Knowing Yeats, Knowing Sligo

It’s well known that Yeats drew inspiration all his life from his time spent staying with relatives in his beloved Sligo during childhood and early adulthood.  We asked another Sligo writer, Nicola Ryan, who moved to the area herself in her teenage years, to recount her relationship with the poet through their adopted home county.

Yeats Country

Image Credit: Raymond Fogarty

It is not for nothing Sligo is known as the Yeats country. If you have even a nodding acquaintance with the poet’s work, you won’t to be there for long without being reminded of lines from the poems. This is far from happenchance, of course as Yeats again and again found his inspiration in Sligo, the beloved landscape of his childhood. His words come to mind easily because he was determined that the syntax would ring true to Irish life and not come from ‘a second-hand culture’ picked up from styles of English literature which had gone before.

I first came to Sligo when I was fifteen and my family moved there from Athlone. Even for a careless teen, more worried about leaving her friends than about the place she was going to, it was impossible to avoid the poet.

I was familiar with him, of course, given that I was studying for my Leaving Cert, and Yeats was our most prominent Irish poet. I even liked him, but he seemed far distant, belonging to a time very much before my own. Yet, within a few years, Yeats and myself would have a house in common – Avena House in Ballisodare. For me, it became our family home a few years after we arrived in Sligo. For him, it was the home of his grand-uncle William Middleton, where he often stayed with his cousins while in Sligo on his holidays, especially George. George was about his own age and had ‘a piebald pony that had once been in a circus’ so that it sometimes walked around in a circle as if it were still in the ring.

The Middletons were happy to associate with the villagers, both in Ballisodare and at Rosses Point where they had their summer home. Yeats credited these excursions into local homes with awakening the lifelong interest in ‘country stories’ and Irish mythology that became so fundamentally important to him. It was in Ballisodare, (in the very kitchen of Avena House according to solicitor and local Yeats scholar, J.P. McGarry) he listened in adulthood to the tales of the gardener, Paddy Flynn, ‘a little bright-eyed old man’, and used many of them in his Celtic Twilight. It was in Ballisodare too he heard an old woman singing the folk song that he turned into his poem Down by the Sally Gardens. (Yeats would have been familiar with the cottage gardens of time, growing willow trees so that the young branches or ‘sallies’ could be used to bind the roof thatch.) Avena House remains a private home to this day, surrounded by walled grounds of almost an acre, at the centre of the village. The Middleton & Pollexfen mills with which it was associated were still there in my time, but are now no more.


My Ballisodare connection was in the unknowable future, of course, on the day we first arrived in Sligo, following the removal truck to our temporary home in town. I remember we crested the hill at the top of Pearse road and there I recognised ahead the unmistakable shape of ‘bare Benbulben’s head’. It was just as the poet had described it when he asked to be buried in its shadow, beside Drumcliff church, his grave marked by a simple limestone slab.

In his lifetime, Yeats was fascinated by Benbulben’s significance in the country tales. He called Drumcliff a ‘gentle’ place, meaning the people still knew and respected the old ‘faery’ ways. He wrote in Celtic Twilight of a particular limestone flag on the mountainside that marks the entrance to faeryland: ‘No mortal has ever touched it with his hand; no sheep or goat has ever browsed grass beside it.’ From here the fabulous Shidhe emerged for their night hunts, and if there was a new bride or new baby in the mortal community, a watch must be kept to make sure they had not been stolen away! More readily visible to mortal eyes on Benbulben is the cave said to have been the last resting place of the ill-fated aristocratic lovers, Diarmuid and Grainne.

Knocknarea is the other guardian of the entrance to Sligo. Visible from some miles out, it rises cleanly from a flat landscape of green fields, and is crowned on top with the unmistakable profile of Maeve’s cairn. I have walked up the mountain from the Glen Road side many times, unaware until recently that I was literally following in the footsteps of the poet – hillwalking not being an activity one would generally associate with Yeats! In selecting Knocknarea as the setting for his quasi-Celtic hero, Red Hanrahan, Yeats didn’t realise what an extremely ancient site it was. ‘Maeve’s cairn’ is a vastly earlier construction than was dreamed of in the poet’s lifetime; it’s not just that it predates the Celts, it probably pre-dates the pyramids, and is most likely about five thousand years old. Staying in Ballisodare as a youth, Yeats thought he had seen bright lights dancing up the mountainside; how fascinating that archaeologists are now speculating Knocknarea was in ancient times a sacred place of pilgrimage. They have discovered the remains of what was possibly a ceremonial route. It runs along what was until now thought to be a natural ridge circling the summit, so there may well have been torchlit processions along its slopes.

In Athlone, ‘lake’ meant the mighty Lough Ree, shoreline 192 km, to be sampled in measured bites. We soon found that Lough Gill was the perfect size for a Sunday afternoon spin- a round-trip of about 35 km/22 miles.

The viewing point for Yeats’ Lake Isle of Inisfree is approximately 8 km out of town. A short detour off the main road (signposted), down a lane, and there it is – a small, tree covered island seeming not that far away across the water. At the end of the lane there’s a little jetty. Standing there, the light-gravelled shore is surprisingly close to the road. It was a delight to find the lakewater actually does lap along it with that ‘low’ clear sound that Yeats heard in his ‘deep heart’s core’.

When he first thought of living on the island, ‘alone in the bee-loud glade’ Yeats was a teenager. He had been very taken by the ideas of Henry David Thoreau, and dreamed of living in a cabin on Inisfree, like Thoreau did on Walden pond. The closest he managed to get to this was to spend a night in the open in Slish wood overlooking the lake. In his Autobiographies he writes that he walked out from his uncle George Pollexfen’s house in Thornhill one beautiful evening and stayed in the wood from which he could see ‘my island’, until dawn. He had intended to sleep, but found he was so worried that he might be caught by the forest ranger, he passed the night thinking of excuses he could offer for trespassing! However, he did have the pleasure of seeing Inisfree as the dawn broke, and hearing the birdsong. He then walked back ‘unimaginably tired and sleepy’ having covered, he says, around thirty miles in total!

By the time he wrote the poem, he was starting to give up on his youthful dream of seeking wisdom by living with Nature. One day in Fleet Street, he was feeling miserable and very homesick for Sligo. Fortunately for us, the tinkling of a miniature fountain in a London shop window brought Inisfree viscerally to mind, and inspired his evocative poem of loss, and longing for place. Fortunately for me, I get to return to Sligo whenever I want to – which is often.


About The Writer: Nicola Ryan lived in Sligo and was a journalist with The Sligo Champion from 1971 till until 1987.   She also compiled and edited ‘Femforum’, a weekly women’s page for the paper.  She now lives in Dublin with her husband Philip and in recent years completed a degree in History of Art and Architecture.  In keeping with her Sligo interests, her thesis concerned the architecture of Lissadell House. She recently completed a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin.

Image Credits: Colin Gillen at Framelight Studio.