From the moment you set foot in Ireland and see W.B. Yeats’ face gazing up at you from the 2O note, you know you’re in a country that likes its writers--a lot.
In a city such as Dublin, which literally swims in poetic romance and nostalgia, you can’t quite make out whether Ireland’s grandest writers--Yeats and James Joyce--would be moved or amused by the reverence the Irish accord their literati.
But a visit to Yeats’ castle, Thoor Ballylee, is a trip into his mind.
Really a three-story stone tower, it was the great playwright and poet’s summer home for 12 years, mostly during the 1920s when he restored it himself.
The castle was a retreat that not only affected his poetic self--"I am writing poetry here,” he wrote to a friend, “and as always happens no matter how I begin, it becomes love poetry before I am finished with it"--it helped fulfill his human need for restoration from city life and the demands of fame: “As you see I have no news, for nothing happens in this blessed place, but a stray beggar or a heron.”
The castle is 125 miles west of Dublin, 21 miles southeast of Galway. It’s a three-hour car ride through masses of cows, sheep, green pastures and sun that is typical of Ireland.
My friend and I arrived in the Irish mist, soft raindrops off and on, which only added to the poetry of the experience. On the approach to the nearby town of Gort, sign-posted rather nonchalantly--as is the Irish wont--was a little white arrow on a piece of wood labeled “Yeats’ Tower.” It would have been easy to miss.
After a few miles in dense country roadway, his property came into view: the tower; two thatched, whitewashed cottages; a walled garden and a grove of trees, clinging to land on the Cloone river.
Yeats’ greeting was posted on the tower:
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.
A marvelous bookstore dedicated to Yeats is housed in the largest cottage. It’s piled and shelved high with literary books and exquisite posters of Yeats’ poetry printed on his own press, Cuala Prints, which is still run by his daughter, Anne Yeats. For anyone touched by Yeats’ work, it is a difficult room to move through quickly.
In the tower, past huge wood doors is what, at first, seems like a modern intrusion: an audio-visual presentation on Yeats. Thankfully un-touristy, it is well done and offers a refresher course on Yeats’ life. There are even two or three surprises for the Yeats-phile, but I won’t spoil.
The Kiltarten International Summer School--an intensive course on Yeats’ work--meets at Thoor Ballylee in mid-July for about two weeks. (For information, contact Queen’s College in Belfast, Northern Ireland.)
You can explore Thoor Ballylee aided only by a tape-recorded message that plays at a slow pace inside each room. Even though I wanted to see this place as Yeats saw it, to hear the River Cloone’s sound and the blackbird’s racket from each window, yielding to the tape-recorded tour illustrated by Andy O’Mahoney’s rich Irish voice did not intrude on the melody of the moment.
The tape serenades you with the history of Thoor Ballylee: It was built by Normans in the 16th Century and was continuously occupied almost until the time that Yeats and his wife Georgina moved in. Many of the other towers scattered across this part of Ireland stand abandoned and crumbled, transformed by time and weather into eerie, vine-covered silhouettes. But Thoor Ballylee was almost always a home. The two thatched cottages and the enclosed garden were added in the 19th Century by a farmer and his wife.
Yeats first saw Thoor Ballylee on an early visit to the home of his lifelong friend, Lady Gregory, at Coole Park, a few miles away. In 1917, he bought the tower and cottage and what he referred to as an “acre of stone ground” adjoining the property for about $200.
After Yeats’ death in 1939, the tower stood empty and fell into despair. Bord Failte, Ireland’s tourist organization, set about to restore it and the tower was formally opened in June, 1965, on what would have been Yeats’ 100th birthday.
During the visit you can read excerpts from letters in which Yeats talks about his dreams and plans for Thoor Ballylee: how he saw it as a gathering place and a refuge for young writers, how he wished he had had it when James Joyce needed rest, comfort and literary connections.
Yeats and Georgina spent a great deal of time and money refurbishing Thoor Ballylee, but its stark simpleness is its charm. The rooms are thick-walled and whitewashed, sparsely decorated--a large elmwood bed here, a battered, massive oak dining table there. To see Yeats’ bedroom is to know the true simple spirit of the man.
The tower, of course, is narrow and vertical, so the staircase to the many rooms is tight and small. It’s probably one of the most famous irritatingly narrow staircases in literary history, and as such was inspiration for Yeats’ book of poems, “A Winding Stair.”
As you walk through the bottom bedroom (painted blue and called the Blueroom by Georgina Yeats), through the dining room and Yeats’ bedroom, and what Yeats liked to call the Stranger’s Room (guest room), you’ll notice the emphasis on what feels like a blank-page approach to home environment. Everything is kept white, with minimalist furniture in light pine, elm and oak. Everything is kept open and clean. There seems no agenda at Thoor Ballylee except to leave the senses open to imagination.
The room at the highest end of the cramped stairs is not really a room at all but the tower’s magnificent rooftop. Standing at the tower’s battlements, you finally have a 36O-degree view from Yeats’ viewpoint, and I remember thinking how no one could walk away without understanding why Yeats’ poetry was so breathtaking. And also why he loved this gentle green country of his so much.
His view is our view: the same sun burning through the mists, gray sheep and quiet cows grazing on the fields, the same rocky wall-enclosed meadows carpeted in green and dusty white flowers.
Really, nothing much has disturbed Ireland’s charm. It is still utterly unspoiled, emerald sea washing in fingers among green fields, white sand, wild coast, cows, friendly people, honey-tasting whiskey, peat fires that smell like spiced bread--yes, you can actually understand all of this standing on Thoor Ballylee’s peak.
It begins to rain hard, so up go the umbrellas and a cute French teen-age couple practice their English. They want to come to America, and are chattering on about Hollywood and the endless sunshine.
Finally, we all begin laughing at the absurdity of the conversation as we look out over the gorgeous countryside of Ireland’s most cherished poet’s home.
Yeats’ Tower Retreat
Getting there: Thoor Ballylee is just outside Gort, County Galway, about halfway between Shannon Airport and Galway--one mile off the Galway/Gort road N 18, and one mile off the Gort/Loughrea Road N 66.
Where to stay: Galway is about one hour away. Contact the Irish Tourist Board for a listing of hostels, hotels and B&Bs; in the area.
Where to eat: A charming tea shop adjacent to the Thoor Ballylee Bookstore is newly refurbished. Order tea, coffee, mineral waters, biscuits and butter, scones and cheeses.
Thoor Ballylee is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week, May through September. Admission: adults about $5, children $1.50. Arrangements can be made for visitors arriving in Ireland during the off-season months of October through April.
For more information: Contact Thoor Ballylee, Gort, County Galway. Call locally 091-31436 (off-season call 091-63081), or contact the Irish Tourist Board, 757 3rd Ave., 19th Floor, New York 10017, (212) 418-0800 or (800) 223-6470.