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Opinion: Yeats' poetry helped shape Ireland and appears on the Leaving Cert - now the Yeats Society is under threat

Susan O’Keeffe of the Yeats Society Sligo charts the influence of the great poet on Irish life and highlights the Society’s struggle to survive the pandemic.

Susan O’Keeffe

“Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like​ a flame.”
(Land of Heart’s Desire)

THINKING ABOUT THE many students sitting their Leaving Cert examinations this month I’m reminded that, for many people, their first introduction to Yeats was in the classroom, conjuring Innisfree from the pages of a much-thumbed textbook.

It is surely a mark of the impact of his words that the school system has not turned a generation away from the work of our national poet, but instead many find his words an enduring source of comfort.

He is the poet that we all turn to throughout our lives and, especially at special and reflective moments – from weddings and birthdays to illness and funerals.

US President Joe Biden also turned to Yeats last week as he embarked on his first major tour, since taking office in January this year. Quoting from the great Easter 1916 poem, the President made clear in a heartbeat, that when it comes to Brexit, the UK and Ireland, he will stand by the Irish and the EU to make sure that peace on this island remains a reality.

Literary giant

That is the power of a Yeats poem, the work he started as a young teenager and the life he deliberately embarked on – writing poetry. It was no accident that William Butler Yeats became a poet; he sensed in himself the need to call upon this ancient way of expressing our innermost fears and feelings and the need to share these thoughts with others to help on life’s challenging journey.

And Yeats’ very special relationship with Sligo can be heard throughout all his poetry. Its lakes and hills inspired ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, the western starlit skies twinkle over ‘He Wishes For The Clothes Of Heaven’ and the wild beauty of the Hazel wood is depicted in ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’.

He transformed Sligo into Yeats Country – ‘The Land of Heart’s Desire’ – the name of his first play, and, in so doing, made Sligo his own – in perpetuity. So much so, that he asked to be buried here – under the majesty of Ben Bulben mountain in Drumcliffe Churchyard.

This is why visitors come here – from Cork and Waterford, Kentucky and Toronto, Canberra and Seoul. They want to stand where he stood – in Sligo. They want to learn more about the amazing story of Yeats and they believe that his work has enhanced their understanding of the world.

We call them the ‘pilgrims’ – it is a life’s journey crossing the border to Yeats Country – Sligo – and many come back and back. And we make them welcome and we want to carry on offering céad mile fáilte to all of them.

Woven into the fabric

Yeats too is part of who we became when Ireland emerged as the Free State and later the Republic. He retold Ireland’s myths, shaped literary culture and celebrated Irish traditions.

He understood that Ireland’s freedom hinged on having a place for her voice to be heard. He, with Lady Gregory, opened the Abbey Theatre a full 10 years before the Easter rising; to give Irish people a place to tell Ireland’s story. No revolution is won by guns alone and he knew that too.

This poet’s work has endured now across three centuries; that is an outstanding achievement. It resonates as much today as when it was first written – the mark of great poetry. At Yeats Society Sligo, we play an important role in telling the story of the national poet and his mother and father, his sisters Susan and Elizabeth and his brother Jack.

Founded by contemporaries of Yeats in 1960 (he had died just 21 years earlier) Yeats Society Sligo is the heart of the cultural and tourist scene in Sligo town. It has been a cultural hub at the centre of Sligo for many years, and the Yeats Building houses a huge collection of books and other archive material, available for scholarly research.

One of the major initiatives, wholly managed by the Society, is the annual Yeats International Summer School. It is now the longest-running literary school in the world, integrating an academic programme of lectures and seminars with poetry readings and cultural events.

The Summer School has welcomed luminaries including Paula Meehan, Eavan Boland, John Montague, Jessica Traynor, John McGahern, Mary Robinson and Edna O’Brien, and brings attendees from across the globe to Sligo each year. It can also lay claim to being where Seamus Heaney met arguably one of his most important champions, the leading American scholar, writer and critic Helen Vendler, highlighting just how important a cultural touchstone it has been over the last six decades.

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Surviving in a pandemic

When the pandemic forced the Yeats Building to close to visitors and tours in March last year, followed by the cancellation of the Summer School and a pared-back online 2021 version of the event, our sources of revenue dried up.

Careful financial management of savings has allowed us to continue through 18 months of closures and uncertainty however, as an organisation without core funding, the future of the Society and of Yeats’ legacy in Ireland is in peril. We are now looking to raise €100,000 by September to guarantee its survival and allow it to thrive once again.

Yeats’ poetry has helped shape Ireland as a nation. His words have given hope, inspiration and comfort, and have told Ireland’s story for over a century. He is entwined in our DNA and what we do helps people to enjoy and appreciate the work and life even more. We are asking for your support to keep the doors of this place open. 

I don’t want to be turning the key in the front door for the last time on 30 September. Please help us to be here next year and for decades to come as the poetry of this great man endures and enhances our lives.

Susan O’Keeffe is Director of Yeats Society Sligo. To donate to help ensure the future of Yeats Society Sligo and help save Yeats’ legacy see www.yeatssociety.com.

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Susan O’Keeffe

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