“Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff 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!”
Ridley: I’ve been wandering Ireland and I’m back from Yeats country (Yeats country being Sligo, in the West of Ireland!).
Latimer and I have decided we’d like to see more of our own country, we’ve such amazing landscapes and tourist attractions but we really don’t appreciate them. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t been to a lot of our most famous spots. So we decided to change the record this year. We’re lining up a few mini-adventures in the coming weeks, which we will, of course, be sharing with you!
Starting this was a solo adventure of my own to my fantastic relatives in Sligo, who put me up for the weekend. We all socialised into the wee hours. They have an absolutely entrancing view of the sea; I caught myself staring out the window quite a number of times at the continuously changing landscape. It’s completely solidified my desire to one day live by the sea!
While we were there we took a detour to Drumcliffe, which is just a ten minute drive from Sligo itself. This beautiful church yard rests within the large shadow of the arresting mountain that can be seen no matter where you are in Sligo. This of course is Ben Bulben, which is immortalised in Yeat’s poem ‘Under Ben Bulben’. At this church site, you will find three things of interest, well four if you count the church! There is a magnificent High Cross, the ruins of a Round Tower and the resting place of W.B. Yeats.
It is truly beautiful, magnificent even. I’ve always wanted to visit one. The West shaft of the cross holds scenes from the New Testament, a camel and two unknown figures in high relief. The East side shows Adam and Eve, Cain slaying Abel, Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Christ in Glory.
They are often known as Preaching crosses as they had ‘sermons carved in stone’ on them; these crosses enabled people to tell stories from the bible. Almost like stone books. Even if you aren’t remotely religious, visit it for the pure craftsmanship of these engravings, the intricate designs and also to marvel at its height. It’s 3.38 meters high and it towers over the rest of the graveyard, which once belonged to a former abbey. Couldn’t you imagine the tales that old engraved stone could tell? Of monks gliding by it in their brown habits, with their arms wrapped around precious books filled with ornately decorated manuscripts.
The Round Tower nearby is even older than the cross; it was built in the 10th century.
It would have even more stories to tell; perhaps it could whisper of chaotic Viking attacks as it sheltered the monks safely within its thick walls. It would have witnessed so much as it stood for so long, high above the landscape observing the sea, the mountains and of course Sligo, where it is the only known example of a Round Tower to have existed in the county. Now though it is a ruin, barely half of it is still there, as in 1396 it was struck by lightning (Thor, a god worshipped by the Vikings, exacting his revenge for thwarting his people perhaps!) and then most of the tower was dismantled to build a nearby bridge.
There is a local legend that the last of the tower will fall on top of the wisest person who passes under it- so I kept well clear of it, naturally! 😛
The third thing of interest there is the grave of W.B. Yeats, one of Ireland’s most famous poets. His grandfather was Rector of Drumcliffe and despite Yeats being born in Dublin, his heart belonged to Sligo.
He was buried right next to the stone church, which I might add is beautiful inside. Even the doors to the building are decorated. The bronze swan handles are a nod to Yeat’s poem ‘The Wild Swans at Coole.’ Inside, the back wall over the altar immediately draws the eye.
Though before entering there was this charming poster, they seem to have a problem with pious pigeons! There were a number of stone plaques along the walls, not to mention the arched stone glass windows and the organ up above in the gallery.
Yeats wrote very inspiring poetry and it’s not surprising when he had landscapes, like those found in Sligo, surrounding him.
He also drew a lot of ideas for his works from Irish mythology and folklore, which are filled with rich tales of warrior maidens, Chieftains, druids and ancient magic (another burial place in Sligo is the cairn of Queen Maeve. One day I will walk to the top of that particular ‘hill’ to see it!).
Also a powerful inspiration for his poetry was the Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne. He met her in 1889, and proposed to her four times over a ten year period. He was turned down each time. His unrequited love for Maud has always been a source of fascination for me. She is forever immortalised in his words, made famous by them, however she was never able to return his affections despite his efforts. Rather sad for a man who seemed to have spent his life searching; searching for love, the meaning to his existence, for things ‘not of this world’- Yeats was extremely interested in the occult and the supernatural, something else that can be seen in his writing. In his book ‘The Identity of Yeats’ Richard Ellmann states that Yeats ‘does not offer a fixed set of positions at the end of his life.’ It seemed he was always questioning, always searching and never definite on anything.
Perhaps this is why so many people connect with his poetry, aren’t we all searching for something? Meaning? Love? Happiness?
Perhaps this is why despite his death in 1939, his memory still endures and his words still inspire people?
If you want a thought provoking day out, one filled with beautiful poetry, magnificent crosses and fabulous views, pop on over by way of Sligo and visit Drumcliffe! You’ll feel all the wiser for it but then don’t go strolling passed any Round Towers afterwards!