Let’s Celebrate Yeats’ Home, Not Just His Grave

Thoor Ballylee
Thoor Ballylee, former home of Irish poet William Butler Yeats in Gort, County Galway, Ireland

I ride atop a swan, and as we glide over the hills we come upon an abandoned Norman tower surrounded by fields of green. I ask the universe to rain a multitude of leaves over the tower, and as they rain, they attach themselves to the outer tower walls. The leaves morph into vines of currency, enveloping the tower with cash from bottom to top, leaving no empty spaces. The cash infusion repairs the infrastructure’s physical misgivings, and the tower’s loneliness gives way to crowds of people who arrive to celebrate the life the tower previously knew, and the creative force that once climbed its inner gyre.

This was a fantasy in my mind: to single-handedly return to life Thoor Ballylee in Ireland, former home of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

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Thoor Ballylee
Thoor Ballylee
Former home of Irish poet William Butler Yeats in Gort, County Galway, Ireland

June 13, 2015, was the 150th anniversary of Yeats’ birth, and year-long artistic events are taking place in Ireland as part of Yeats 2015. For many years, Thoor Ballylee, the tower with the widening gyre where Yeats lived and wrote in Gort in County Galway, has been inaccessible due to lack of government funding to keep it alive. Thanks to the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society, the tower reopened on this 150th anniversary and plans to remain open for the summer of 2015. The society has taken it upon itself to restore the tower and create a cultural center, and while they have successfully reopened it for the summer of 2015, help is still needed to maintain it as a vibrant cultural center and to be able to keep it open in the future.

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Yet the grave of W. B. Yeats has always been a popular tourist attraction — with its own souvenir and tea shop.

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Another one of Yeats’ homes, in County Sligo, sits abandoned and neglected in Rosses Point. Yeats spent his youth with his family at Elsinore House, and wrote part of “The Celtic Twilight” there, yet the house hasn’t been maintained and is in near-danger of collapsing.

At least Elsinore House is (somewhat) still standing, unlike the County Galway house of Lady Augusta Gregory — writer, friend to all Irish literary figures of her time and co-founder with W.B. Yeats of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Lady Gregory’s house in Coole Park was torn down years ago, and all that that remains is the foundation. That now-vanished house is where Yeats stayed as a guest every summer for almost twenty years (inspiring his poem “The Wild Swans at Coole“). That now-vanished house had a guest list that included frequent stays by George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, George William Russell (A.E.), and countless other literary figures. If Lady Gregory’s house still stood alive, think of the literary whispers one would hear in the hallways while staying there as part of a writing residency. Think of the goosebumps one would have while sleeping in a guest room once occupied by John Millington Synge. Think of one’s pen taking on a life of its own while writing at Lady Gregory’s desk.

The inconsistency of where to apply funding to celebrate these creative lives can be maddening for those who admire their body of work. The most puzzling aspect of the popularity of Yeats’s gravesite at Drumcliffe in County Sligo is that it’s his second burial location. Yeats passed away in France in 1939 and was buried in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Knowing he would be buried in France, before he passed he asked to be moved

Yeats Grave
Grave of Irish poet William Butler Yeats in Drumcliffe, County Sligo, Ireland
(Click to enlarge.)

back to Sligo “in a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me” — only to have that relocation delayed by the outbreak of World War II. It wasn’t until 1948 that Yeats was moved back to his homeland.

Yeats’ grave is located on a main roadway in Sligo, so if one is driving in the west, it’s impossible to miss and only makes sense for interested drivers to stop to pay their respects. And have a sandwich. The tourist signs advertising his grave funnel the crowds into the souvenir and tea shop, where one can have a cuppa tea and snack, and then browse the shop of Yeats-related books and art, along with plentiful Irish tourist cliche tchotchkes (with poetry and literature being represented by generic photo frames, wall clocks, birthday greeting cards, and tea mugs).

Yet the tower in Gort where Yeats wrote some of his most compelling poetry went neglected for years.

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The same tower that the Irish poet Seamus Heaney declared to be “the most important public building in Ireland.”

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There is still a lot of work and fundraising to be done to enable Thoor Ballylee to become a year-round cultural center. In the meantime, my fantasy lingers:

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She rides a wild swan
Down past the salley gardens
Over the Norman tower
Raining green below
Gort has never known
Such a heroine