Ballylee - ‘To go elsewhere is to leave beauty behind’

Week II

Thoor Ballylee, near Gort, Co Galway,  in winter, where WB Yeats wrote some of his best poetry. It will be officially opened from June 13, the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth. (Photo, Deirdre Holmes)

Thoor Ballylee, near Gort, Co Galway,  in winter, where WB Yeats wrote some of his best poetry. It will be officially opened from June 13, the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth. (Photo, Deirdre Holmes)

In 1960 Mary Hanley forced open the wedged shut door of the cottage at Thoor Ballylee. She walked into the large damp room. For 12 productive and happy summers, the cottage and its adjoining Norman tower had been the home of WB Yeats , his wife George Hyde Lees, and their two children Anne and Michael. Now, however, the floor was covered with manure. For years it had been used as a cow barn. Pulling aside stones that had blocked exits to keep the cattle enclosed, Mary walked into the dining room, with its magnificent enlarged window overlooking the Streamstown river as it races under the four-arched bridge.

She climbed the narrow winding stair, its walls still showing the strong blue colour painted by George in 1919. As she climbed, she noticed the fine fireplace in one room, the noble vaulted ceiling in another, the slit windows, the little secret room, and the crows’ nests on the window ledges. She emerged on the roof in strong sunlight. Looking out from the battlements over the gently rolling fields of south Galway’s stony pastures…she knew instantly why Yeats was drawn to Ballylee.

Shortly after moving in, Yeats wrote to his friend John Quinn: ‘It is a great pleasure to live in a place where George makes at every moment a 14th century picture. And out of doors, with the hawthorn all in blossom all along the river banks, everything is so beautiful that to go elsewhere is to leave beauty behind’.

But it was more than just a place of beauty for the poet. Ballylee was the haunt of the wandering bard Anthony Raftery, the home of the fabled Mary Hynes, and it was close to his life-long friend Lady Gregory and Coole, which was his second home. The ownership of an ancient tower gave him and his family protection from a violent history, from storms and ‘every wind’; while its winding stair led to another world under the stars. It satisfied his instinct for the mysterious, for nature, and the dream world. He wrote his best poetry there.

As the century moved along, fame, demand for lectures, politics, and growing ill health, kept him more and more in Dublin. Holidays were spent in England or the south of France. When he came west it was to visit Lady Gregory, and when she died, in May 1932, his visits to Galway came to an end. He died in France just before the war in January 28 1939. His body was later brought back to Ireland, and buried at Drumcliff, Sligo, in 1948. When Mary Hanley called on the widow George, and told her of the sad condition of Thoor Ballylee, George replied: ‘That’s the way we found it. It’s come full circle.’

June 13 Diary date

Surprisingly, the ancient Norman tower did not completely safeguard it from men at arms. In 1922 the bridge was blown up and the builder was injured in a shooting. When the Yeats family returned to Ballylee that summer, they found that their castle home had been lived in and some of their property stolen. Yeats wrote to a friend that some windows and doors ‘had been burst in’ and that there were various traces of occupation by the Irregulars. However, Yeats seemed more amused that angry: ‘They left the blankets and such humdrum property but evidently found a novelty not to be resisted in the large mirrors. The same has happened elsewhere, men even stealing mirrors that would not fit into the thatched houses, and had to be left outside to be charged by enraged cows…’

In October 1929, George went to Gort to close down Ballylee for the lat time. Afterwards George called to see Lady Gregory with whom she did not get on. ‘I was sad at leaving Coole and the woods today,’ George wrote as a kind of declaration of peace, in a rare letter to Gregory. ‘Your long-suffering kindness me these 11 years had made many things easy that might, otherwise, have been most difficult.’

Wonderful Mary Hanley, however, knew exactly what to do. In 1961 she founded the Kiltartan Society. During its first meting, held at Coole Park, it was agreed that Thoor Ballylee would be rescued from ruin and restored as a monument and an icon to the poet. Anne and Michael Yeats gave the project their full blessing, and Bord Failte, now Failte Ireland, employed a team of experts to restore the Thoor. The poet Padraic Colum officially opened the tower Sunday June 20 1965, the centenary year of the poet’s birth, exactly 50 years previously.

And Failte Ireland continued to operate the tower as a tourist information centre until 2009 when extensive flooding closed the building until now. South Galway has always taken pride in its unique cultural heritage. Already The Lady Gregory, Yeats Heritage Trail, linking Kiltartan Museum, Kilmacduagh, Coole Park, Woodville walled garden, Killinane graveyard, Roxborough and St Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea, offer an interesting and informative link attracting visitors and local families to explore their own history.

I am personally a bit fed up at all the money spent developing the Wild Atlantic Way. What a pity if visitors come to Ireland and only see the ocean, spectacular as it may be in places, and miss out on a major part of our literary heritage. For far less money a Yeats trail could be signposted, linking Sligo, Lissadell, Renvyle House Hotel, Coole Park, Thoor Ballylee and joining the Gregory/Yeats trail already developed. All the above places have an association with Yeats, many of them appear in his poems, and biographies.

However, with Burren Lowlands (a development association ), and a local group is now renovating Thoor Ballylee. Thanks to the cooperation of Failte Ireland, Thoor will reopen on Saturday June 13, the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth. A day long celebration is planned to include Kiltartan, Coole Park and Thoor Ballylee.

Next week:

The Galway poems of WB Yeats.

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