The efforts by a group of local people to have the famous Yeats' Tower (Thoor Ballylee), near Gort, south Galway, reopened is to be welcomed and supported.
The old Norman tower was the holiday home of WB Yeats, who bought it for the princely sum of £35 in 1916. With the help of the architect William A Scott, who also designed Spiddal church, he made it into an austere but livable home.
From 1921 to 1929, with his wife George Hyde-Lees, and their two children Michael and Anne, they spent their summers there, running through the woods and fields to Coole, or hitching a lift there from Sister Mary de Lourdes' father in his pony and trap. Local auctioneer Colm Farrell's grandfather minded the children when the Yeats' were away in Gort shopping.
There was an umbilical cord between Coole, the nearby home of Lady Augusta Gregory, and the poet at Thoor Ballylee. Both of these extraordinary people contributed to the rediscovery of Ireland's rich literary past, its folklore, and its gift for story telling. It became a movement which sharpened our sense of national identity and pride in being Irish. Along with the other great movements of the early years of the last century, such as the GAA, music, language and history, it gave the people the confidence necessary to seek our independence politically and culturally.
‘Yeats loved Ballylee. Its location and history intrigued him. One hundred years before, the blind poet Anthony Raftery fell in love with a local beauty Mary Hynes. In a poem many of us read at school, he begs to be allowed to visit her: ‘I spoke to her kind and mannerly/As by report was her own way/And she said " Raftery, my mind is easy/You can come today to Ballylee." (Translated by Lady Gregory)’
Yeats wrote imaginatively that the winding stairwell was his 'ancestral stair' that was shared by 'Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have travelled there’. It inspired him to to write some of his greatest poetry including 'The Tower" , 'Sailing to Byzantium', and 'Coole Park and Ballylee'.
After Yeats' death in 1939 the tower remained largely empty. Later Michael Yeats gave it to Ireland West (now absorbed into Failte Ireland) to be opened as a tourist attraction. The hard-working Mary Hanley from Carron, Co Clare, came forward. She badgered and cajoled the Office of Public Works to renovate the building for public use and persuaded poet Padraic Colum to open the tower on Sunday June 20 1965, the centenary of Yeats' birth. The adjoining miller's cottage became a tea-room and shop. This was later expanded by a newly constructed building at the back. Needless to say Thoor Ballylee was a popular destination with visitors, scholars and students through the years.
But with Yeat's 150th anniversary looming next year the tower is closed. In fact it has been so since 2009. Located beside the Streamstown river, it has been subjected to flooding from time to time, but that year extensively so. Failte Ireland pleaded it had no money to reopen the tower, and it has remained closed ever since.
Clearly this is an appalling situation. Local people are busy trying to persuade the Galway County Council to take over the tower, and negotiations between it and Failte Ireland are proceeding at a slow, careful pace. South Galway is one of the richest literary regions in Ireland, with wonderful archaeological ruins, landscape and churches, stretching from Loughrea to the Burren. Local leadership has already produced its own museum at Kiltartan, a locally manned tourist information office, and a successful Lady Gregory/WB Yeats' trail. Apart from Coole Park, St Brendan's Cathedral, Loughrea, and Edward Martyn's home at Tulira, several festivals, concerts and family events are planned which make this a must visit area for anyone coming into the west.
Local people are alive to the potential of their region. They are energetic and have shown willingness, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Every effort should be made to ensure that Thoor Ballylee is opened next year.