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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A House by the Sea

Renvyle, County Galway

Photo of Renvyle Peninsula by P.J. McKenna

No easeful meadows or delightful springs,
Nor visionary islands lure it best;
But far off on the margin of the west,
A sea-grey house, whereby the blackbird sings
— Non Blandula Illa, Oliver St. John Gogarty

Oliver St John Gogarty was a man of some standing in the world. During his student years in Dublin, he caroused with James Joyce and became immortalized as “Buck Mulligan” in Ulysses. He was a successful ear, nose and throat surgeon by the time he married Connemara woman Martha Duane.

In 1917, the Gogartys went looking for a country residence in Martha’s home county, and they purchased Renvyle House “out of the proceeds of my teetotalism” as Oliver wrote to a friend. Far out on the Renvyle peninsula, a bockety car ride along the barely-functional road from Clifden, it was almost the perfect retreat. Almost, because their slumbers were often disturbed by strange footsteps and the sudden quenching of candles — Renvyle House, it appeared, had a ghost.

Among the earliest guests of the Gogartys were W.B. Yeats and his bride, Georgie Hyde-Lee, who spent their honeymoon in Connemara. The new Mrs Yeats fancied herself as a psychic and took it upon herself to communicate with the restless spirit. He identified himself as “Athelstone Blake”, who’d died the previous century at the age of 14, and he promised to stop causing disturbances once he was “placated with incense and flowers”.

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
— Easter 1916, W.B. Yeats

Gogarty was a well-known nationalist and had supported the rebels in 1916. But he supported the 1921 Treaty and so, when the Irish Civil War broke out, he found himself on the opposite side to many of his former comrades. In January 1923, he was having a bath in his Dublin home when a gunman broke down the door. Pulling on his clothes and a fur-lined coat, he was bundled into a car, driven to a house in Chapelizod, and interrogated in a dark cellar.

He eventually told them they needed to let him outside or there would be an unpleasant puddle on their floor. Standing beside the roaring Liffey, he handed the heavy coat to his two guardsmen — and plunged into the icy river. At the Phoenix Park, he climbed up the banks and reported to the Police Station, shivering and wet but otherwise well.

Shortly afterwards, Gogarty moved to London where he could feel safe. But his enemies struck out by setting alight his family home in Connemara.

So Renvyle House, with its irreplaceable oaken panelling, is burned down. They say it took a week to burn. Blue china fused like solder…
Memories, nothing left now but memories. In that house was lost my mother’s self-portrait, painted when she was a girl of sixteen, her first attempt in oils… Books, pictures, all consumed; for what? Nothing left but a charred oak beam quenched in the well beneath the house. And ten tall, straight towers, chimneys, stand bare on Europe’s extreme edge.
— As I was Going Down Sackville Street, Oliver St John Gogarty

Gogarty’s first thought was to abandon Connemara altogether, but his wife was having none of that. Throughout the long fight for compensation, Gogarty decided that he had looked down enough noses and throats for a lifetime and would reinvent himself as a travelling lecturer, with his wife as hotelier. The Renvyle House Hotel opened with a great ceremony on the 30th April 1930.

There are a lucky few who have discovered that West Galway is an unrivalled place for their own and their children’s holidays, and to those who appreciate natural beauty and the delights of sea and mountain, no more perfect spot in the British Isles could be found than the modern and extremely comfortable Renvyle Hotel, near Clifden.
— Connemara’s Glories, “The Queen” magazine, February 1934

It still runs as a hotel today. In 2011, my brother Paul and his wife Edda celebrated their wedding there. Many of the guests stayed awake until the early hours of that morning, partying in the same rooms where Oliver and Martha Gogarty once entertained their guests. There was no sign of Athelstone Blake or any of the other ghosts.

paul_edda_wedding_pj
Happy couple in the gardens of Renvyle House, photo by P.J. McKenna

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To the Waters and the Wild

Spiddal, County Galway

Photo of The Waterboys, Open East, 2013 by Nick, licensed under Creative Commons

In the winter of 1987-88, Mike Scott was looking for inspiration. His band, the Waterboys,  had started out as a rock band, but fiddler Steve Wickham was bringing a traditional Irish influence on their music. Scott and Wickham wanted to tap into some primeval Celtic spirit for their next project, and so they drove westwards from Dublin.

The full majestic expanse of Galway Bay now opened on our left, while to our right lay a strange, rocky land of hills and ancient stone walls. I began to get goosebumps. The wildness of the land and the light on the bay did something fateful to me and I turned and said to Dunford, with a sudden certainty ‘This is the land of my soul!’

— Mike Scott, Adventures of a Waterboy (2012)

They found the perfect place at Spiddal House: the wood-paneled lounge became the control room with the mixing desk, while the dining room was transformed into a recording studio.

The core Waterboys at that stage sounded like the lineup for a joke: an Englishman (Anthony Thistlethwaite), a Scotsman (the aptly-surnamed Scott), a Dubliner (Wickham), and a Northern Irishman (Trevor Hutchinson). Other musicians were drafted in as needed, the huge kitchen table accommodating the rotating bunch. On fine days, the front lawn became a football pitch. In the evenings, the band played sessions with locals in Hughes’ pub.

To avoid cabin fever, the band lived in holiday homes throughout the village. That spring, Mike Scott started each day with a deep breath of clear Atlantic air before hopping on his bike and pedaling to Spiddal House. As he entered the doors, he heard his bandmates playing drums and fiddles. There was no phone or TV in the house, and they kept to a strict timetable. In this atmosphere, the Waterboys produced tracks like When Ye Go Away and A Bang on the Ear.

It was not all magical dreamtime. The cook was a local gay man named Bandy Donovan, and  his unrequited passion for these leather-trousered troubadours finally turned his head. When he got his first wages, he downed several drinks along with his anti-depressant pills and marched on the house with a double-barrelled shotgun. Producer John Dunford tackled him to the ground and broke the loaded gun across his knee. Scott emerged from the recording studio to find Dunford dragging Donovan from the house, the hapless cook asking “should I go in and make the dinner now?”

As we approached the end of the sessions, spring gave way to summer and a spell of gorgeous weather enfolded the west of Ireland. This and the long light evenings impacted on us like a draught of magic and turned us what in older, more innocent times would have been termed fey.

— Mike Scott, Adventures of a Waterboy (2012)

Perhaps the most ambitious number was a recording of W.B. Yeats’ poem The Stolen Child. They recruited Scottish musician Colin Blakey of We Free Kings to play the flute. The expected drummer failed to appear, but fortunately Padraig Stevens of the Sawdoctors was in the area. Stevens couldn’t make the drums work with the tune, so he borrowed some little brass bells from the neighbours to evoke the fairy feeling.

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.

— The Stolen Child, W.B. Yeats (1889)

Scott sang the chorus of The Stolen Child, but he didn’t like the way his voice sounded in the spoken verses. A few months earlier, he’d bought a cassette by local sean-nos singer Tomás Mac Eoin, and now he sent Hutchinson and Thistlethwaite up the coast to Carraroe to persuade the old man to perform on the track.

We went into the studio, the rock ‘n’roller and the sean-nós singer, and sat facing each other across the gulf between our different worlds… When the music started playing I gave Tomás a gentle signal with my hand a split-second in advance of where I imagined each line of the poem falling. And he responded, his giant of a voice rolling out the rich syllables on cue like an old god pouring wine down a mountainside.

— Mike Scott, Adventures of a Waterboy (2012)

On their penultimate night in Spiddal House, the Waterboys held a jam session until 8am, when the roadies arrived from Galway to haul away the mixing desk and other gear. The next evening a party began in Hughes’ bar and finished up at Hutchinson and Thistlethwaite’s bungalow. At the end of the night, a chorus line of musicians and Spiddal folk smoked reefers and kicked their legs up in a can-can.

The Waterboys’ third album, Fisherman’s Blues, was released that October. Critics were divided, some bemoaning the band’s change of direction, others proclaiming it their best work yet. But the air of Spiddal had done its magic;  Fisherman’s Blues  would be their biggest selling album, and their next tour was a sellout.

The Waterboys themselves would never be the same after the summer of 1988. A young accordionist called Sharon Shannon joined them for a while, but after a disagreement in the direction of the band, she left along with Wickham. Hutchinson eventually became a full-time trad musician, while Thistlethwaite returned to Galway to join The Sawdoctors and raise a family.

By 1993, the Waterboys were no more, although Scott re-recruited Wickham and resurrected the name with new members in 2000. The Spiddal sessions had been so productive that, in 2001, he was able to release a new album (Too Close to Heaven) with the leftover material. The band returned to their favourite Sligo poet as an inspiration for their 10th album, An Appointment with Mr Yeats.

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