Conjuring Yeats

by Wendy Hawkin

If you are searching for signs of fairies, jet to Ireland, and follow the western trail of poet and mystic W.B. Yeats, as I did with my daughter this past August. Over a century ago, Yeats published his first edition of The Celtic Twilight, a collection of magical and mythological tales gleaned from the country people of County Sligo in western Ireland. Sligo or Sligeach, as it is said in Irish, means “places of the shells,” owing to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. Yeats was of Anglo-Irish descent, raised and schooled in London like many of his contemporaries, but he summered in Sligo with the Pollexfens, his mother’s people.

Yeats’ Uncle George had a housekeeper named Mary Battle who fed the young boy magical stories of the Sligo landscape along with his morning stir-about, and triggered his lifelong passion for the supernatural. It was Mary Battle who reported seeing the fierce warrior queen, Maeve, walking towards her across the mountains one day, “a sword by her side and a dagger lifted up in her handsall dressed in white, with bare arms and feet.” Queen Maeve is a historical figure, dead and buried atop a mountain at Knocknarea, yet she lives on in the mythology of Ireland largely because of Yeats who wrote down the stories, once known only through Oral Tradition, fearing they would be forever lost.

“The mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write,” Yeats revealed, as he spun a magical web around the west, transforming it into the most mystical landscape in the whole of Ireland. In fact, in Sligo the month of August is dedicated to W.B. Yeats as Ireland celebrates the annual Yeats Festival with guided tours, scholarly lectures, unique dramatic productions, poetry readings, and talks given by visiting authors.

Chances are you will meet other magical seekers in the local pubs, especially those offering traditional Irish music. We met two young American English teachers in Furey’s Sheela-na-Gig, a popular traditional pub owned by the touring group Dervish. The traditional music does not start until around ten, but if you want a seat you should come much earlier, not a hardship as the Guinness is like holy water and the craic extraordinary. Craic is the Irish word for fun and good conversation, and the Irish people are as known for their ability to socialize as for their incredible hospitality.

And if the fairies have cast luck on your side, Dervish may be in town resting up from the touring scene, and the session may become a bit of a free concert. Caught up in the rhythm of the bodran, accordion, flute, whistle, guitar, or banjo, and the enchantment of a Celtic melody, you may suddenly look around the room and see that the patrons have been transformed into something a little more magical than human. Chances are one of the gentry is standing there beside you having a pint and tapping their toes to the music too. It’s even more likely that they’ve arrived as a traveler and joined in the session, playing one of the traditional instruments with a sweet melancholy that can send shivers through your heart. The fairy gentry are known for mixing and mingling with humans, as well as for stealing the odd beautiful bride or child, and leaving a lumpy wood-enchanted changeling in its place.

When I asked a couple of local fellows at Furey’s about the fairies, I got the usual response: “Ah, we’re frightened of them.” A hundred years after Yeats the local people keep the tradition alive. It is the landscape of Sligo that most affected Yeats and to where you must turn to feel his presence and the presence of the good people, as they are known.

“Have not all races had their first unity from a mythology that marries them to rock and hill?” Yeats asked.

The west of Ireland is a landscape saturated with magic and myth. Driving northwest from the town of Sligo, near the end of R291, you will discover Rosses, the home of Yeats’ mother, Susan Pollexfen and his childhood holiday haunt. Rosses is now an oceanic resort town and offers a misty seaside drive and short walk along the promontory, as well as a view of Van Morrison’s famous Coney Island, which is directly across the water. Coney Island has a few seaside homes but can only be accessed when the tide is out.

Remember that this is the Atlantic coast so it will definitely be cool (Ireland never really gets hot even in August) and it will most likely be raining or spitting or misting or casting down one of the other forms of Irish precipitation, so come prepared. Having given you this advice, I imagine the weather likely won’t matter that much to you at all, because you will be in the midst of a poem.

Yeats alludes to “the dim grey sands of Rosses’ in ‘The Stolen Child,'” one of his earliest poems. If it sounds familiar, it is because it has been put to music by Celtic-Canadian singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt. Rosses is a magical place where the fairies dance in the moonlight “weaving olden dances/ mingling hands and mingling glances.”

If you follow the trail of these trooping fairies, as we did, driving north on highway N15, you will pass under the shadow of the splendid mountain, Ben Bulben. Now according to Yeats, there is a “small white square in the limestone on the southern side of Ben Bulben from which these child-stealing fairies issue.” He claims, “it is the door of fairy-land” (19).

Why do the fairies venture forth from inside a mountain? According to the pagan theory, the fairies were once the Tuatha de Danaan, the ancient Irish gods, and children of the Hindu mother goddess Danu. The invading warrior Celts defeated this mythical tribe in 500 B.C. Though forced underground, these ancestral gods continue their nightly forays into the human world via the mounds and raths. These great earthen mounds are actually Neolithic burial chambers, and if you care to venture inside one yourself, I suggest you go to Bru na Boinne in County Meath and take a guided tour of Newgrange, the six thousand year old passage tomb.

A tiny window lights the pathway to the inner chamber of Newgrange tomb for five days only each year during the winter solstice. At this time, the Priest brought forth the remains of the dead for rituals inside the cruxiform chamber. A little time inside the dark womb of the earth will awaken your spirit to the mystical connections between the fairies and the gods.

The Gentry have always mixed and mingled with the human world; in fact, they need to breed with humans in order to keep strong. But this is no alien domination: this is a mutual co-existence. Though the fairies are known for abducting women, children, and occasionally sportsmen to play on their hurling teams; as well as, punishing those who need punishing, they are also known as givers of incredible artistic gifts.

In The Celtic Twilight, Yeats tells the story of Turlagh O’Carolan, who was a historical figure, a harper and composer. O’Carolan was born in County Meath in 1670 and went blind in his youth, yet he found patrons in the Gaelic nobility because of his musical talent. He had once slept on a fairy rath and listened to fairy music all night long. The kind and generous fairies graciously allowed him to remember their tunes and so he did and shared them with the human world.

Perhaps this is what Yeats yearned for in Sligo. Perhaps he found it. Young Yeats was desperate to experience the supernatural. He studied and experimented with the occult, and made wild forays into the world of theosophy and mysticism. In the late 1880s, Yeats became affiliated with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a Rosicrucian-derived organization that studied and practiced magic. A London Rosicrucian had founded this secret occult society in 1887, and its key symbol was the rose centred on the cross of time. Yeats was a key member of the society even taking control of the Second Order after two of the founders, Samuel Mathers and Alistair Crowley, were expelled due to a magical showdown involving vampires and demons that got way out of hand.

Yeats used the symbol of the rose-centred cross in his poetic plea to Ireland in 1893, “The Rose Upon the Rood of Time.” His red, proud, and sad rose depicted Ireland herself, ravaged and ripped asunder by violent strife. Yeats’ remedy for Irish Nationalism was a return to the “ancient ways.” He looked beyond the momentary struggle into eternal time and found there myths of heroes who also struggled, but lived in an age where the Celts were the conquerors, and where the forests were alive with chanting Druids. In this poem we also see his belief in spirits, as he advises Ireland to “seek alone to hear the strange things said by God to the bright hearts of those long dead.”

Yeats loved Ben Bulben so much he chose to be buried in the cemetery at Drumcliffe under the shadow of the mountain. Most of Ireland’s politicians, heroes, and literary figures are buried in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery, but not Yeats who wished to continue in death his association with the gentry and the ghosts of his mythology. You may take a moment to visit his grave there, and read his famous epitaph: “Cast a cold eye on life on death ­horseman pass by.”

As you continue your drive northward, watch for the turn off to Glen-car Lake. Follow the narrow leafy side road past hedges of pink blooming fuchsias and inquisitive sheep until you reach the waterfall. Here, “where the wandering water gushes from the hills above Glen-car/ in pools among the rushes” is another of the scenes from “The Stolen Child.” Ensconced in this scene of pastoral innocence it is difficult to understand how the child could be enticed away by the fairies, who offer him escape “from a world more full of weeping than he can understand.” But we must remember that Yeats’ Ireland was oppressed, living under the thumb of British domination, and the Irish Nationalist quest for liberation grew fierce.

Yeats believed that weaving a unified mythical past could bring a bloodless freedom to his people. Like Gandhi, he chose a non-violent spiritual means to nationhood and liberation. Yeats believed in a concept that physicians today are just beginning to prove through medical experiments: one person’s thoughts can affect their physical reality, and the unified thoughts or imaginations of many people can transform reality.

You cannot leave County Sligo without a visit to Lough Gill, and the “Lake Isle of Innisfree.” You may even hire a handy boatman to ferry you over to the island, though you will find neither clay and wattle cabin, nor nine bean rows, for these Romantic visions existed only in the poet’s imagination. Yeats was inspired to write this poem while he was living in London in 1890. He had read Thoreau’s “Walden”, and was passing a shop one day when he heard the sound of trickling water. The pull to Sligo was so intense he could hear it always:

I will arise and go now for always night and day/ I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.

There in the landscape of his childhood, with the country people and their stories of the fairies, the poet finally found his “peace.”

And if you “arise and go” and venture along the trail of W.B. Yeats, you too may conjure him up as I have done, and feel an aching in your throat for this immortal mystic, who has kept alive the stories of the Irish nation.

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