Yeats rising

On the trek up Ben Bulben, overlooking Yeats country in Sligo, are certified mountain guide John Paul Ryan and the author's wife, Laura.
On the trek up Ben Bulben, overlooking Yeats country in Sligo, are certified mountain guide John Paul Ryan and the author's wife, Laura. (RAYMOND M. LANE)

A poetry-lovers' pilgrimage to Ben Bulben, the mountain in Ireland's County Sligo that William Butler Yeats loved so much.

Posted: May 18, 2014

SLIGO, Ireland - "The landscape isn't, strictly speaking, necessary," said Helen Vendler of Harvard University.

She has written about and teaches about Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet William Butler Yeats and other great writers and had some advice about the presumed pleasure of combining place with poetry - a lure to which all too many literary junkies fall prey.

My librarian wife and I knew the wordy part about Ireland fairly well, and where to find some of its low-land temples.

Over the years, we flat-footed the long walks of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Ulysses, and searched for the spot where, lying among candy-colored rhododendrons, the fictive Molly drew Leopold Bloom to her bosom at the novel's end and uttered her deathless lines on love - "his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

And we had blistered feet tracking down artifacts and dwellings of all of Ireland's Nobel laureates - Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney. For kicks, we found the digs of Oscar Wilde, Joyce, and even Bram Stoker, whose Dracula still sends shivers down the spine.

But all of that was in Dublin, the unforgettable seaside but flat capital of Ireland.

What about Ben Bulben, we wondered, the straight-up, 1,726-foot mountain Yeats loved so much that he had himself buried under it? Walking up from sea level, it's far higher than the 974-foot Comcast Center - the highest vista in Philadelphia - and surely gives both a good workout to those who climb, and a fresh perspective from which to read what's called Yeats country in Sligo.

"Nobody could fail to be impressed by the majesty of Ben Bulben, with or without Yeats in mind," Vendler said in an interview. She confessed that she never gave it much thought as a destination until later in life, when she became a summer lecturer at the Sligo Yeats Society two-week camp, joining Seamus Heaney and other big hitters who couldn't quite get enough of Yeats.

Our poetry safari started with a train ride from Dublin - two hours, prices start at about 10 euros - a short walk to our hotel, and then some city exploring. We hit the Yeats Society building, an old bank on Wine Street in the center of town, and took a walking tour that was pretty, but boring - until we got to the Bram Stoker part.

On West Garden Street, Charlotte Mathilda Blake Thornley used to wash the family clothes in the river there. The cholera epidemic was so bad in 1832 that authorities rushed the dead to the cemetery - so fast, the rumor started that living people were being buried.

"The well-off started putting little bells on the headstones," said guide John Paul Ryan, who with his son Ben does the free history walk around town. "A string was attached to the deceased's wrist, and if they woke up in the casket, they could ring for help."

"We call it the 'escape clause,' " he deadpanned.

But, in fact, the bell did ring sometimes during high winds, "and you can imagine the horror," he said. "Charlotte was Stoker's mother, and it was she who told him about the 'undead' - which was the working title of his gothic horror novel Dracula.

"Forget Transylvania," he joked. "It's all Sligo laundry-day yarns."

Our first climb in Sligo was Knocknarea, another of Yeats' favorites, a 1,073-foot mountain across from Ben Bulben. It is a simple power climb over rising meadows and a series of low walls.

One must look for a descending long path across from the trail leading up, where a deep fissure between two limestone cliffs lies hidden. A place of utter solitude, trees drape one side of the fissure and move with the breeze, while the stones produce echoes of great clarity.

Yeats, of course, had to take note, writing "Man and the Echo" to pose the ultimate questions, with the echo eerily responding as if in conversation. Never particularly cheerful, Yeats wrote: "I/ Sleepless would lie down and die," and the echo cruelly commands, "Die."

Atop Knocknarea, a loose stone pile 33 by 180 feet and rising perhaps 40 feet is said to be the grave of Queen Maeve, mythic goddess and ruler of Ireland. Dating back about 5,000 years, the cairn supposedly covers the underground entrance to hell and, within, the shee or faeries - a blue, 7-foot-tall race of near-humans. We met families, their kids tossing stones on Maeve's mound without a second thought.

"Many visitors may not realize it, but Knocknarea is a massive neolithic enclosure, a fort," said Michael Gibbons, an Irish archaeologist, who lectures at Harvard School of Divinity. "Climbing it, you're crossing old ramparts, sacred barrows, and tombs."

There was a time when most schoolchildren's first exposures to poetry included the grave song of Yeats, with its evocative place-setter:

Under bare Ben Bulben's head In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.

And its closing stanzas - cut into the headstone - the stark ending of one of his last poems.

Cast a cold eye on life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

That sharp, unsparing language was what we sought on Ben Bulben, coupling as it did the wildness of Ireland's mountains with the tangled narratives of myth and yarn spun by her great literary masters.

We met Ryan again in the parking lot of Drumcliff cemetery. A certified mountain guide and longtime volunteer at the Coast Guard station on Sligo Bay, his job was to get us up safely and home again.

Behind us, Ben Bulben - Binn Ghulbain in Gaelic, meaning "jaw-shaped peak" - rose straight up, a treeless, serrated, mushroom-shaped summit with dry waterfall gullies rilling its sides. Carved by glaciers beginning 320 million years ago, Ben Bulben is unstable - porous mudstone, peat, bog, and sheep on top of a mountain of limestone that acts like a sieve, Ryan said. In the underbrush are hidden sinkholes big enough to break an ankle or suck down a small car.

"It's not a hard climb - we just follow the sheep," he said. "But it can be a death trap."

In wet weather, quicksand forms on the boggy top, and the gullies rage water over the serrations seen from below, he said. "A sunny day can turn quickly, with cloud cover so thick you can't see 10 feet in front of you, and then the water vapor cools you rapidly. Hypothermia stops your thinking; you can make terrible decisions."

In his backpack were two GPS systems, a tent, blankets, food, water, a cellphone, a radio, "and a good map," he emphasized.

So we walked the sheep trail, hearing bleating near and far, rising through the afternoon higher and higher to eventually follow a small stream tish-toshing quietly to a notch at the top. It becomes Ballaghnairillick River on the lowlands, but starts as a shallow pool, "champagne of the mountain," as Ryan called it.

Once on top, Ryan led us over deep fissures and dry stream beds cut through the soft topping. We reached the southern rim and could see the entire valley from the Atlantic in the west, to Glencar and Gill Loughs, and rivers running upland to the mountain sides. In the distance was the tiny snail-horn steeple of the Drumcliff cemetery church, where Yeats lies buried.

A rainbow formed and began dissolving slowly, not above us, but below. The gauzy half circle hung motionless in the long, deep valley. Threads of lightening flickered a time or two from a black thunderhead crawling over the green-shadowed valley floor. We never heard the thunder.

Perhaps five miles toward the valley head was the thin blue Glencar Lake and, beyond, a bristle of black-green trees girdling the farther lower hillsides.

Then, just like that, two rainbows appeared. They looked like wedding bands and touched both sides of the valley.

Silently, the color and motion playing beneath us insisted that, while beauty may be conveyed by nature, man alone frets over its meaning.

"No wonder Yeats loved this place," said my wife.

To the east below was Glencar Lake and waterfall, and we mumbled Yeats' haunting "The Stolen Child":

Where the wandering water gushes From the hills above Glen-Car,

With its aching refrain:

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Maybe the poet's job is to bear down, we wondered later that night in town after roast lamb and red wine. But the climbs cheered and consoled us, mountains somehow rising above somber discourse.

Perhaps we hadn't brought enough Heaney in our backpacks, especially "The Harvest Bow," a poem written late in his life, which may have framed our experience:

"The end of art is peace."

If You Go

The 55th annual Yeats Summer School sponsored by the Sligo Yeats Society is July 27-Aug. 8, with lectures, films, writing lessons, historical explorations, and more. See

The world's biggest traditional Irish music festival, Fleadh Cheoil na h√Čireann, takes place Aug. 10-17 in Sligo.

Hawkswell Theatre is an award-winning local ensemble in a new space in the heart of Sligo,

The Sligo County Museum has a large area devoted to Yeats.

For more, go to:

Raymond M. Lane is editor of the African Psychology Association in Washington.

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