By Aidan Wall
On my first day in the Yeats country of Co Sligo, I visited the seaside resort of Strandhill, on the south side of Sligo Bay, which lies beneath the great bulk of Knocknarea, with its great terraces of limestone. On the opposite side of the bay, Ben Bulben soars majestically over Drumcliffe, the village where William Butler Yeats, one of Ireland’s greatest poets, lies buried.
It was grand to be back in the west of Ireland again, with the Atlantic breakers rolling in on the strand. How far away the noisy city seemed! An exhilarating breeze, carried on salt-laden air, mingled with the smell of new-mown hay, as I began the ascent of Knocknarea, of which Yeats wrote:
‘The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea,
And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say.’
I reached Queen Maeve’s great burial cairn on the summit, the largest stone cairn in Ireland. A view of wonderful extent was laid before me. To the far north, the mighty bastions of Slieve League, in Donegal, were clearly visible while, nearer at hand, Ben Bulben stood out boldly. To the east, I spotted the sparkling waters of Lough Gill, one of whose islands became famous when Yeats wrote his best-known poem.
‘I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made,
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.’
Sligo Bay was at my feet, Inishmurray Island lay out to sea, and Rosses Point and Coney Island were closer at hand. All in all, it was a magnificent view from Knocknarea and well worth the climb of 1,078 feet.
When I descended the mountain, I visited the antiquarian remains at Carrowmore, which lie at the base of Knocknarea. There are many megalithic stone circles and cromlechs scattered over a large number of undulating fields. The monuments of this great burial ground may have been raised over the dead after the Battle of North Moytura, in the misty dawn of history.
I returned to Strandhill and walked to the old ruined church of Killaspugbrone, the church of Bishop Bronus, who was a disciple of Saint Patrick. The church stands in the drifting sand opposite the tidal Coney Island. Saint Patrick came here and he was making his way to Coney Island when the tide came in and he was marooned on a rocky islet which, after that, became known as Dúnan Pádraig, Patrick’s little fort, and which is never covered by the tide. Coney Island can be reached dry-shod, when the tide is low, by a long causeway marked by pillars at short intervals. The tide wasn’t quite out when I made my way towards the island and I had to wade fairly deeply in the water and soft sand. Coney Island’s greatest claim to fame in the modern world is probably the fact that it gave its name to America’s well-known fashionable resort. When my father visited Coney Island, in 1930, he noticed a red pillar box in the little island village – an amusing oversight of the green paint of the Irish Free State.
Next day, I took the bus from Sligo town out to Drumcliffe, at the foot of Ben Bulben, where I found the resting place of William Butler Yeats, in the graveyard beside Saint Columba’s Church. Saint Columba, or Colmcille, founded a monastery here in 574 AD and since that time, Christians have worshipped on the site. The principal remains of the monastic settlement are the biblically decorated high cross, the base of a round tower, and a plain cross shaft. It is just as Yeats, himself, described it in his celebrated epitaph…
‘Under bare Bulben’s head
In Drumcliffe churchyard Yeats is laid,
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death,
Horseman, pass by!’
Yeats died in France, in 1939, and it was not until 1948 that his body was brought home and interred at Drumcliffe. The novel ‘Leaves For The Burning’ by my uncle, the novelist, Mervyn Wall, is set against the background of the body of Yeats being taken for burial at Drumcliffe.
After paying homage to the great poet and saying a prayer in the church, I set out by minor roads, which brought me to the base of Ben Bulben. The mountain is mainly cliff-bound, with a few gaps here and there, so I was lucky to strike a grass-grown lane which carried me a few hundred feet up the lower slopes of the mountain. It was then a fairly steep climb over turfy ground with a good covering of heather. After a while, I emerged on a wild, windswept plateau and continued until at last I reached the summit of Ben Bulben, at a height of 1,730 feet.
The summit is a long, slightly undulating tract of bogland, with cliffs to the north and west. There was a truly marvellous view from the top: Donegal Bay and the mountains of Tírconaill to the north. Out to sea, Inishmurray and Rathlin O’Beirne lay surrounded by white girdles, and southwards, the great expanse of Knocknarea.
Ben Bulben is the scene of Diarmuid’s encounter with the wild boar, which resulted in him receiving his death wound. Finn is said to have arrived and found his rival for the hand of Gráinne dying on the mountain top. Diarmuid called for water and thrice Finn went, only to spill it during his return, in fits of bitter anger. Diarmuid reproached him and finally, seeing his enemy was failing fast, Finn hastened once again to the well and hurried back, only to find that Diarmuid was dead.
That evening in Sligo, I got talking to an old man who remembered, as a boy, coming across rifle cartridges in the clefts of the rocks on Ben Bulben – grim reminders of the tragic struggle during the Civil War, between the Free State Army and the Republicans. The Republican columns were surrounded by Free State soldiers from Donegal on one side, and Sligo on the other, and were driven into a net. British field guns, manned now by Irishmen and former comrades, were sweeping the mountains with their deadly missiles. Some Republicans succeeded in slipping through, others were killed and large numbers were captured. When the night mists cleared from Ben Bulben, the bodies of Brigadier Seamus Devins, Brian MacNeil and four gallant companions were found, the lamentable result of the disastrous Treaty of 1922, which divided the country and led to the war of brother against brother.
On my final day in Sligo, Yeats’ Land of Heart’s Desire, I went to Lough Gill and took the boat to the lake isle of Innisfree where, in his most celebrated poem, Yeats imagined himself living. It was indeed very peaceful as I stepped onto the island. The purple heather was reflected in the lake water lapping on the shore. Swallows and linnets flitted overhead. Perhaps this was where Yeats should really have settled, rather than amidst the noise and bustle of Dublin, London and France.
‘And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of morning to where the cricket sings,
There midnight’s all a glimmer and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.’