On Thursday morning 18 June 1998 twenty-one members and friends of our Society set off on a trip to Gort and surrounding area, County Galway, to study and enjoy all the places which W.B. Yeats, the Irish poet, described and wrote about in his poems.
Our leader and lecturer was Louis Muinzer (right), MA, PhD, retired reader in extra-mural studies at Queen's University, Belfast. Our trip lasted until Sunday evening when we all came home having learned so much more about the poet, his poetry and the places he lived and loved the beautiful countryside, It is hoped to complete our study of Yeats by a trip to County Sligo in Autumn 1999.
Five members of the group have contributed to this report of our never-to-be-forgotten experience this year.
Lady Gregory's play 'The Travelling Man' became part of me at Ballinacorr Public Elementary School, nearly sixty years ago, when Joe Loney produced it at one of his many wartime concerts - I later came to know about Sir William, her husband, and his Gregory Clause in the Famine time. I remembered too that the death of Robert, her son, in The Royal Flying Corps inspired Yeats to write 'An Irish Airman foresees his death' in his ' Wild Swans at Cooler poems.
Thus began an occasional and life-long interest in Coole - yet I had never been - It was a pleasure to have it all organized for me, and a delight to become a 'travelling man' in the company of Louis Muinzer, a well-informed and enthusiastic guide.
I came away saddened that the house was demolished so soon after Lady Gregory's death. I have wondered since, are we yet able to worthily select and properly finance the preservation of our heritage.
Coole Park, Gort, still redolent of Lady Gregory and the great poet, was our main venue. There, each day, in woodland groves, by the lake in the park or in nearby beauty spots beloved of Yeats, we had read to us portions, 'not in excess,' of his world-famed poems. These settings seemed to give us a mental affinity to Yeats, the man of genius. It was good.
But the visit, as a whole, had delightful variation. Each morning we bought lunch picnic foods in Gort, at O'Connor's Village Shop, where real Irish wit and banter in the local lilting Irish brogue pleasured our Northern ears. We visited a once-majestic ruined abbey, still used for special burials, and it being close of day I imagined hearing echoes of the chanting of its long-dead monks in the Celtic heyday before Henry VIII dissolved it. We were privileged to be shown over a recently built church, St. Francis by name. It was fascinating in that all work in building it was the work of Irish - only Irish - gifted people.
What a tribute to us all to go forth into the coming millennium. And the visit to the nearby Burren must be noted for the flower-lovers and botanists of our group went into ecstasies of delight there. It was a greatly enjoyed holiday and cultural occasion.
"Welcome to the Kiltartan Hedge School," said the master with the soft Indiana accent and from that moment on everything about the small Galway town of Gort was seen through the filter of the works of W.B. Yeats.
What sort of man was Yeats? - We had the views of Dr. Muinzer, a life-long admirer; the devoted nun who ran the Kiltartan Museum; the childhood perspectives of "Me and Nu", the grandchildren of the charming Lady Gregory, and the cynics of the lounge of Glynn's Hotel.
My own memories are the dappled shade of Ballylee, the seven magical woods of Coole and the eerie vanishing rivers of Kiltartan. I seem always to have known about Innisfree - Gort was a revelation and an inspiration.
Yeats' Tower poetry has fascinated me since student days, so the highlight of the visit to Gort was, for me, crossing "an ancient bridge", finding "a more ancient tower" and climbing "a winding stair".
Standing on the battlements of Thoor Ballylee on a clear sunny day, I could, like Yeats, "send imagination forth", could picture the shadowy figures who peopled the landscape, the "peasant girl commended by a song", men who rose from the table to go and look for her "by the brightness of he moon" and the tragic end of the expedition when "one was drowned in the great bog of Cloone".
Yeats' Thoor Ballylee is pictured right (photograph by Eric McElroy). A plaque on the tower reads:
"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."
As I climbed down the stairs of the Norman tower to the room where Yeats wrote, and further down to the cottage where his family lived, I thought about George. She always kept the windowsills of the cottage filled with vases of wild flowers, we were told. Was she happy in the brooding shadow of the tower? How did she feel about Maud Gonne, the love of Yeats' life? Did she resent the powerful influence Lady Gregory had on her husband's life and work?
The visit, as well as the charisma of our lecturer and guide, encouraged me to read all the poems again. Now that I have seen the tower, and the "acre of stony ground /Where the symbolic rose can break in flower", I understand some of the inspiration behind the imagery. Perhaps I have found a key to the strength, the mysticism, the music, and the fey quality of Yeats' writing. At any rate it was an unforgettable visit.
One of the stops on our whirlwind tour was the town of Loughrea which derives its name from being situated on the north bank of Lough Rea. In Irish it is Baile Locha Riabhach, which translates as 'the town of the grey lake'. There was nothing grey about it though the day we were there: the sun shone and the lough mirrored a glorious shade of blue.
The purpose of our visit was to see inside the very unusual Roman Catholic cathedral of St Brendan. Its foundation stone was laid in October 1897 and the cathedral was completed in 1903. Its simple exterior hardly prepares the visitor for the riches within. St Brendans is a treasure house of the Celtic Revival (1880-1930) in sculpture, stained glass, woodcarving, metalwork and textiles.
An outstanding feature is the fine collection of stained glass by such designers as Evie Hone, Michael Healey, A.E. Child etc. Sculptings of note are the corbels, baptismal font and the nave capitals with scenes from the life of St. Brendan by Michael Shorthall. Also, the work of W.A. Scott features in the carvings on the end panels of the wooden benches in the cathedral.
Adjacent to the cathedral is a recently built museum where we saw some of the beautiful embroidered banners made by the Dun Emer Guild under Lily Yeats, mostly in the early 20s. Some of the banners include designs by Yeats' artistic brother Jack and by A.E. (George Russell).
Yeats' friend Edward Martyn played a prominent role in supporting the Celtic Revival at St. Brendans. He also helped co-found with Yeats and Lady Gregory the Irish Literary Theatre in 1898, the amateur group which became the Abbey Theatre Company. Edward Martyn was born in 1859 in the Parish of Loughrea, the grandson of James Smyth of Masonbrook's estate who were wealthy Catholic landlords.