Travel: You should arise and go now to Innisfree: W B Yeats found his inspiration in Sligo. Jonathan Glancey sets off on a tour of the poet's dreamland

SCRATCHY old recordings of the poet reading 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', A-level papers asking 18-year-olds to assess him as a love poet, quill-pen road signs pointing summer visitors to 'heritage' sites linked to the man's life: such things may have put you off William Butler Yeats for life.

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).

(Photograph and map omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss