Yet how can anyone with a romantic soul, coming to Yeats afresh, fail to find magic in those highly charged rhymes; that cast of mythical and legendary characters conjured from myths both ancient and his own; that passion, those fiery politics? And who, visiting Sligo and its surrounding countryside, can stand on the shore of Lough Gill without fumbling for the lines:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there of clay and wattles made.
And when Ben Bulben looms into view, a geological Big Brother keeping an eye on Sligo town, who can look on this strange, barrow-like mountain without remembering these lines:
Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by]
Yeats haunts Co Sligo, still one of the most romantic counties of Ireland (despite the rash of Andalucian and Mexican-style bungalows that blight Ireland's west coast from Burtonport to Skibbereen). Life goes on without the poet, a roundelay of races, horse shows, markets, fairs, pubs and tourist trails; yet the man is inescapable. In Sligo, a town of old-fashioned yet lively character, gaggles of American PhD students attend the annual Yeats summer school. Then there is the Yeats Memorial Museum, bars with names such as Yeats' Tavern and those quill-pen signs: follow in the footsteps of Ireland's very own bard.
In summer you can take a boat ride from Sligo along Lough Gill; with coffee and biscuits, you will be offered readings from Yeats' most popular poems. The lanes that twist around the lake and the grey churchyard at Drumcliff are crowded with coaches crawling, stanza by stanza, on Yeats tours. Boats stop at what the locals prosaically call Cat Island on Lough Gill, but the tourist guides and A-level notes know as 'the Lake Isle of Innisfree'. You will never find yourself 'alone in the bee-loud glade' at the height of summer; instead you will jostle with tourists sporting dazzling leisure wear, flashing the lights of their video cameras. Yeats is an industry as much as a poet.
Arise and go to Innisfree out of season, however, and what the tourist offices call Yeats' Country is quiet, delightful, moving and wet. Even in summer the sky Yeats' brother Jack loved to paint is mercurial; in spring you might start a walk to Innisfree under a balmy sun and arrive soaked to the skin; begin an ascent of Maeve's Mountain - the 1,100ft peak overlooking Sligo from the south and topped with an ancient grave said to be that of the mythical Queen of Connaught - under a benign sky and arrive at the top in freezing fog; ride an Irish hunter along the white sands of Strandhill on a clear morning, turn towards Coney Island (the original) and be beaten back by swirling snow.
This, the stuff of Irish romance, is the reason to come to this unpredictable land. Perhaps most of the local architecture is second-rate, perhaps the food is only rarely up to scratch (not true of the whisky and beer) and perhaps the towns look a little down at heel. Sligo offers poetry instead of cuisine. No wonder Yeats returned here so often; no wonder his verse darts so quickly, delves so deeply; little wonder that, though he died at Roquebrune, Cap Martin, in the Alpes Maritime in 1939, he asked to be buried under Ben Bulben's bare head (which he was, finally, in 1948).
There is no point in following the Yeats' trail faithfully; places mentioned in many of the poems are used as fleeting symbols to catch a mood or evoke a feeling. Innisfree itself is a funny little island, so tiny and so crowded that it looks like a pot-plant set in water. Come here, though, in the gloaming of late spring along a serpentine lane lined with harebells and wild garlic and listen to the lake water lapping and to the linnets' wings, and see how the sky turns from blue to purple, recalling another Yeats poem:
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet.
Come here at noon on a warm summer's day and Innisfree may leave you cold. Lissadell House, however, cannot fail to move. A short walk west along a lovely lane on the Sligo shoreline from Drumcliff church, this Greek Revival pile evokes Yeats' lionising of the Anglo-Irish gentry at their grandest and most faded.
The poet first came to Lissadell, home of the Gore-Booth family, in the summer of 1894. The house was built in 1830 by Sir Robert Gore-Booth, father of the revolutionary Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz (the first female MP elected to Westminster; earlier she had been sentenced to death for her part in the 1916 uprising) and her poetic sister Eva. Yeats, whose family came from middle-class and industrial stock (his grandfather William Pollexfen owned the mills which you can still see as you ride through Ballisodare, a few miles south of Sligo), was captivated by this household of great architecture, radical politics, horses and high culture.
The Gore-Booths still live here, an elderly brother and sister, for whom time appears to have stopped sometime before the First World War. Thirty- three years after his first visit, and when his admiration for these rebellious sisters had mellowed, he recalled:
The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle
The great windows still open to the south, and the house is both time machine and treasure trove. Strictly for romantics, Lissadell has been left as its architect and its first two generations of owners meant it to be. Morris wallpaper hangs in sad scrolls from the walls and, though the figures of family and retainers that Count Markievicz painted on the pilasters of the dining room have faded, essentially nothing has changed and the house is the better for it.
Many locals would like to see Lissadell House turned into a luxury hotel. With luck that will never happen. Here, more than at Innisfree or in Drumcliff churchyard, you will find Yeats, the Anglo-Irish society and beautiful women who inspired him to greatness.
Elsewhere in this watery, soft-lit county with its low purple mountains and painterly skies, you will come across places associated with Yeats: beaches, ghosts, houses and mountains that he laced through his poetry, creating his new myths and legends. Here are the salley gardens - Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet - among the willow beds at Ballisodare.
Here is the beach at Streedagh where three Spanish galleons were wrecked in 1588: 1,100 corpses were found, of men drowned, throttled by the Irish, cut down by the English. Captain Francisco de Cuellar found shelter with Teige Og MacClancy in his island castle at Rosclougher on Lough Melvin. Of such stuff Irish legends are woven and great poetry wrought.
The same rough sea inspired the Welsh poet Arthur Symonds to write while staying with Yeats at Silberry's cottage beside the waterfall at Glencar: 'I have never seen so friendly a sea, nor a sea so full of the ecstasy of sleep.' Sligo is a land of dreams; you can see whatever you want to see.
Yeats' vision, however, etches itself indelibly on the memory. Back home, these lines will recall for you the mythical landscape that exists on beaches, in old houses and under heather-shrouded mountains - if you want it to, and if you forget the guidebooks and those quill-pen signs:
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
Getting there: Flights to Knock, Ryanair from Stansted (071-435 7101), from pounds 78.
Where to stay: Coopershill, Riverstown, Co Sligo (010 353 71 65108), phone for rates. Glorious grey stone Palladian house on a sheep farm.
Books: Collected Poems, by W B Yeats (Papermac, pounds 6.95).
Sligo, Land of Yeats' Desire, by John Cowell (The O'Brien Press, pounds 9.95).
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