In The Rolling Hills Of Galway, Spirit Of W.B. Yeats Lives On | KERA News

In The Rolling Hills Of Galway, Spirit Of W.B. Yeats Lives On

Jun 12, 2015
Originally published on June 12, 2015 6:30 am

William Butler Yeats, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, was born in Ireland 150 years ago this week, and across the country, the Irish are celebrating with public readings and festivals.

But his presence has never left rural County Galway, in far western Ireland, where Yeats spent many years, far from the big cities. And in turn, its landscape and spirit infuses so much of his poetry.

So it may not be surprising that a passionate nun in Galway has turned an old one-room schoolhouse on a country road into a small museum to Yeats.

Lilacs and farmers' fields surround the squat stone building. Inside, Sister Mary de Lourdes Fahy serves as the guardian of the local history.

Surrounded by books and photographs, Fahy looks like a historian or a teacher as much as a nun. In fact, she is all of these things.

The first time she walked into this building was 1942. She was 5 years old.

"My first introduction to Yeats' poetry was here in this room, where the only Yeats poem we learned was 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree,' which he wrote in his younger days, and which is beautiful," she says.

Even now, Fahy can recite the poem:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

Fahy helped transform this one-room schoolhouse into the Kiltartan Gregory Museum, named for Lady Gregory, one of Yeats' patrons.

Local history is Fahy's passion, and that's one reason she is so devoted to Yeats. Many of his poems capture the paths and the people of this exact place.

"One of Yeats' most famous poems is 'An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.' Two of the best-known lines in that poem are, My country is Kiltartan Cross, / My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,'" Fahey says. "You are now standing at Kiltartan Cross."

Fahy was too young to know Yeats personally. Her father and her uncle farmed nearby land in the early 1900s. Sometimes they'd give the poet rides into town on their horse-drawn cart.

Fahy says Yeats rarely thanked them, or even said hello.

"He was kind of in another world ... composing," she says. "That was one side of Yeats. I'm giving Yeats, warts and all."

Maybe if he were an ordinary person, she says, his poems would not have been so extraordinary.

"Yeats regarded poetry as a form of music. And so it is," she says.

Even now, after so many years and reading the poem so many times, "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" still moves Fahy.

"I felt he was talking about my own people," she says.

Nearby, there's a 15th-century stone tower called Thoor Ballylee, where Yeats lived for many years. It appears in many of his poems, such as "Coole Park and Ballylee" from 1931:

Under my window-ledge the waters race,
Otters below and moor-hens on the top,
Run for a mile undimmed in Heaven's face

For 35 years, Brendan Flynn, a 72-year-old retired school principal, has been bringing students here to walk in Yeats' footsteps.

Different poems by Yeats have been meaningful to Flynn at different times — and they become more meaningful as the years go by, he says.

"It's like a great whiskey. They ripen with years, and they blossom and they bloom," Flynn says. "Take a poem like 'Sailing to Byzantium,' where he talks about aging: An aged man is but a paltry thing, /A tattered coat upon a stick, unless / Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing. As you age, instead of complaining, celebrate every day."

Inside Thoor Ballylee, Colm Farrell guides us up a narrow stone spiral staircase to Yeats' bedroom. Farrell is raising money to restore the stone structure and reopen it to the public. His ties are deep: He was born close to the tower, and his father and his grandfather worked there.

Farrell's grandfather knew Yeats personally. And echoing the words of Sister Fahy, Farrell says that around town, Yeats was seen as an eccentric.

"The children used to hide, and when they'd see him on the road they'd jump over the wall, and as he passed they could hear him mumbling," he says. "And obviously he was mumbling words of poetry and putting poetry together in his head."

Back in the stairwell, we climb up to the roof of the tower. There, with the Irish flag flapping above our heads and the river below, we can see 360 degrees — a landscape of rolling, green hills and farms.

It seems like the appropriate time for a bit of Yeats, so Farrell recites "To Be Carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee":

I, the poet William Yeats,
With old mill boards 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.

Indeed, 150 years after the birth of William Butler Yeats, the characters — and his legacy — remain.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE")

WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS: I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

What we're hearing there is an old recording of the Irish poet William Butler Yeat reciting one of his most famous poems, "The Lake Isle Of Innisfree." Yeats might be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He was born 150 years ago tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE")

YEATS: And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings. There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now these are present-day students in Ireland reciting the same poem, from memory, just a few weeks ago. Meghan Walsh is 12 years old and she told me she relates to this poem, the desire for escape.

MEGHAN WALSH: They're really going off to find peace and, like, quiet and, like, going away.

GREENE: This year, Ireland is holding a lot of big public events commemorating the 150th anniversary of Yeats's birth. And, Ari, when you're not here hosting MORNING EDITION with us, which we've been really happy about, you actually are based in London and cover events like this. And leading up to this celebration, you've decided not to go to festivals, gala celebrations. Tell me where in Ireland you went and met these kids.

SHAPIRO: Well, David, right now we are in far western Ireland. This is rural County Galway. You can hear the birds singing in the trees, the stream rushing by. And looming above us is a 15th-century stone tower called Thoor Ballylee. There's a window overlooking the stream, and Yeats lived here for many years. He actually wrote about this place a lot. Here's a line of his that describes the very scene.

BRENDAN FLYNN: Under my window ledge the waters race.

You know, that's the window that he studied at - Yeats.

SHAPIRO: This man speaking is Brendan Flynn. He's a retired school principal. He's 72 and he's been taking students here to walk in Yeats's footsteps for 35 years. I asked Flynn...

Have different poems of his been meaningful to you at different times?

FLYNN: They have. Well, yeah, and they become more meaningful as the years go by. I mean, it must be like great whiskey. They ripen with years and they blossom and they bloom. I mean, you take a poem like, say, "Sailing to Byzantium," like, where he talks about aging, you know? An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, unless the soul clap its hands and louder sing.

As you age, instead of complaining, just celebrate every day.

SHAPIRO: So here we are.

COLM FARRELL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Now we are inside Thoor Ballylee, walking up a narrow, stone spiral staircase.

FARRELL: This was his bedroom.

SHAPIRO: Our escort is Colm Farrell. He's raising money to restore this tower and reopen it to the public.

FARRELL: I was born close to the tower here, and my grandfather and father all worked here in the tower.

SHAPIRO: His grandfather actually knew Yeats personally. Farrell says people thought of the poet as kind of the town eccentric.

FARRELL: The children used to hide, and, you know, when they see him on the road they'd jump in over the wall. And as he passed, they could hear him mumbling. And he was - obviously, he mumbling words of poetry and putting poetry together in his head.

SHAPIRO: Farrell takes us back to the stairwell and we begin to climb again.

FARRELL: Now we're going to go up over onto the rooftop.

SHAPIRO: We can see in 360 degrees rolling hills and farms, trees, new spring greenery and the river rolling down below. I don't want to put you on the spot, but standing here on top of the tower with the Irish flag flapping in the wind, I feel like I should ask you to recite the bit of Yeats.

FARRELL: I, the poet William Yeats, with old mill boards 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.

SHAPIRO: One hundred fifty years after the birth of William Butler Yeats, the characters remain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.