wing
Recall the years before her mind
Became a bitter, an abstract thing,
Her thoughts some popular enmity;
Blind and leader of the blind,
Drinking the foul ditch where they lie?
When long ago I saw her ride
Under Ben Bulben to the meet,
The beauty of her countryside
With all youth’s lonely wildness stirred,
She seemed to have grown clean and sweet
Like any rock-bred, sea-born bird:
Sea-born and balanced on the air,
When first it sprang out of the nest
Upon some lofty rock to stare
Upon the cloudy canopy,
While under its storm-beaten breast
Cries out the hollows of the sea.
The Yeats Memorial Building is centrally located on Hyde Bridge, in Sligo Town Centre. This beautiful building is the home of the Yeats Society, Sligo who run the Yeats International Summer School every summer.
The building was donated to the Yeats Society by the AIB Bank in 1973 and now houses an audio visual exhibition of the life of William Butler Yeats and his contemporaries; a reference library containing over 3,000 titles and available for research purposes and the Hyde Bridge Gallery which presents a year round programme of touring exhibitions.
On site is also the beautifully named Lily and Lolly Café – those names referring to Yeats’ two sisters, Susan (Lily) and Elizabeth (Lolly) who have often remained under the shadow of their two famous brothers.
Lily was a needle worker for William Morris and Lolly a teacher when they set up a craft business employing only women. From this grew Cuala Press, their publishing company which published William’s early work and also work by Ezra Pound and JM Synge and provided both women, and the Yeats’ family with a regular income.
They are a fascinating pair of women – like most women surrounding the Yeats mythology – and are deserving of their own place in the Irish literary landscape. You can find out more about the sisters here.
I spent a fascinating day in Sligo and wish I could have spent longer, but it was a wonderful way to kick off my month of Irish literary celebrations!