where the writers are
lecture at the Yeats Society of the New York - February 27, 2009
Inis Meain

First off, thank you to all of you who have come this evening.  It’s so gratifying to know I’m not the only one who likes spending a Friday night talking about Yeats and poetry.  I'd also like to extend a special thank you to Andy McGowan for setting up this event. 

Before I go much further, let me take a moment to explain a little about the series and how I got involved.  I was an English teacher for nine years before I became a writer.  Well, I guess I was a writer all along, but it took a stroke of luck for me to become a book author.  In the spring of 2004, after much deliberation, my wife and I decided it was time for me to take a break from teaching and chase my dream of the writing life.  I submitted my resignation to the school where I worked and was prepared to spend a year trying to start a career as a freelance writer when, literally a month before school ended, a colleague emailed me.  He wrote that a friend of his was starting a publishing company and was looking for a writer in New England willing to take on a book project.  Did I know of any writers in New England who might be interested?  I just so happened to be a writer in New England willing to take on a book project.  When I found out that it was to be a literary travel guide, I could not believe my luck.  Well, that turned out to be my first Roaring Forties Press ArtPlace book and I had so much fun doing that one that I immediately pitched another idea that was near and dear to me:  Irish Literature.

The ArtPlace series explores the interaction between art and place. The books look at the places where artists and thinkers lived and worked, and how those places affected them. It also examines how that artist's legacy affects and changes the very landscapes that helped sparked their creativity.  In my books, there is an additional layer of how members of the group interact with each other, and in the case of this book, there is one more layer of how the writers and thinkers dealt with a culture that had all but vanished when they first took up their pens.

The Irish Book was fifth in a series of seven which includes Dorothy Parker's New York, John Steinbeck's California, Flaubert's Normandy, Matisse's South of France, Michelangelo's Rome, and my book on the Transcendentalists’ New England

Because I got involved with the series at the beginning, I was able to do two things:  write the type of book I would buy and write the type of book that I would teach.  Although this book makes no claims at academic or scholarly argument, it does provide a unique way in -- a way to explore the Irish Literary revival in a way that is accessible and hopefully engaging.  As a teacher, I often found that students were the most engaged and interested, not when we were talking about the grand scope of literature, or even about the big ideas, but when we focused on specific events, moments actually.

So in this book, I really focused on special moments, moments when place, art, and geography collide.  Like that moment two friends having tea on a wet and windy afternoon in County Galway decide that Ireland needs its own theater tradition and the Irish Theatre Movement is born.  Or that moment when a young poet standing by a lake shore sees nine and fifty swans scatter wheeling into the sky above him and, from their flight, creates the poem “The Wild Swans at Coole.”  This book is about that moment when a young man listens to a story told to him by an Aran Islander and finds in it a drama of lasting value.  And finally, the book is about that moment when a play written by Irish authors and acted by Irish actors on an Irish stage inspires the tearful singing of patriotic songs and that moment a few years later when another Irish play in Dublin incites rioting and violence, in many cases by the same people.

Indeed, looking back, the Irish Literary Revival can be seen as a moment itself.  Lasting only a short time from the early 1890’s through roughly 1926, the Irish Literary Revival was nothing more than a flowering of literature that sought to first glorify then critically examine, what it meant to be truly Irish.  It was also nothing less than a profound shift in how the citizens of this country not much bigger than Maine identified themselves, both within their own counties and to the world. 

While Irish history is long, complex, and mythological, it is important to know that Ireland was, for many hundreds of years, under English control.  To help solidify this English rule, many British second sons, with no claim to land in England, colonized Ireland, displacing many Irish farmers.  In some cases, these families eventually felt more Irish than the farmers whose lands their ancestors had taken centuries before.  When England switched from Catholicism to the Protestant faith, religion became a dividing line and those who practiced Catholicism were systematically oppressed and denied access to land and power.  By the time the potato blight of the mid-nineteenth century hit Ireland, most of the Irish Catholics had few options but to leave Ireland or die.  Millions did both. 

Therefore, it is not surprising that by the late nineteenth century, Britain was not just the main cultural influence in Irish cities like Dublin, Belfast, and Cork – it was the only option.  The fields of music, literature, and art were dominated by British tastes, and when the Irish were represented, they were portrayed as drunk, stupid, or quick to anger…or all three.

Through a series of political events, which included failed insurrections, bungled political wrangling, and the fall and quick death of Ireland’s best political hope for independence from Britain, the Irish who wanted to create an Irish identity separate from England turned to Celtic sports, art, and literature to create a social movement where the political one had failed.

Into this mix came a young poet, tall with unruly black hair.  He was not Catholic, could not speak Gaelic, and did not even come from the land-owning Protestant ascendancy.  But he could write beautifully of place and write he did.  Yeats’ poems, beginning with his first poetry collection in 1889, so captured the essence of his childhood home of County Sligo in the west of Ireland, that he quickly became the center of the Irish Literary Revival. 

Attracted by his poetic talent, and perhaps the dark unruly hair and piercing eyes, the widow Isabelle Augusta Gregory, made friends with Yeats and opened her Galway home to him.  It became the western birthplace of the Revival, and many of the writers, painters, and poets came to visit with Lady Gregory and Yeats when he was in residence.  J.M. Synge stopped by on his way back to Dublin after his trips to the Aran Islands.  After the tremendous success of his play, The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey Theater, Sean O’Casey was introduced to polite society by Lady Gregory.  George Bernard Shaw came often but remained aloof from the rest of the revival.  The novelist George Moore came to collaborate with Yeats on their plays.  James Joyce was invited but declined to come.  But it was Yeats above all who was the featured guest.

Yeats had a pretty cushy life there…literally.  While Yeats was working in the best room in the house, Lady Gregory laid the thickest and softest rugs she had in the hallway outside his room so that footsteps wouldn’t disturb his thoughts.  She brought him hot broth and tea to keep his strength up and offered the best port for after dinners.  And all the while, she was collecting folk and fairy tales from the local tenant farmers first for Yeats to use in his own writing, and then eventually for her own books and plays.  But, she stated that her first duty was to support her poet friend.

So it is little wonder that Yeats wanted to come back…and often.  Nor is it surprising that when it came time for him to buy a summer house, he choose the nearby house and tower, which he named Thoor Ballyllee.  It was literally a Norman fort which had in essence been abandoned and left to rot.  But it was where Yeats wrote some of his finest poetry, as he describes in a letter written from Ballylee

Alas I have to return to Dublin in a couple of days.  There one gets angry and writes prose, but here beside a little stream I write poetry and think of nothing else.

The poetry from his collection The Tower exemplifies the best of Yeats’ ability to simultaneously portray landscape and create symbols from it.  Listen to this passage from his long poem, “Meditation in Time of Civil War," in which he takes stock of his surroundings:

An ancient bridge, and a more ancient tower,

A farmhouse that is sheltered by its wall

An acre of stony ground,

Where the symbolic rose can break in flower,

Old ragged elms, old thorns innumerable,

The sound of the rain or the sound

Of ever wind that blows;

The stilted water-hen

Crossing stream again

Scared by the splashing of a dozen cows

 

A winding stair, a chamber arched with stone,

A grey stone fireplace with an open hearth

A candle and written page

So, if it was Yeats’ special gift to encapsulate moments of time where mountains, streams, lakes, and ancient forts become more symbol than scene, he also had the ability to inspire those moments in others…or at least set them on their way.  It was his advice, spoken in an unguarded moment of criticism, to John Millington Synge, that helped shape that young writer’s career.  Upon meeting Synge in Paris, Yeats told him:

Give up Paris.  You will never create anything by reading Racine and Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French literature.  Go to the Aran Islands.  Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression

Although Synge was best known for his drama, one of his finest works is a small book called The Aran Islands.  This slim volume narrates the events of Synge’s three consecutive visits to the Aran Islands, a group of three small, very rocky, and culturally isolated islands just off the west coast of Ireland.  While he lived on the middle island of Inis Meain, Synge often sat on the stones just watching the weather change or observing the comings and goings of the people at work and play.  He also collected stories from the elders.

One of the most interesting stories he hears and narrates in his book is actually one that Yeats had also heard a few years before on his visit to the Arans.  It tells of a man who kills his maniacal and vicious father and then escapes to the Aran Islands.  Rather than reacting with horror at harboring a murderer in their midst, the islanders hide the man from the authorities and help him eventually escape to America, following the story, Synge offers this thought:

The impulse to protect the criminal is universal in the west.  It seems partly due to the association between justice and the hated English jurisdiction, but more directly to the primitive feelings of these people, who are never criminals yet always capable of crime, that a man will not do wrong unless he is under the influence of a passion which is as irresponsible as a storm on the sea.  If a man has killed his father, and is already sick and broken with remorse, there can be no reason why he should be dragged away and hanged by the law.

 Although he acknowledges that he most likely always remain an outsider on the island, Synge gives the reader many glimpses into the souls of the Aran Islanders.  In the moments after British soldiers, serving as the local police, turn an island woman out of her home because of debt, Synge clearly sees just what his means:

For these people the outrage to the heart is the supreme catastrophe.  They live here in a world of grey, where they are wild rains and mists every week in the year, and their warm chimney corners, filled with children and young girls, grow into consciousness of each family in a way it is not easy to understand in more civilized places

Synge’s talent was to illuminate the special moments in the daily lives of the some of the most interesting Irish, the Aran Islanders.

For me, doing this book was also made up of moments too, moments when I felt art, history, and geography collide. Like when I sat on the rock formation atop the cliffs of the island of Inis Meain in the rock formation called “Synge’s Chair” in honor of the playwright who arranged the rocks and often sat there, I looked across the ocean to the coast just as he did and felt the wind on my back and the ocean sprays drifting up.  As I sat there, I could almost sense his presence and understood much better what his experience was like.

A similar moment happened on the top of the mountain Ben Bulben.  Yeats often climbed Ben Bulben as a youngster and had written that he wanted to be buried in the small Drumcliffe churchyard at the foot of the mountain.  It was alone at the top of this cliff that I felt the closest connection to Yeats.

But the most powerful moments for me were the stories, like the one I heard mere hours after I landed in Ireland for this research trip. 

I was sitting with a group attending the Lady Gregory's Autumn Gathering.  Among the scholars and attendees whose father's friend was the taxi man for the town of Gort.  One night, after stowing his horse and buggy and battening down the hatches against an oncoming storm, he was awakened by a terrible pounding on front door, as if someone were trying to break it down.  A little frightened, he opened the window of the second floor and looked down.  "Who is it," asked his trembling wife.  A moment later, he pulled his head in and turned to his wife, "ach, it's only that mad Yeats, looking for a ride home in the rain."

The most special moment came during lunch the next day at the Lady Gregory fall symposium. I was late for lunch, so I picked the only spot available, next to a white-haired gentleman telling a story.  At first, I was focusing on my lunch and what I needed to photograph that afternoon, then I started to pay attention to the story the man was telling.

“He only found out he had won when Bertie Smyllie called with the news and he just asked “how much is it?  How much?”  It was then I realized that he was Michael Yeats talking about when his father won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923.  I nearly choked on my potatoes.  Michael Yeats, who passed away just before the book was published, was a wonderfully generous and kind spirit who was tremendously supportive of me.  I want to give him my thanks as well

So, in wrapping up, I’d certainly like to encourage all of you to get to Ireland (and of course use this book!), but also get out in search of your own moments.  Climb Ben Bulben or sit in Synge's Chair.  Walk down to the water’s edge at Lough Gill and look out across the water to the lake isle of Innisfree.  Sit it in the audience for a play at the Abbey Theatre or listen to the story the white-haired gentleman next to you is telling.  Ireland’s magic need only take a moment -- I thank you for the moments you’ve spent with me.