Read about the re-opening of Thoor Ballylee by artist and spectator Róisín Curé.
“Everything is so beautiful that to go elsewhere is to leave beauty behind.”
Those are the words of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, referring to his summer home in the gentle countryside near Gort in Co. Galway. I went there recently to take part in the celebrations to re-open the tower to the public, timed to coincide with Yeats’ 150th birthday. I think Yeats summed it up perfectly with those words – the beauty of the tower and its setting is breathtaking at this time of year.
All Irish schoolkids learn the poetry of W.B.Yeats. My classmates and I thought it was brilliant. We wished we could have made Maud Gonne return Yeats’ unrequited love, although all we had to do was think of some poor boy who had similar feelings for one of us, and we understood how Maud must have felt. Yeats wrote The Cloths of Heaven for her:
“Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
By the time we got to university, in the throes of some unrequited passion of our own, it somehow helped to quote the last two lines to our girlfriends over a drink in the College Bar. This happened a lot…and I did science. I can only imagine what it must have been like on the Arts campus.
William Butler Yeats spent twelve summers at Thoor Ballylee, from 1917 until 1929. The tower has been subject to vicissitudes of the weather over the years, such as flooding of the Streamstown River which flows alongside the base of the tower. The damage the floods wreaked forced the tower to close to the public in 2009. In 2013 a local group got together to have the tower renovated, and the re-opening of Thoor Ballylee finally came about on 13th June 2015. I was delighted to be there, and I took the opportunity to make a few sketches.
I knew the countryside around Gort was lovely in June, but once my children and I had left the main Limerick road the landscape became truly gentle. The narrow road twisted and turned, rose and fell, and was flanked on either side by fields, some yellow with the stubble of recently-cut grass, some still bright green. A farmer next to his tractor gave directions to the woman in front of me with a friendly smile. My kids – who had tried hard to be cynical and funny about the event on the journey down – were soothed into silence.
After a few more twists and turns, the tower of Thoor Ballylee appeared through the trees, rising to our right on the edge of the road. Streamstown River, barely more than a stream in the dry summer weather, runs at the foot of the tower. Soft afternoon sunlight filtered through the trees all around the tower and the thatched cottage built on the far side of the tower. Later, I overheard someone say that the river in flood could rise to the roof level of the thatch, but it was hard to picture on the summer day of our visit. What I could picture, however, was John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara wading through the river in John Ford’s The Quiet Man, for a scene which was filmed here at Thoor Ballylee.
I always enjoy the comments I overhear, particularly those of children.
“Mummy, that lady is face-painting,” said a little girl to her mother.
The woman turned to me. “Is that all that art has been reduced to,” she said ruefully. “Face-painting.”
“I was just thinking the same thing,” I answered.
Other children got the idea more quickly. I was particularly taken by two very pretty girls with long black hair next to me who were interested and respectful, asking intelligent questions about my materials.
After the music, there were some speeches by members of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society, the group formed to make the re-opening of the Tower a reality. There were thanks to the various people who had contributed to the restoration of the tower – some extremely generously. The clearing was stuffed to capacity by this stage. It was my moment to draw the crowd listening, as they formed the sketcher’s favourite human subject – the captive audience.
A few people had arrived in period costume, adding to the festive atmosphere. My daughter pointed out a lady in crushed brown velvet whom she wanted me to draw. That’s her on the far left. Then Fidelma Healy-Eames, the chairperson of Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society, made an announcement from the stage.
“Can you keep the road clear, please,” she said. “There’s a horse coming.”
We looked to our left as the sound of clopping hooves could be heard above the hum of the crowd. A man on a fine white horse halted just outside the tower. He was dressed as Yeats, complete with distinctive glasses, bow tie and floppy white hair.
The crowd hushed and “Yeats” (the actor Colm Farrell) began to declaim a poem. It was The Song of Wandering Aengus.
“I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands,
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.”
The first time I heard this was on the album Ride On by Christy Moore, when I was in my early twenties. I didn’t know at the time that it was a poem by W.B.Yeats. I just knew I had to listen to it over and over again. It’s very likely I was feeling unrequited love for someone – pretty much my default state at the time.
After Colm’s poetry reading, I heard the sound of children laughing, and peeked into the thatched cottage to have a look. There was the Galway storyteller Niall de Búrca, with a sea of children at his feet, paying rapt attention, spellbound by his animated storytelling style. After the stories, I wanted to see the inside of Thoor Ballylee, but my children were getting restless – I guess their serenity was shortlived. So I went back the next day to explore the tower itself, and to make a couple more sketches. The tower is just as you would want it to be: a winding stone staircase leads you from level to level, with arrow-slits so narrow that you wonder why they bothered, and ante-rooms and side-rooms, dead ends and blank passages, making the journey to the top a vertical maze. The stone staircase inspired Yeats’ poem “The Winding Stair”. A new, unvarnished pine bed occupies the last room before the roof, the better to help us picture it as a bedroom. I overheard a boy of about ten say to his slightly older, taller friend, “That’s his actual bed, you know. It looks brand new but it’s his actual bed.” Both boys wore wellies and I realised they were local – this was their new stomping ground, as the last time the tower was open they were just toddlers, too young to have wandered unsupervised.
I climbed to the roof and went through the arched doorway at the end of the last stretch of stone staircase, which is very low, and a bit scary. Looking over the parapets there is patchwork countryside in all shades of yellow and green as far as the eye can see. I wanted to draw it, but as soon as I sat down I couldn’t see it any more. I should have put Art before Comfort and stood to sketch, but I did not, and I apologise. I will do so next time. But at the time, I told myself that you could still get the feeling of being in the eagles’ nest by the vista of clouds that I sketched…I hope you agree, and can picture rolling fields and green trees all around at the bottom…
“What year was the tower built?” he asked.
“About five hundred years ago,” said the man in the white shirt.
“Was it the de Burgos who built it?” asked the first man.
“That’s it,” said the man in the white shirt.
Their conversation developed and soon they were discussing history, politics and the locality in that highly-informed but unpreposessing way that so impresses visitors to Ireland.
Then the the quiet evening air was rent by the screams of a very small boy having a tantrum. He was about two years old, bright purple in the face, and he seemed about to burst his lungs with his screaming and crying. His mother remained calm and walked on, heading away from the tower and back towards the car park. Eventually I managed to make out the words of the little boy.
“I don’t want to go home!” he screamed. “MUMMY! I want to go back! I DON’T WANT TO GO HOME!”
I’m with the little boy. I want to go back. Thoor Ballylee has a curiously magnetic effect on me and I can’t believe that it’s only ten minute’s drive from my home. There’ll be more sketches of hazel woods and winding stairs yet.
Find out more about Róisín Curé on her website.