Ireland, or the Emerald Isle as it is poetically described due to its brilliant green countryside, has an illustrious literary past and present. Its transformative landscape has inspired some of the country’s most prolific poets and writers, from Samuel Beckett’s avant-garde works and Seamus Heaney’s lyrical verse to George Bernard Shaw’s sharp-witted scripts.
But no verse pays homage to the natural beauty of Ireland’s landscape better than William Butler Yeats. The country’s first Nobel laureate and native son of Sligo is considered to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Yeats’s birth, and there has never been a better or more poignant time to visit the Emerald Isle. In the words of the great poet himself: “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t met”. Today, Yeats’s legacy remains and his words continue to shape the English language – his influence on today’s writers is thought to be as great as that of
Perhaps the region that best connects the man and his poetry is County Sligo, in the Republic of Ireland, referred to by many as “Yeats Country”. Despite being born in Dublin to the son of a well-known Irish painter and lawyer, John Butler Yeats, the poet’s spiritual home was Sligo, “the land of heart’s desire”. Yeats spent much of his childhood in Sligo and its beauty, folklore and spirit filled his early romantic works.
“Where the wandering water gushes / From the hills above Glen-Car”, from his poem “The Stolen Child”, describes a misty waterfall in the county’s north. Even after moving to London, Yeats never lost his cultural roots. In both his plays and his poetry, his verses are littered with Irish legends and heroes. Far more than simply a wordsmith, Yeats also dabbled in politics and was a major playwright – becoming one of the founders of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
A recurring theme in Yeats’s poetry, and a geographic touchstone, is County Sligo’s brooding “table-topped” Benbulben Mountain (pictured above), which moved him to write “Under Ben Bulben”: “Cast a Cold Eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!”. Fittingly and on his request, the poet was buried in the mountain’s shadow, in the churchyard of Drumcliff village, which is worth a visit for the scenery alone.
Another of Yeats’s key inspirations worth the pilgrimage is Lissadell House (+353 71 916 3150; www.lissadellhouse.com) on the shores of Drumcliff Bay (pictured opposite bottom). The 19th-century neo-classical house and gardens was an occasional holiday retreat for the wordsmith. As a young boy, Yeats visited Lissadell for cricket matches and horse racing, and forged a close friendship with the famous Irish revolutionary, Countess Constance Markievicz (née Gore-Booth), who lived there with her sister.
The sisters were immortalised in Yeats’s verse: “The light of evening, Lissadell / Great windows open to the south / Two girls in silk kimonos, both / Beautiful, one a gazelle”. The mansion remained in the Gore-Booth family from 1834-2003, and behind its austere façade visitors can find a stunning art collection, newly opened servant’s quarters, a Victorian kitchen garden and an alpine seashore rockery garden that’s worth exploring.
If you ever wondered what the man himself looks like, head to Sligo Town’s Ulster Bank on Stephen Street to admire his bronze effigy (pictured opposite top). Crafted by sculptor Rowan Gillespie, the billowing sculpture represents the poet as a page of his own work, with engravings of excerpts from some of his most cherished poems. Rather poetically, the statue looks across the river to the Yeats Memorial Building.
Live like an aristocrat
Surrounded by ancient woodland, rolling hills and a sprawling 400-hectare estate in the north-east of County Monaghan, in the Republic of Ireland, Castle Leslie (+353 47 88100; www.castleleslie.com) is one the last great Irish castles estates.
Now a five-star luxury hotel, the Scottish Baronial-styled country retreat has played host to the likes of Yeats, Pope John Paul II, Queen Elizabeth II and many ambassadors to Dublin throughout its storied history. The poet took a fancy to The Red Room in particular, which, in keeping with the castle’s Italian Renaissance style, boasts a magnificent four-poster bed from Perugia in Italy (above right).
The 347-year-old Leslie Estate has forests, parks and three lakes, while horse-riding enthusiasts will be drawn to the Equestrian Centre with its 56 stables, kilometres of trails, more than 300 jumps and an indoor 200-seat equestrian arena. On a misty morning, you can get (happily) lost in one of the enchanting woodland groves, or take a row boat out from the jetty for a spot of pike fishing on the lake.
Soak up some history
Castle Leslie is reputed to have acquired Ireland’s first installed bath. If you are a fan of long, luxurious soaks and copper tubs, reserve The Eagle’s Nest Room. Situated at one of the highest points in the house, guests can enjoy sweeping views across the lake and gardens from the romantic balcony (above right).
“Of the green hills of Down / The soft low hills of Down”, from the poem “Hills of Down”, is how Lewis described Northern Ireland’s County Down region – a varied landscape characterised by gentle slopes, crystalline lakes and a 321-km golden coastline. Famous for saying: “I yearn to see County Down in the snow, one almost expects to see a march of dwarfs dashing past.
How I long to break into a world where such things were true,” the dramatic Mourne Mountains, which he visited as a boy, were the inspiration for Lewis’s fictional, snow-capped kingdom of Narnia. At the heart of the Mournes lies the Silent Valley Reservoir, ringed by mountain vistas near Kilkeel, which you can admire from a bird’s-eye perspective by walking the Ben Crom trail.
It’s impossible to visit to Belfast and ignore the cultural and historical influence of the city’s literary son, C.S. Lewis. As one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century, Lewis wrote more than 30 books, ranging from children’s fantasy to popular theology. His early Belfast years, growing up in Little Lea in the east of the city, had the strongest influence on his vast body of work – in particular The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven books following characters who can reach other worlds through a magical wardrobe.
For Lewis, the portal into Narnia was his beloved Ulster. Born in Belfast in 1898, the renowned author, theologian and academic went on to fight in the trenches of World War I; become a lecturer at Oxford; a professor at Cambridge; and a poet, a sci-fi novelist and an expert in medieval literature. The enduring appeal of the Belfast-born author is ever apparent. More than 100 million copies of The Chronicles of Narnia series has been sold in 47 languages, putting it in the top 100 bestselling books of all time.
Into the wardrobe
Located congruously outside Holywood Arches Library, “The Searcher” is a bronze sculpture by Northern Irish artist Ross Wilson that epitomises C.S. Lewis’s most famous work – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The life-sized statue portrays Lewis as one of the book’s best-known characters, Digory Kirke, the owner of the fictional wardrobe that acts as the portal into the magical land of Narnia.
The northern coast of Northern Ireland’s County Antrim was much loved by Lewis, who speaks of the windswept beaches of the Causeway Coast in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, describing them as “towering up above them; before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea, and long lines of bluish green waves breaking forever and ever on the beach. And oh, the cry of the sea-gulls!”. A more bucolic scene along Antrim’s spectacular coastal drive can be seen near Ballintoy, where lush areas of green countryside meet the Irish Sea (bottom right).
There are doorknobs, and then there are lion doorknobs. One such knob has festooned the door of St Mark’s rectory on Holywood Road since Lewis was a rambunctious whippersnapper (middle right). It was here that the author’s grandfather lived for a time, and was the first rector of St Mark’s Church, known as “The Lion on the Hill”. Many believe this was where a young Lewis took his inspiration for Aslan – the great lion character in The Chronicles of Narnia stories.