Thoor Ballylee - The perfect home for a poet

In August 1896 WB Yeats and his friend Arthur Symons went on a tour of the west of Ireland. The poet was 31 years of age. They stayed with Edward Martyn at Tulira Castle, Ardrahan, visited the Aran Islands, and Yeats made his first visit to Lady Gregory at Coole Park.

During this visit to south Galway, which was to prove so significent in his life, Yeats  came to Ballylee, with its own square castle and  cottage where a farmer and his wife and their married daughter lived.  He rested there during an afternoon, enchanted by the beauty of its old cut stone, its Norman history, its bridge and stream; and the stories of Mary Hynes. He later wrote to a friend his pleasure in hearing about ‘A beautiful woman whose name is still a wonder by turf fires, [who] died there 60 years ago; for our feet would have lingered where beauty has lived...’ It was a most fortunate visit for Yeats. Lady Gregory would become a wise and supportive friend to him, and for years he would stay at Coole, which, under the guidance of Gregory,  became the centre for the Irish Literary Revival in the early years of the 20th century.

In 1916 Yeats was to buy the ‘square castle’, Thoor Ballylee,  and with his wife George, the architect William A Scott, the  local builder Thomas Raftery, with Patrick Connolly making the furniture, and Burke’s forge in Gort supplying the ironwork, would turn it into a comfortable castle home and garden, where for 12 happy summers he, and his family,  crossed the fields and woods to Coole, or he withdrew into his own world of images, dreams, and folktales, writing some of his best poetry.  

Wandering the roads

It is also known that the blind poet Anthony Raftery, although born near Kiltimagh, Co Mayo,  spent most of his life wandering through the roads of  south Galway. He also  lived at Ballylee.

Raftery was blind, played the fiddle, and would stay in various houses in the neighbourhood, such as the Quinns of Ballyaneen. Somebody told Yeats that ‘if you treated him well, he’d praise you, but if you didn’t he’d fault you’. I have the impression that Raftery was a man as much respected by the people as he was feared. His compliments, however,  were generous and remembered to this day. He once told a beautiful girl: ‘Well planed you are, the carpenter that planed you knew his trade!’ He praised a priest in Kilcolgan, stating that he was ‘The good Christian, the clean wheat of God, the generous messenger, the standing tree of the clergy.’

He died in Darby Cloonan’s house on Christmas Eve 1835.* According to a witness there was a sharp wind blowing at the time of Raftery’s funeral but it failed to quench the candles which ‘showed that the Lord had a hand in him’.

Raftery’s influence

The story of Raftery  also sparked in Gregory an interest in folktales and literature. Her interest in the old poet prompted Patrick Deely, a stonecutter who lived near Killeeneen, to give her some manuscripts of Raftery’s poems which were kept in the attic of his house. With the help of Pat Mulkere, who had taught Gregory Irish, she translated the poems into English. 

Lady Gregory was surprised to find that Raftery’s grave was unmarked. But with the help of Terry Furey, from Craughwell, who had attended Raftery’s funeral 65 years previously, the grave was pointed out. On August 26 1900 Gregory had a headstone erected there. It was a memorable day. Afterwards at a reception at Coole Park, Gregory, Yeats, Edward Martyn, Douglas Hyde, and others, had an animated discussion on the value of Irish literature, the importance of teaching Irish at school,  and the need to give expression to our heritage.

Seventeen years later Yeats wrote to his friend John Quinn saying that he is ‘surrounded with plans for Thoor Ballylee’, and the place is full of noise as great beams of wood and old paving stones are being delivered, and ‘ the local carpenter, and mason and blacksmith are at work’...He planned to erect a great stone beside the front door with these proud lines: 

I , the poet William Yeats,

With common sedge and broken slates

And smithy work from the Gort forge,

Restored this tower for my wife George,

And on my heirs I lay a curse

If they should alter for the worse,

From fashion or an empty mind,

What Raftery built and Scott designed.

Yet despite all their enthusiasm and excitement in less that 50 years both Coole Park and Thoor Ballylee would become ruins.

More next week

NOTES:* I am taking all the Raftery’s stories from Kiltartan - Many Leaves One Root, a History of the Parish of Kiltartan , by Mary de Lourdes Fahy RSM, published 2004.

Máire Ní hEidhin - Mary Hynes

This poem, by Antaine O Reachtabhra (Anthony Raftery ) 1784 - 1835, is sometimes called The Shining Flower of Ballylea (Pabhsae Gléigeal Bhaile Uí Lí ). Mary Hynes was said to be the most beautiful girl born in the west of Ireland ‘in the course of a hundred years’. Although she lived with her peasant parents in a cottage near Gort, she always dressed in brilliant white. When Mary Hynes appeared at any sporting event, people rushed to see her. She was also said to have refused eleven offers of marriage in one day. Her end was the sad but not unusual one of such peasant beauties - she was seduced and abandoned by one of the so-called aristocracy, and died in poverty some years before the Famine. A less dramatic version of her death is believed locally. Coming back from a pilgrimage to the Holy Well at Abbey, she caught a chill, and died of pneumonia shortly afterwards.

On the occasion of the founding of the Gaelic League in Kiltartan, January 1899, Tommy Hynes of Ballylee, met Douglas Hyde, the founder of the League, and later Ireland’s first president, and gave him some original manuscripts of Raftery’s which included the Mary Hynes poem.

Going to mass by the heavenly mercy,

The day was rainy, the wind was wild;

I met a lady beside Kiltartan

And fell in love with the lovely child.

My conversation was free and easy

And graciously she answered me

“Raftery dear, ‘tis yourself that’s welcome,

So step beside me to Ballylee’.

. This invitation there was no denying,

I laughed with joy and my poor heart beat;

We had but to walk across a meadow

And in her dwelling I took my seat.

There was laid table with a jug and glasses,

And that sweet maiden sat down by me -

“Raftery drink and don’t spare the liquor;

There’s a lengthy cellar in Ballylee.”

. If I should travel France and England,

and Spain and Greece and return once more

from Loch Greine to the mouth of Loch Erne

You would find no prize like her.

‘Tis fine and bright on the mountainside,

Looking down on Ballylee,

You can walk the woods, picking nuts and berries,

And hear the birds sing merrily;

My star of beauty, my sun of autumn,

My golden hair, O my share of life!

Will you come with me this coming Sunday

And tell the priest you will be my wife ?

I’d not grudge you music, nor feast at evening,

Nor punch nor wine, if you’d have it be,

And King of Glory, dry up the roadway

Til I find my posy at Ballylee !

(Translated by Frank O’Connor )

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