Richard Murphy and the apples of Thoor Ballylee

The Irish poet Richard Murphy died last week at the age of ninety.

Late last year Poetry Ireland hosted readings and celebrations in honour of his birthday, attended by friends, admirers, and members of his family including his sister Mary and brother Christopher. As Christopher Murphy’s affectionate talk made clear, although his brother Richard now resided in Sri Lanka, he always maintained strong connections with the west of Ireland, where he is known for restoring and sailing an old boat between Cleggan and Inishbofin in Connemara, chronicled in his poem ‘The Last Galway Hooker’.

Though the family spent time away from their home in Mayo, Richard Murphy always returned. Living for a time in Rosroe in the house used by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Murphy made his life in the west, writing acute poems about land and seascape, included in the volumes Sailing to an Island (1963) and High Island (1974). These poems could only come from someone who fully inhabited the place and his subjects: the poem ‘Cleggan Disaster’ is a sensitive recounting of a shipwreck that profoundly affected the area. The Price of Stone (1985) tells a kind of architectural autobiography in sonnet form from ‘Connemara Quay’ and ‘Killary Hostel’ to ‘Oxford Staircase’, ‘Kylemore Castle’, and ‘Letterfrack Industrial School’.

In the west of Ireland especially Murphy’s life and poetry lives on. It is, for example, the major inspiration for the annual Inish festival on Inishbofin. At the inaugural event, ‘Sailing to an Island’, President Michael D. Higgins’s inspiring talk about Murphy’s love poems made discreet comment on the recent same-sex marriage referendum, and capped an evening of music, readings, and tributes from award-winning poets like Bernard O’Donoghue and Vahni Capildeo.


As it happened many years earlier the epilogue to Murphy’s ‘Cleggan Disaster’ won a prize in London for which one of the judges was the American poet Sylvia Plath. In this passage from Murphy’s autobiography The Kick (Granta 2000, Cork UP 2014), he is setting up home in the Old Forge in Cleggan when Sylvia Plath and her husband the poet Ted Hughes come to visit.

They day after they arrived, there was a forecast of rain and south-east winds, making a passage to the island undesirable. So I took them to Yeats’s Tower at Ballylee and Lady Gregory’s Coole Park. I had no car but a 7 horsepower minivan, used for selling the fish we had caught. Sylvia sat in front, talking to me about her marriage and mine. In the back, which was too small to contain seats, Ted talked to Seamus about poachers, guns, and fishing.

We went first to Coole, where I showed them the copper beech tree in the Pleasure Ground. Sylvia urged Ted to climb a spiked iron fence that protected the tree, and to carve his initials beside those of Yeats. She said he deserved to be in that company […] But the spikes were too sharp for him to climb over.

The Tower at that time was the ruin predicted by Yeats in the poem carved on a stone at Ballylee. People in the neighbourhood had taken everything that could be moved. The Tourist Board had not begun its restoration, and the road was still untarred. A patient ass was rubbing its ears on a gate. Jackdaws fled protesting as we climbed the spiral stairs. From the top, Sylvia threw coins into the stream. Then they noticed a moss-coated apple tree, planted in the time of Yeats, bearing a heavy crop of bright red cookers. Ted and Sylvia both insisted we should steal them. I protested. Ted said they would make good apple pie, enough to keep me through the winter. They put Seamus up the tree to shake the branches, and went to work among the nettles, picking up the apples, gathering more than a hundredweight. My objections were brushed aside. I asked Ted ‘Why are you doing this?’ Standing with his back to the grey limestone wall of the Tower he spoke in a voice of quiet intensity: ‘When you come to a place like this you have to violate it.’

The respect of Plath and Hughes for the poetry of Yeats (and for Hughes especially for his astrological and magical investigations) did not prevent their harvesting the dead poet’s apples. Murphy, while disapproving of the violations of his visitors, took encouragement from their support during this visit for his writing of dramatic monologues, and in The Battle of Aughrim (1967), his deft disposal of these different historical voices demonstrates his conscience as a chronicler of violence.

Richard Murphy with the poets Douglas Dunn, Philip Larkin, and Ted Hughes

There are still apple and pear trees at Thoor Ballylee, flowering and bearing fruit, despite the odd period of neglect and flooding. Richard Murphy, their would-be custodian, and a sincere, generous, distinguished poet will be remembered fondly in many parts of the world, but nowhere more than in the west of Ireland.

Rooting Thoor Ballylee

A speech on the occasion of Yeats2015 and Yeats’s 150th birthday

by Joseph Hassett                                                            

Yeats birthday Roy Foster Joseph Hassett

I salute the important work you are doing to restore Thoor Ballylee. Preserving this tower is essential because W. B. Yeats is present here. One of the greatest poets of all time is alive here in a very particular way. There are two reasons for claiming Yeats’s presence. First, he himself insisted that the passionate dead return to the places to which they were attached during life. In particular, he says, ‘the shadows of the famous dead come to our elbow amid their old undisturbed habitations.’ In such places, ‘they tread the corridor and take the empty chair.’

Whether you accept the real presence of Yeats here at Thoor Balylee is not important because there is no denying his virtual presence. Yeats’s famous declaration that ‘this tower is my symbol’ made Thoor Ballylee the visible representation of his life and work.

The troubled poet Sylvia Plath wrote that she felt a profound connection with Yeats as a result of her visit to this tower and that her soul responded to the peace of this place where we stand today.

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Yet the Tower was a very unusual place to live. And the location is remote. Wondering why Yeats chose to live here at all, we realize that taking up residence in Thoor Ballylee was so forceful an assertion of Yeats’s personality, and so complete an identification between person and place, that his palpable presence becomes apparent one moment and believable the next.

In a letter to Sturge Moore Yeats called the tower a ‘permanent symbol of my work’—, a ‘rooting of mythology in the earth.’ The suitability of a tower for this purpose is suggested by Gaston Bachelard in a little book bearing the intriguing title, The Poetics of Space. Bachelard maintains that the form of a tower emphasizes the opposition in any dwelling between the rationality of the roof and the irrationality of the cellar. The latter, the ‘dark entity’ of the house, sinks into what he calls the ‘earthly watery depths’ of the collective unconscious. Bachelard’s poetics make good sense as applied to Yeats because Yeats believed in a universal unconscious, an hereditary capacity for primordial thought, memory and myth. Yeats put it simply : Our individual thoughts ‘are not, as we think, the deep, but only the foam upon the deep.’

By living in Thoor Ballylee, Yeats was sinking his roots into the deep. Thus, when he prayed, in ‘A Prayer on Going Into My House’, “that “God grant a blessing on this tower and cottage,’ he asked specifically

That I myself for portions of the year

May handle nothing and set eye on nothing

But what the great and passionate have used

Throughout so many varying centuries

We take it for the norm.

In other words, Yeats is praying that the tower connect him to the great and passionate dead, whose thoughts still linger in the collective unconscious.

Five years after Yeats moved into Thoor Ballylee, Carl Jung built a tower on the Upper Lake of Zurich at Bollingen. Yeats would not have been surprised to find that Jung’s mind travelled in the same circle as his. Were not both minds but the foam upon a common deep? As Jung sank his roots into the ancestral depths, he sensed that the souls of his ancestors, hitherto awash in the collective unconscious, were gathering about his tower.

The same thing occurred at Ballylee. No sooner had Yeats taken up residence in his tower than he began calling up, and claiming as ancestors, what he called –in the poem ‘The Tower’—‘nearby images in the Great Memory stored.’Then, in his next volume of poetry, The Winding Stair, he made that firm declaration that is so pertinent to the reasons that bring us here today:

I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare

This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair;

That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have travelled there.

Yeats was plumbing the depths of his ancestral past. Speaking of the poetry of this period, he said that his ideal form of expression was most approximated ‘when I carry with me the greatest possible amount of hereditary thought and feeling.’ This ancestral feeling was tapped by sinking the tower into the watery, earthly depths of the collective unconscious. That is why the tower symbolized his work, which he summed up as a ‘rooting of mythology in the earth.’

‘Rooting’ was in Jung’s mind as well. The ‘uprootedness’ of modern civilization, he felt, was unsettling to the hereditary elements of the psyche. Sinking the tower in the collective unconscious had a calming effect because it restored our severed connection with the past.

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In the serenity of Thoor Ballylee, we sense the harmony of roots restored, the calm of the psyche made whole. Standing here, it is easy to share Sylvia Plath’s sense of serenity and peace, and to believe that it flows from a perfect blending of person, place, present and past.

Preserving this connection to the past is essential to our own connection to the extraordinary Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and to a sense of ourselves as a people who care about our past, and want to feel its continuing life in our own lives, and in the lives of our children and their children.

Congratulations and Godspeed on the important work you are doing.

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Joseph Hassett

More from Joseph Hassett on Yeats’s 150th birthday on OUP’s blog here.