For one throb of the artery,
While on that old grey stone I sat
Under the old wind-broken tree,
I knew that one is animate,
Mankind inanimate Fantasy.
(W.B. Yeats, A Meditation in Time of War)
It was business that took me to Sligo in late November. Things were not good – though they had started to show signs of improvement. The IMF was about to leave the country, figuring that we’d spent enough time sitting in the corner thinking about what we’d done as a nation. The Celtic Tiger, however, was long since gone, having been been proven to be no more than the Irish Rover with go-faster stripes painted on.
I had attended a meeting in Letterkenny that morning and was approaching Sligo Town, having just driven through the bleakly spectacular mountains that surround the N-15. To be honest, this was not a part of the country that I knew that well. I had been camping here as a young teenager and had attended a wedding a couple of years back – but that was all. I knew I’d have a little time to kill, but didn’t really know what to do with it. I recalled that the Yeats family were from around here – wonder if I should try and track W.B.’s grave down and pay homage?
W B Yeats. Image from US Library of Congress, file LC-DIG-ggbain-00731
Yeats had always held a fascination for me. I thought him somewhat overly idealistic and somewhat distant from the Ireland that he actually inhabited – but the words he chose and the sentences he wove never failed to connect and move me. For years, I made the mistake of trying to be a poet by reading Yeats exclusively – a trap into which many an aspiring poet has fallen. It is something of a rite – or write (pun intended…) – of passage in Ireland. Yeats casts the greatest shadow.
About 8 kilometers from Sligo Town, I meet a wall of traffic. The sun had long since set and the rain had begun. The traffic jam served only to push me over the line of misery. Nothing is moving. I lean my elbow on the car window and rest my head against it – settling in for the long haul. By chance, I turn my head to the left. Drumcliff Graveyard. Well bugger me! This is where Yeats was lain …
Immediately, I turn the car into the deserted parking lot. I’m not going to miss a chance like this. The church itself lies only about 100 meters from the main road – but it may as well be a thousand miles away. It is a majestic little stone building. At this time of night, it is locked and illuminated by large spotlights set into the ground. It hides behind trees, gradually revealing itself with each step that I take forward. Behind it – barely visible in the darkness – is the outline of Benbulben – that great hunk of flat rock that defines the area so.
The graveyard itself encircles the church. The headstones are old – many are slowly capsizing and sinking into the surrounding earth. As I enter the graveyard proper, I begin to search for the Yeats name. And I search. And I search some more. I look through the prettier parts of the graveyard first – knowing that, as a tourist trap, the Yeats grave is probably situated in the most beautiful part of the yard.
It is not.
It takes me twenty minutes to find him. He lies, rather ignobly, not two feet from the asphalt of the parking lot. Yeats would have hated this …
That evening, I head to the hotel bar for a glass of whiskey and a read of the Irish Times. A local strikes up a conversation with me.
“Tourist?” he asks. Nice ice-breaker …
“Em, no – here on business.”
“Oh – I thought you might be one of those Yeats groupies.”
I smile. “Actually – I did go to see his grave today.”
“Ha – it’s not his grave.”
I look a little perplexed. He elaborates:
“Yeats died in France and was thrown into a common grave type-thing. There were hundreds of people buried in the same spot. When the Irish Government asked for him back, the local French town opened it up and just sent back the first body they though might be him. But it’s probably not him.”
I had no idea. If true, Yeats would have also hated this…
Next morning, I get up, chow down some breakfast, and decided to explore the town a little – after all – my meeting isn’t until noon. I stroll out and immediately cross the bridge. Here, I encounter the town’s Yeats statue – they’re really doing all they can to connect themselves with the man around here. The statue is odd – it looks like Oscar Wilde’s body with Yeats’ head atop it. The statue shows a skinny-framed man with a ballooning jacket. He is standing, on a plinth, with his hand to his chin – his bespectacled eyes contemplating something. Yeats quotes are engraved all over the statue. My first thought is to wonder what the statued Yeats is facing to justify the contemplative pose. I attempt to follow his line of vision, but cannot quite decide what he is looking at. Knowing Yeats, it is something that represents the search for a glimpse of true ‘Irishness’ through the smokey wisps of modernity, or his struggle to find an identity for the emerging Irish Free State. But I am well off target… The statue of W.B. Yeats, struck eternally in a permanent pose of intense contemplation … appears to have been placed randomly. Yeats looks not at an article of historical importance, nor at a site of literary inspiration. Instead, statue Yeats is looking into a shoe shop window – one that, as it happens, has placed a ‘Runner Sale’ sign unwittingly in the line of sight of the Nobel Laureate. The great man … is contemplating the price of sports footware …
Unsure whether to be amused or despondent, I make my way into the town museum for a quick look around. There is a Yeats room, containing his Nobel award, and a room dedicated to the remarkable Countess Markiewiecz.
I enter this room to have a look around. It will be nice to get a little respite from the rather oddly thought-through Yeats memorials. I make my way up to a large cabinet in the Markiewiecz room to see what is inside. I see a cannon ball from a 17th century battle. I see a document that twins Sligo with the German town of Kempten in Allgau. I see randomly arranged rock specimens that may (or may not) come from the area. I see prehistoric tools. And I see vinyl records from the 1950s. What I don’t see in this cabinet in the Marciewiecz room is ANYTHING AT ALL to to with the countess.
Confused, I decide to leave the museum and go to the only thing that has made sense to me all morning. I purchase a half-price pair of Puma runners. Turns out W.B. was right to contemplate it – it was a damn good sale.