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Thoor Ballylee:

Home of William Butler Yeats in County Galway, Ireland

by Diana Viola

At Ballylee breezes hum in the air like the strings of a far distant lute. The stream that runs through the property giggles like a giddy child as it races over rocks and pebbles. Hawthornes sway on its banks, while ash trees "throw green shadows" on the grass. Rising out of this lyric softeness is the tower.

Square and gray, its few windows are merely slits in the obstinate stone walls. This was Yeats' symbol. Within these walls, Yeats held himself to a stern, artistic standard, one that would make him a Nobel Laureate.

Yeats' lifelong friend, Lady Augusta Gregory, lived in County Galway.

Her estate, Coole Park, was a retreat for Yeats through his adult years. He first stayed at Coole in a critical summer of his youth when when he was possibly tubercular, and most definitely lovesick with an unrequited passion for Maud Gonne. The devoted Lady Gregory nursed him to health, but even she couldn't find a cure for Maud. Yeats' love continued through the years, despite Maud's marriage to another, and the birth of her two children. As he approached fifty, Yeats longed to settle down. He wanted a wife, and he wanted a home. Ballylee, an "old square castle and a cottage" was for sale. A true fixer upper, the asking price was a slender 65 pounds. Yeats had found a home and a poetic symbol.

thoor ballylee
Driving a non-poetic bargain, he purchased Ballylee for the final price of 35 pounds. Yeats drew up plans for restoration, appointed the steadfast Lady Gregory to oversee the work and set off for France, wherein resided one Maud Gonne.Yeats had proposed to Maud innumerable times through the years and had been turned down. Now he was a man of property, however. Once again, with confidence, he proposed to Maud Gonne. Once again, with confidence, she turned him down.
Thoor Ballylee

Thus rejected, he cast his eyes in another direction, letting them fall lovingly on the fair and youthful Iseult Gonne, daughter of Maud. Yeats proposed to Iseult. Like her mother, Iseult turned him down. Yeats then voyaged to England where he made another proposal, this time to Miss Georgina Hyde-Lees. Miss Hyde-Lees accepted.Yeats threw himself into the restoration. This was more than fixing up, for there was no separation between the man and the weathered stones. He dropped the word castle, changing it to the word thoor, Irish for tower. "I think the harsh sound of 'Thoor' amends the softness of the rest."

From Thoor Ballylee a very happy Yeats wrote to a friend, "And out of doors, with the hawthorn all in blossom all along the river banks, everything is so beautiful that to go elsewhere is to leave beauty behind."Touring the tower, one moves from austerity to austerity, from a room with unadorned, whitewashed walls to another of solid gray stone. This could be a monastery.

It isn't difficult to understand Yeats' choice of the metaphor of soul's ascent, for these stairs could not have been designed for feet. Wary toes navigate shallow steps. The passageway is narrow, shoulders brush against the walls. The ascent is slow, but, one thinks, no one ever said that the the path to wisdom was easy.Midway to the top is a glass partition that blocks off a small area behind a window. Here, in a scattered pile of dried grasses are two bird's eggs where a kestrel has made her home. When Ballylee became a monument, Mrs. Yeats specified that the birds were to be allowed their residence in perpetuity. George Yeats had understood. Birds and bards, both make the landscape sing.

The view from the battlement is of vast stretches of the Galway plains, and the garden tended by Mrs. Yeats. Birds sing, the air is sweet. It is a rapturous state until one remembers that soul may stay aloft, but toes must descend those winding stairs.


an irish literary luncheon from the WB Yeats Society of NY

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©Diana Serbe 2005  




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