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.

Yeats candlesticks at Thoor Ballylee

Happy New Year from Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society!

The Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society is delighted to announce the coming of Yeats’s original candlesticks to their home in Thoor Ballylee.

With the unmatched generosity of Joseph Hassett and Ronnie O’Gorman these magnificent large brass candlesticks (or altar-sticks) were acquired for the tower. In the 1920s they stood before the great fireplace in the family sitting room in the Norman tower itself. It must have been a magical sight, beneath the dark blue ceiling painted by George Yeats with stars and symbols and next to the old stonework, reworked by the architect William Scott. Although most of the tower’s refurbishment was done with local materials, the candlesticks themselves were probably made in Birmingham by Pearson-Page, a company specialising in authentic copies of historic metal-work in brass, copper, and iron.

Ronnie O’Gorman of Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society admires the candlesticks at their stop in Galway City Museum

The candlesticks come with excellent provenance. They were purchased in the Yeats Family Collection sale in Sotheby’s in London. The sale attracted considerable publicity  as it included not only manuscripts, drawings, and furniture from the collections of WB Yeats, but artwork from Jack B Yeats, the sisters EC and SM Yeats, and paintings and sketchbooks by their father John Butler Yeats.

Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society are very proud to have these fine objects, and there is no more fitting place for them to reside. An event to celebrate their arrival is planned in January, hosted by NUI Galway.


Thoor Ballylee Culture Night!

For Culture Night this Friday Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society hosts an evening of traditional music, song  and dance at Thoor Ballylee.

Oiche Ceoil at Thoor Ballylee 

Culture Night Friday September 22nd 2017

7.00 pm to 9.30 pm

Refreshments served. All welcome. Free event!

 For Ireland’s nationwide festival of the arts, Culture Night,  Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society hosts an evening of traditional music, song  and dance at W.B. Yeats’s Norman stone tower. 

Performing on the evening will be Gaillimh Theas Comhaltas, Gavin Dance Academy, renowned violinist Claire Egan, accordionist Eoin O Neill and guests.

Come along and join the excitement and witness the cultural richness of Galway’s finest performers, in a unique stone fireside setting restored and honoured by Ireland’s greatest poet.

The event is supported by Galway County Council, Oireachtas na Gaeilge & Arts. Culture night is brought to you by the Department of Culture, Heritage & the Gaeltacht & the  Creative Ireland Programme in partnership with Galway County Council.

Look out also for our closing season writers event 3pm Saturday 7th October with poet Sarah Clancy, novelist Lisa McInerney and performing poets..!

Jennifer Johnston & Rita Ann Higgins at Thoor!

Join us for an exciting Saturday afternoon in which two of Ireland’s best-loved writers come to Thoor Ballylee to give us the benefit their words, wit, and wisdom.

Grand Dames at Thoor

Jennifer Johnston

& Rita Ann Higgins

with readings and discussion

3pm Saturday 9th September 2017

Tickets on the door €10 (concessions available)

These two storied writers give an afternoon’s entertainment talking over and reading from their work, and thinking about history, politics, and culture in Ireland and beyond.

Irish novelist and playwright Jennifer Johnston is the author of almost thirty books and plays, including The Old Jest (1979), recipient of the Whitbread Book Award, The Invisible Worm (1991), The Gingerbread Woman (2000), and recently Fathers and Son (2012), A Sixpenny Song (2013), and The Christmas Tree: A Play in Two Acts (2015). Her novels range in theme from depictions of the decline of Ascendancy Ireland and the events of the First World War and the Troubles to evocations of personal and familial sorrow in what Penelope Lively calls her ‘hallmark style … economic and staccato’. She also joined other Irish novelists like Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright as a key contributor to Dermot Bolger’s group of linked stories Finbar’s Hotel (1997). Born in Dublin, she is a member of Aosdana and in 2012 received the Irish Book Awards Lifetime Achievement Award.

Rita Ann Higgins is a poet and playwright born in Ballybrit, Galway, and the recipient of numerous prizes and fellowships for her work. Her poetry collections include Goddess on the Mervue Bus (1986) and Higher Purchase (1996) (both Salmon Poetry), An Awful Racket (2001), Ireland Is Changing Mother (2013), and most recently Tongulish (2016) (all Bloodaxe), as well as a recent excoriating and energizing poem about Galway’s City of Culture bid. She has been writer in residence at NUI Galway, received several Arts Council bursaries, and been visiting Professor and Honorary Fellow in institutions around the world from Texas to Hong Kong. A member of Aosdana, she is especially known for the empathetic undercurrent running through her verse and plays, her evocation of voices, and the power of her public readings, all drawn from her close connection to Galway city and county.




Autumn 2017 opening hours

An update on the autumn 2017 opening hours for Thoor Ballylee. Come along, enjoy our exhibitions, climb the famous winding stair, pop into the poet’s bedroom, admire the stranger’s room, and take in the view from the top of the tower.

Or come and see us late for Culture Night, or join our last event of the season, the spectacular Poetry Slam. All before our winter closing on Sunday 8th October. Details below, we hope to see you soon!

Thoor Ballylee Opening Hours

September-October 2017

Until  Friday 8th September

Open 10 to 6 daily

Saturday 9th September until Saturday 7th October

Weekdays: 10 am to 2 pm
Weekends: 11 am to 5 pm

NB our upcoming events

JENNIFER JOHNSTON & RITA ANN HIGGINS: 3pm Saturday 9th September

CULTURE NIGHT: Friday 22 September (from 7pm late opening)

and the 2017 season final event

POETRY SLAM: Saturday 7th October

From Sunday 8th October 2017 the tower closes for the winter months. Till then all visitors receive the warmest of welcomes!


Thoor Ballylee reopens for 2017

We are delighted to announce that Yeats’s tower, Thoor Ballylee is now open for the summer months!

Mon-Fri 10am to 2pm

Sat-Sun 11am to 5pm

From June until the end of August the tower will be open every day, 10am to 6pm 7 days a week.

This year, 2017, is the one hundredth anniversary of work beginning on the tower by Yeats’s architect William Scott and local builder Michael Rafferty.

So all the more reason to come and climb the winding stair that inspired some of W.B.Yeats’s greatest poems.

The Winding Stair (1933) cover by Thomas Sturge Moore

Come and view our spectacular exhibitions…

…and our regular programme of cultural events.

The Curlew Theatre perform Cathleen Ni Houlihan

The doors of Thoor Ballylee officially re-opened on the occasion of W.B. Yeats’s 150th birthday on June 13th, 2015, after being closed for many years.  Donations from local business people, artisans, and artists generated much needed funding to cover operational costs. To find out how you can help, click here.

No winter flooding this year so we have been busy cleaning and refitting the tower ready for the summer. To find out more, how to visit, or how you can help look around our website at, and sign up for regular updates.

We would like to say a big thank you to all our friends, supporters, volunteers, and visitors over the last two years for their generosity and support. This coming year will feature a new programme of events, new challenges, and new excitements.

Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society Volunteers 2015

Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society Volunteers 2015

We still need your support to keep the tower open for future generations: to find out how you can help, click here. You can email us on and you can like us and stay abreast on our facebook page. Do please keep in touch!


Thoor Ballylee in The Irish Times

Thoor Ballylee features in Irish Times Open Season

William Butler Yeats’s tower at Thoor Ballylee features prominently in an Irish Times list of tourist attractions open this summer. The Hiberno-Norman icon features alongside such destinations as Skellig Michael, the Swiss Cottage Tipperary, and Lissadell Sligo, home of the Gore-Booth sisters and visited by Yeats as a young poet.  Visitors are advised that it was at Thoor Ballylee Yeats “penned some of his finest work” and that the tower and stream also featured in John Ford’s classic film The Quiet Man (1952).

It should be added that Thoor Ballylee is not yet quite open for the summer. However the sandbags guarding against possible flooding have long gone, and the tower and cottage are being tidied in readiness for 2017 opening, expected on May Day, Monday 1st May. We look forward to welcoming new visitors and old friends then. Also make sure to look out for our summer programme of cultural events.

Meanwhile you can follow here the other Irish Times suggestions for historic and scenic visits across Ireland. The Times assessment of Thoor Ballylee follows below.

Thoor Ballylee, Gort, Co Galway

The engraving onto the cut stone plaque on this 16th-century tower house states: “I, the poet William Yeats, with old mill boards and sea-green slates, and smithy work from the Gort forge, restored this tower for my wife George; and may these characters remain when all is ruin once again.” Yeats penned some of his finest work, from the Winding Stair and Other Poems to The Tower Poems, in the four-storey castle on the bend of a Co Galway road. it is now restored and open to visitors, who can discover the winding stair to the top floor or look out through the river-facing window in the chamber described by the Nobel Prize winner as the “pleasantest room I have yet seen”. Thoor Ballylee appeared in John Ford’s timeless The Quiet Man(1952).
Open: From 1 May every day until September 30th
Hours: 10am-6pm
Admission: €7 (concessions also apply)

Thoor Ballylee receives Creative Ireland boost

The Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society is delighted to confirm that Thoor Ballylee has received a new grant under the Creative Ireland programme, “the most significant investment in regional arts and cultural centres in a decade”.

€22,000 has been allocated for the refurbishment of two rooms at Thoor Ballylee and the creation of a new Artist Space.

Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Heather Humphreys made the announcement as part of the Creative Ireland programme, with funding provided under her Department’s Arts and Culture Capital Scheme 2016-2018.

The aim of the artist space is to make a contemporary contribution to the spirit and tradition of Yeats, his mentor Lady Augusta Gregory, and their nurturing of the poets, artists, actors, musicians and designers of their era.

The space will offer opportunities for visiting artists and scholars to work, and to run workshops, master classes and summer camps for apprentice writers, designers, musicians, and schoolchildren.

It is also hoped that the artist space will attract artists and scholars to the Tower from around the world to perform and share their work as well as promote international collaboration in the run up to Galway 2020 and beyond.


Contestants at the Thoor Ballylee Poetry Slam, 2016

Fidelma Healy Eames, Chair of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society, remarked: “I wish to note the thanks and delight of the Board of Directors of Yeats Thoor Ballylee Development Ltd to Minister Humphreys and the Government for their support for our development plan and vision for Yeats’s ancestral home at Thoor Ballylee. Well done to all of the hard working volunteer members of the society. The €22k is most welcome and will contribute greatly to an enhanced visitor experience at Thoor.”

Last year, the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society unveiled a beautiful new exhibition which attracted more than 3,000 visitors to the tower over the summer months. Refurbishing two rooms at the Tower will bring the visitor closer to the poet’s life and work. With the new funding injection it is planned to further develop the visitor experience and celebrate Yeats’s Galway home.

Speaking at the announcement Minister Humphreys said: “Creative Ireland aims to promote individual, community and national wellbeing through cultural activity. This €9 million announcement is the most significant investment in regional arts and cultural centres in a decade. The largest funding awards – of €1 million each – are going to Wexford Arts Centre and the Riverbank Arts Centre in Kildare.”

Thoor Ballylee, both Yeats’s tower and the Exhibition is open to visitors from May 1st 2017.


Thoor Ballylee on The Poetry Programe

Following the successful poetry slam held at Thoor Ballylee late last year, Thoor Ballylee and its living poets are celebrated on RTÉ’s The Poetry Programme.


The programme samples the lively atmosphere of the inaugural Thoor Ballylee Poetry Slam and hears from organisers Lelia Doolan and Sarah Clancy. Paul McNamara, winner of the competition, is second from left.


‘Leabhar na hAthghabhála / Poems of Repossession’ is an impressive anthology of poetry in Irish from the past century with English translations. Editor, poet, and translator Louis de Paor chooses some poems from the anthology and talks about his desire to make this work visible to a wider audience.

Martina Evans is sure we all have a poem in us. She talks with Rick O’Shea and reads from her collection ‘The Windows of Graceland,’ published by Carcanet.

To listen to the programme, broadcast on RTÉ Radio One 7.30pm Saturday 7th January, follow this link.