Following Yeats’ Poems, 127 Years Later

Yeats’ country in Sligo and Leitrim. Reblogged from “Irish Dreams”.

Irish Dreams

For my upcoming trip to Ireland, Sligo is higher on my “must visit” list than Dublin, and for one semi-nerdy reason:  I love Yeats’ poem The Stolen Child.

I first heard the poem in high school after stumbling upon Loreena McKennitt’s work.  Several months passed before I realized the words were actually penned by Yeats in 1886, and that each stanza references real sights in an around Sligo.

1600px-mullaghmore2c_co_sligoSligo Coastline.  Image Credit:  Wikipedia.

From that moment on, I was entranced.  I chose The Stolen Child for a classroom poetry analysis exercise, and I’d later find inspiration from its refrain for a short story that evolved into my first novel.

When I went to Ireland with my family in 2011, our tour group didn’t stop in Sligo.  It came as a disappointment, but I’d already decided at that point I’d find a way back to Ireland…

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Among Savages

Streedagh Strand, County Sligo

Illustration of Irish warriors by Albrecht Dürer in 1521, public domain

In 1588, Captain Francisco de Cuéllar sailed with the Spanish Armada, no doubt expecting victory over the English and a triumphant return to Spain. Instead, his fleet received a crushing defeat and he attempted to sail his galleon, the San Pedro, home via Scotland and Ireland. Off the coast of County Sligo, the San Pedro floundered and met its end on Streedagh Strand.

I escaped from the sea and from these enemies by having commended myself very earnestly to our Lord, and to the Most Holy Virgin, His Mother; and with me three hundred and odd soldiers, who also knew how to save themselves and to swim to shore. With them I experienced great misfortunes: naked and shoeless all the winter: passing more than seven months among mountains and woods with savages.

— Captain Francisco de Cuéllar

His travels through Connacht and Ulster brought further adventure and hardship. He walked barefoot and wounded along a stony road, and was robbed of all his belongings. Fortunately, some of the locals were kind enough to provide him with food and dress his wounds.

De Cuéllar and some of fellow Spaniards found themselves in County Leitrim, living with a man named MacClancy, “a savage gentleman, a very brave soldier and great enemy of the Queen of England and of her affairs”. The English governor was not happy that MacClancy was providing shelter to the Armada survivors, and attacked the castle.

After MacClancy and his clan hid up a mountain, De Cuéllar and his countrymen held off the governor and his forces for 17 days, until “our Lord saw fit to succour and deliver us from that enemy by severe storms and great falls of snow”. MacClancy declared the Spaniards as his “most loyal friends, offering whatever was his for our service”, suggesting that his sister would marry De Cuéllar. The captain turned down this enticing offer, and travelled to Antrim where he found passage to Scotland and eventually back to Spain.

De Cuéllar’s letter about his experiences provide a valuable picture, if not always a flattering one, of Tudor Ireland:

The custom of these savages is to live as the brute beasts among the mountains, which are very rugged in that part of Ireland where we lost ourselves. They live in huts made of straw.

— Captain Francisco de Cuéllar

He describes the men as “large bodied, and of handsome features and limbs”, wearing “tight trousers and short loose coats of very coarse goat’s hair” and with “their hair down to their eyes”. The women are “very beautiful, but badly dressed”. He notes sniffily that “these people call themselves Christians” but “the chief inclination of these people is to be robbers, and to plunder each other” and concludes that “in this kingdom there is neither justice nor right, and everyone does what he pleases”. But he also acknowledges that “if it had not been for those who guarded us as their own persons, not one of us would have been left alive”.

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A slightly longer version of this story was originally published on my other blog, A traveller from an antique land.

A Legen-dairy Death

Knocknarea, County Sligo

Photo of Knocknarea by P.J. McKenna

Fógraím cogadh feasta
ar fhearaibh uile Éireann
ar na leaids ag na cúinní sráide
is iad ina luí i lúib i gceas naíon

War I declare from now
on all men of Ireland
on all the corner boys
living curled in children’s cradles
— Medb Speaks by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Furbaide Ferbend sat on the grassy hill and unwrapped the cloth that held his lunch. A hunk of bread, a roll of cheese, and a cup of ale — what more could a man want on such a gorgeous day as this?

It was a rare day indeed, warmest of the year, and there was a rare peace in the land. Furbaide had fought for many years in the army of his father, King Conchubar, and he knew that peace was a fragile thing. He was determined to enjoy this moment: the luxury of solitude, the sun shining above him, the lake sparkling below.

He noticed a movement in the water and his sharp eyesight picked up a woman swimming in the lake. She had a fine figure but she wasn’t young, not with that long grey hair floating about her. Then he recognized her face.

She was his aunt, Queen Maeve of Connacht.

He’d heard the story many times. How his father had married three sisters: Eithne, Clohru, and Maeve. The rivalry had grown murderous, and the sly-eyed Maeve drowned the heavily-pregnant Eithne. Clothru found Eithne floating face down in the pond and noticed that the child was still moving in her sister’s belly. Checking one last time that Eithne had stopped breathing, Clothru took out her knife and cut the baby free.

The boy was named Furbaide, from the Old Irish urbad meaning “cut”. That woman in the water was the reason he had never known his mother.

His aunt was notorious for other reasons besides. What Maeve wanted, Maeve got, no matter what the cost. She divorced Conchubar and her next few husbands had won her by successively beating the previous incumbents in single combat. The last husband was her former bodyguard, Ailill, the only one who could match her in greed and cunning.

I asked more of a husband than any Irish woman before me asked: the absence of fear and jealousy and meanness.
— Táin Bó Cuailgne: The Cattle-Raid of Cooley

Maeve and Ailill had caused war and destruction across Ireland, particularly in Ulster where King Conchubar lived. She seemed to reserve a particular fury for her first husband, almost enough to give credence to the story that Conchubar had raped Maeve when the clans gathered at Tara.

Furbaide frowned, not wishing to think ill of his father or to spare any pity for the woman in the lake. She stopped swimming and leaned back in the water, closing her eyes, no doubt enjoying the sun on her skin. How dare she take pleasure in life while Furbaide’s mother had never lived to hold her babe in her arms?

But perhaps the gods were on his side today? Perhaps this was his opportunity to take revenge? Surely his whole life, from the moment he had drawn a bloody breath, had led to this?

Furbaide was famous for his skills with a sling. He carried his weapon always, but he had brought no ammunition. Nothing but a picnic in an unwrapped cloth.

The cheese was round and hard, the perfect size for the sling’s pouch. Furbaide closed one eye and focused on his target: Maeve’s forehead, high and white. In combat, none could beat him, but this might be the most important shot of his life. It hit her between the eyes and she slunk dead into the water. The proud Queen of Connacht, felled by cheese.

She was buried in Sligo, at the top of Knocknarea from where she could view her entire kingdom. She stood upright, facing Ulster, so none of her old enemies could feel safe from her even in death.

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The Sea Calls Back Its Own

Enniscrone, County Sligo

Photo of Enniscrone beach by joushikijin, licensed under Creative Commons

Idir gaoth is idir tonn
Idir tuilleadh is idir gann
Casann sí dhom
Amhrán na Farraige

Between the winds, between the waves
Between the sands, between the shore
From the shell
A song of the sea

— Saoirse’s song, Song of the Sea (2014)

Thady O’Dowd had a lot on his mind that morning. The chief of the O’Dowd clan had reached that stage of life where he should be married, but he’d not yet found the woman to suit him. So he took a walk along the long strand at Enniscrone, hoping the sea air would clear his head

Whatever he’d been expecting to find on Enniscrone beach, he surely hadn’t expected a woman as naked as the day she was born! Yet there she was, her shimmering skin hidden only by her long hair. Even when she saw him she made no move to cover herself, just smiled shyly and continued to brush that lustrous hair. He had never seen anyone so beautiful in his life.

On a rock nearby, he spotted a green cloak and reached towards it. Her eyes flashed a sudden anger.

“Leave that be!” she said.

He realised what she was now, a mermaid who could only return to her aquatic form if she had her magical cloak.

A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him up for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.

— The Mermaid by W. B. Yeats (1928)

He draped the garment over his arm and grinned.

“You’ll have to come and get it then.”

So the woman followed Thady home. Her name was Eileen; she became his wife and bore him seven strong children. She seemed as pleased with her life as he was, except for moments when she would stare absently at the sea or inquire about her magical cloak.

One day his chieftain called Thady away to fight. When he opened the chest where he stored his armour, he found it wrapped in the green cloak that he’d taken from Eileen. He stroked the soft and strangely cool material. He really should hide it somewhere less obvious.

That night, he slipped away from his sleeping wife and took the cloak outside to bury it near the well. As he returned to the castle, he was startled by his youngest boy.

“Da? What did you put in the ground?”

“Treasure,” said Thady. “We need to hide it from thieves.”

The child rubbed his bleary eyes as Thady kissed his forehead and led him back up to bed. The boy was surely too sleepy and too young to remember anything.

But when Thady was away, swinging his sword for his chieftain’s honour, his youngest child told Eileen about the “treasure” that was buried by the well.

She dug it up with her bare hands and her fingernails were filthy by the time she dragged the cloak out of the earth. And yet the cloak itself seemed untouched, its material still cool and shimmering.

“Is that the treasure, Ma?” the little boy asked.

His siblings came out of the castle and surrounded her. They were squabbling about some fight that each blamed on the other, but all she could hear was the rushing of waves from the beach. A tear fell upon the cloak, and the salt taste in her mouth was just like the sea.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
— Sea Fever by John Masefield (1902)

“Come, children,” she said. “It’s time to go home.”

They were so startled that they stopped arguing and followed her towards the sea. At the top of a hill, they overlooked the long golden strand of Enniscrone where their father had first met their mother.

Eileen realised that she couldn’t take all of her children with her, so she turned the eldest five into stones. As they moved towards the shore, another child was turned into a rock. She lifted the youngest into her arms, tucked him inside her cloak, and swam away, never to be seen again.

When Thady returned, all he found of his family were five stones in a circle, and one looking out over the bay. He sank to his knees and wept for a day and a night before his servants took him home.

The stones can still be found in a brush beside the road about a mile from Enniscrone. It is said that, to this day, the stones weep whenever an O’Dowd passes away.

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