Dead poet’s society?

(The following article by Adrian Paterson about the Yeats2015 celebrations and the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society appeared in the Irish Times on 10 February 2015. It is reproduced here with permission.)

WB Yeats

Joyous and recalcitrant, Yeats’s voice still resonates

This year sees a worldwide series of creative and cultural events celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Butler Yeats. Launched by Senator Susan O’Keeffe and Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys as part of Ireland’s decade of commemorations, Yeats2015 gives the anniversary decade a new focus.

But why remember, of all things, a dead poet? What good can calling Yeats from the dead do us?

Yeats himself thought a lot about life after death, and his poems ask nagging questions of those beyond the grave. Fittingly, Yeats2015 might just prove the most lively of all the commemorations.

It is the only one that celebrates a birth, rather than remembering an event of sober historical record. It is the only one exclusively devoted to artistic achievement, so central to this island’s story.

It is locally driven but international in scope, with events centred on places important to Yeats, such as Galway, Sligo, Dublin, London, and further afield, Paris, Utrecht, Madrid, Atlanta, Melbourne, Tokyo, Beijing.

Yeats today is respected rather than loved. His unassailable position on the Leaving Cert syllabus has not resulted in the universal affection of schoolchildren, among whom this self-confessed “smiling public man” walked and dreamed of loves and loss.

An association with Ascendancy Protestantism (which doesn’t cloud opinion of Samuel Beckett or his own brother, the artist Jack Yeats) underplays his own radically unorthodox beliefs, and the down-at-heel origins of a young man who used to ink his feet to hide the holes in his socks.

Yeats is seen as lofty, aloof, abstract, when in fact he was engaged, committed, sensual. But we don’t have to like Yeats to listen. We don’t have to agree with him to learn something. Yeats would have loathed a hagiography and Yeats2015 will not be one. His is a bountiful, contradictory shade that deserves to be called up and questioned again.

Dates mattered to Yeats. For him, the whirlings of moons and midnights set in train the larger forces of history and creativity this commemorative decade is designed to mark.

Revolutionary decade

It is hard to imagine that revolutionary decade without him. Those repeating the lines “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,/ It’s with O’Leary in the grave” sometimes forget that September 1913, first published in this newspaper, is an impassioned defence of modern art, a frontal attack on those who thought progress was a new road bridge over the Liffey and breaking the unions rather than workers’ rights and a free public gallery.

Easter 1916 commemorates the rebels’ sacrifice but questions it too, painfully acknowledging the ambiguity of founding a state on violent insurrection. The War of Independence sparked the savage Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, which condemns violence against the person and against art, yet acknowledges our thirst and culpability for both.

These poems may name dates but have not become dated. Like them, The Second Coming knows intimately the horrors of the 20th century, perhaps explaining the poem’s prescience even today. Slavoj Zizek is among countless public figures to cite it, arguing in response to the recent Parisian murders that it “seems perfectly to render our present predicament: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’.”

Meditations in Time of Civil War, meanwhile, wrests from the Troubles a lyric Seamus Heaney felt still mattered: its refrain “O honey-bees – Come build in the empty house of the stare” pleads for peace to a deafened world.

That bloody decade made Ireland, but it also made Yeats as a poet. Facing a new reality he turned a personal midlife crisis into spare, unflinching public poems whose powerful lines and pressing concerns still sound like tolling bells.

However we think of Yeats, poetic achievement must be at the heart of any commemoration. But Yeats was more than a poet. He was a cultural revolutionary who became a cultural entrepreneur. He began things, co-founding the Abbey Theatre, the Irish Literary Society and, with his talented family, the Cuala Press, producing designs and books from a single hand-press in Dublin.

He was anything but a solitary dreamer: his collaborations with musicians, actors, dramatists, stage designers, folklorists, journalists, artists, dancers, printers, occultists, broadcasters and lovers are reflected in the vibrant range of celebratory events on offer.

A disturbing late flirtation with authoritarian politics remains rightly controversial and must cause us to reflect on the role of the arts in a democratic society. As a working politician, however, Yeats was a liberal and his conception of the nation strikingly diverse. As a senator he promoted Irish-language research, while questioning compulsory Irish. Citing cross-Border unity and minority rights he argued for long-established rights to divorce, only recently restored.

Yeats radio mike

Defender of free speech

He defended free speech against religious interests, denouncing censorship and mocking the new State’s “committee for evil literature”. He was in principle a European, trading in a global artistic currency; but in practice a localist, insistent on self-determination. The coinage commission he chaired produced animal designs that lasted until the coming of the euro.

His poems honour the Irish landscape. You might even say his shade balefully haunts our ghost estates: an alternative to profligate new-builds and property booms is shown by the careful restoration of a Hiberno-Norman tower in Galway with local labour and materials, wood, thatch, ironwork, and slates. This year of all years it must be hoped the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society receives support for its reopening.

WB Yeats was a vortex of energy, a protean, recalcitrant, joyous figure who believed in the value of art to shape a nation and to change the world. Perhaps, for a year, we should join this dead poet’s society and see what happens.

Adrian Paterson is a lecturer in English at NUI Galway and a member of the Yeats2015 steering committee and the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society.

Development project on UTV

The Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society development project is the subject of a feature news item on UTV.


The video (see link) describes the local and international significance of the tower and features Colm Farrell and Sister De Lourdes Fahy, who recount family memories of the poet:

‘For many people, W.B. Yeats is commonly associated with Co Sligo but it was in fact in Co Galway that the famous poet spent thirty summers and penned some of his most memorable work.

Speaking to UTV Ireland, Sister De Lourdes Fahy of the Thoor Ballylee Society said: “My people owned quite a bit of land around the castle and they used to supply the Yeats family with milk.

“Very often my father brought Yeats down in the pony-and-trap from Thoor Ballylee down to Coole Park. He did not talk, he didn’t have much in common with young farmers. He loved writing about peasants and fishermen but in actual fact he found it difficult to relate to them.

“I suppose he was composing poetry all the time,” she added.

The locals are now facing a much more ambitious plan – to raise one million euro by June, the 150th anniversary of his birth.

“It’s our goal to restore the tower, re-open it and develop it into a world-class cultural centre to honour his memory, his heritage, his poetry, his links with this area – and his links with lots of other literary figures, around the Literary Revival, around 1916,” said chair of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society, Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames.’

Development project launch media

The Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society development project launch continues to provoke interest. Included here is a video of Ronnie O’Gorman speaking at the launch about Yeats’s purchase of the tower, its history, and its vital importance to Yeats’s own poetry. He draws attention to Thomas Sturge Moore’s wonderful cover for Yeats’s seminal volume The Tower (1928), featuring an image of Thoor Ballylee reflected in water (things above are as things below) which is the inspiration for the Society’s logo. Also included is an image of the poster for the launch in situ in Gort. Details of how to donate online will be made available shortly.





Project Launch

The Yeats Thoor Ballyllee Society launches the restoration project at 8pm Friday 6th February, Lady Gregory Hotel, Gort, Galway, Ireland.

Thoor Flyer1

The Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society is a community group which aims to open a worldclass cultural centre in W.B. Yeats’s home: Thoor Ballylee, in South County Galway, Ireland. Our aim is to achieve this in time for the poet’s 150th anniversary in 2015 attracting and inspiring visitors from around the world.

How can I help?

As a local community group, we need your help to kick-start this vital project. Come along to our public meetings, attend our cultural events, volunteer to help, and spread the word: follow our website, like our facebook page, and, most of all, tell your friends about the project.

Contact us

Please look around our website to find out more, read updates on our progress, learn about the tower and its history, join in discussions, make donations, and discover exciting sponsorship opportunities.



Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society project launch

February sees the launch of a major project to restore Thoor Ballylee and create a world class culture and education centre in time for the 150th anniversary of the birth of W.B.Yeats in June, and the Yeats2015 worldwide programme of cultural events.

The Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society will launch the project on Friday February 6 in the Lady Gregory Hotel, Gort, at 8pm. A fundraising objective of €1 million has been set for the project. Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames, the chair of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society believes the proposed centre could become “a huge attraction for the area”, in turn boosting tourism revenues for the south Galway region. The Minister of State for Tourism Michael Ring granted a licence which allows the group to start fundraising to secure the money needed to re-open the tower and the committee is actively promoting the project among local, national, and international business and philanthropic bodies to achieve the €1 million needed. Senator Healy-Eames said the funds will be used to develop and market the centre and meet essential capital and running costs. The tower will accommodate a new exhibition, a café, bookshop, and space for exhibitions, lectures, and classes. The surrounding gardens and trail to the old mill will also be developed. The fourteenth-century Norman tower is intimately associated with W.B.Yeats who owned and lived in the tower with his family between 1921 and 1929. It was also during this period that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Read about this story in the Galway Advertiser. 

Yeats's 1918 poem 'To Be Carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee'

Yeats’s 1918 poem ‘To Be Carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee’

Yeats International Summer School 2015 programme

One of the highlights of the Yeats2015 programme will be an extra special summer school. The 56th Annual Yeats International Summer School is set to run from 26th July to 7th August, 2015, in Sligo, Ireland.

With patron Catriona Yeats, director Meg Harper (University of Limerick), and associate director Matthew Campbell (University of York), the annual festivities in Sligo will celebrate the poet’s sesquicentennial in style. A roundtable of former Summer School directors, including Helen Vendler, Denis Donoghue, James Pethica, and Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, will be foremost in this summer’s special events.

The line-up of speakers is equally impressive and it includes David Lloyd, John Paul Riquelme, Vincent Sherry, Joseph Valente, Catherine Paul, Frank Shovlin, Frank Lentricchia, Denis Donoghue, Eamonn Hughes, Marjorie Howes, Hannah Sullivan, Warwick Gould, Ann Fogarty, and Alexandra Poulain.

Attending the summer school is a rewarding experience involving morning lectures, afternoon seminars, and enriching cultural events in the evenings.

For more information, see the website of the hosts, Yeats Society Sligo.

Yeats Society


Yeats 2015

In 2015 Ireland celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Nobel Prize-winning poet, William Butler Yeats. As part of Ireland’s decade of commemorations, a worldwide series of creative and cultural events takes place throughout the year to mark this occasion, honouring and exploring his rich life, work, and legacy. The programme was launched in Dublin in December by Senator Susan O’Keefe and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphries. The launch also featured a reading by Olwen Fouere of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, and was attended by members of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee SocietyAn RTE report of the event can be viewed here.

Yeats 2015 presents a local, national, and international series of exhibitions, performances, educational events, festivals, concerts, readings, talks, and screenings. Cultural events centred on Sligo, Galway, Dublin, London, and in counties across Ireland, are echoed in a diverse international programme. Through the prism of one of Ireland’s greatest artists, Yeats 2015 marks a moment to celebrate and promote creativity in Ireland and elsewhere, and to reconsider the role of culture, community, and the arts in the contemporary world. Full details of how to get involved in this exciting cultural programme are released in January 2015. The re-opening of Thoor Ballylee is at the heart of these commemorations. Galway is at the heart of these celebrations and a full programme of Galway Yeats2015 events is available here.


The Poet

W. B. Yeats is Ireland’s greatest poet, and considered by many the finest poet of the twentieth century. Seamus Heaney noted that as well as a great poet he was both the founder and inheritor of traditions: with a lifelong interest in the occult and in Irish mythology, an openness to European art and eastern philosophy, and with a sceptical, questioning intellect, he brought a revolutionary new voice into Irish literature. A maker of extraordinary love poems and an architect of modernism, Yeats is unusual among poets in that much of his best work came after the age of fifty. The way he put words together changed utterly: from an early lush lyricism, he developed a spare, hard, late style, and many of his most powerful lines have entered the language. Such an uncompromising attitude to creative excellence was a part of his inheritance. He was born into an extraordinarily talented artistic family: his father John Butler Yeats was a renowned portraitist, his sisters were innovative craftworkers and printers, and his brother Jack Yeats became Ireland’s most celebrated painter. His unrequited love for the beautiful Maud Gonne affected the course of his life, while his collaboration with his wife George altered the texture of his poetry. More than a poet, Yeats was a dramatist, a critic, a journalist, a politician, and a founder of theatres, print houses, dance companies, and artistic societies. With its diverse programme of events, Yeats 2015 celebrates this rich cultural harvest.


The Places

W. B. Yeats’s profound connection with landscape and architecture served as inspiration for many of his greatest works. Ireland is the setting for nearly all his poems and plays, whether the city’s ‘grey eighteenth-century houses’ or the stones and trees of the west. Born in Dublin, Yeats went to school in Dublin and London, and spent much of his young life with his family in Sligo, which he thought of as his spiritual home. In later life he lived in Dublin, London, and put down deep roots in County Galway, spending summers at Coole Park and restoring a Hiberno-Norman tower, Thoor Ballylee, as his family home. As well as travelling extensively in France, Spain, Italy, and the United States, Yeats was deeply affected by eastern art and philosophy, especially that of Japan and India. Yeats 2015 celebrates the strong connection he had will all the places that inspired him.Galway is therefore at the heart of these celebrations, with a full programme of exciting artistic and cultural events taking place throughout the county. It is intended also that the re-opening of Thoor Ballylee will be a central part of these celebrations.


The Legacy

Yeats was the first Irishman to be awarded the Nobel Prize, in 1923. He accepted on behalf of his work for the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theatre which he co-founded with Lady Augusta Gregory. Such artistic generosity was not unusual. Yeats was a cultural revolutionary who become a remarkable cultural entrepreneur. A spearhead of what became known as the Irish Literary Revival, he spurred a revival of interest in Irish mythology and in Irish literature, and was for a time deeply involved in the nationalist movement. His work explored the complexities of the formation of the new state and helped give expression to a new Irish identity. Passionate about artistic freedoms and minority rights, he made speeches against censorship and supporting the long-established right to divorce when appointed a Senator of the Irish Free State in 1922. Yeats also chaired the commission for coinage, which produced renowned designs of Irish animals on currency in use until 2001. His increasing identification with a Protestant tradition and his brief flirtation with authoritarian politics remains controversial. But most of all he promoted new art, championing writers as diverse as James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, and J. M. Synge, working with an astonishing variety of artists, actors, musicians, theatre designers, printmakers,  producers, and dancers. From his founding of the ground-breaking Cuala Press to his pioneering work as a radio broadcaster, his legacy is just as varied. His belief in art’s power – that words could change the world – makes his example still powerfully resonant today.


Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society members with a copy of Yeats's The Tower (1928) at the Yeats2015 launch with Senator Susan O'Keeffe and Minister Heather Humphries

Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society members with Yeats’s The Tower (1928) at the Yeats2015 launch with Senator Susan O’Keeffe and Minister Heather Humphries

Senate support for Thoor Ballylee

Promise of a licence for Thoor Ballylee granted in Seanad

Fáilte Ireland is to grant a licence to the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society to enable it to fundraise to re-open the tourist attraction.

Thoor Ballylee, once the home of W.B.Yeats and his family and an inspiration to his poetry, closed in 2010 after extensive flooding. Fáilte Ireland spent EU 200,000 euro in 2012 to secure the building.

The tourism authority says it’s not viable to provide funds for the re-opening of the 15th-century Norman tower.

William Butler Yeats and his wife George, 1920s

William Butler Yeats and his wife George, 1920s

Chair of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society, Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames raised the matter in the Seanad, in a joint venture with Senator Susan O’Keeffe, chair of the Yeats2015 committee for celebrating Yeats’s 150th birthday.

Senator Healy-Eames called on the Tourism Minister to ensure Fáilte Ireland provides a licence to the local society to fundraise to re-open the building themselves.

Senator Healy-Eames with Senator O’Keefe argued that Thoor Ballylee needs to re-open for the national celebration of the 150th anniversary of Yeats’ birth next year.

Responding, Junior Minister at the Department of Tourism, Michael Ring says he’s glad to announce that a licence will be granted to raise funds for Thoor Ballylee.

Once an Irish senator himself, W.B.Yeats made notable speeches in the chamber arguing passionately for the right to divorce and against strict censorship laws. The poet was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923.

Story at Galway Bay FM here.


Thoor Ballylee

Welcome to Thoor Ballylee, the Hiberno-Norman tower described by Seamus Heaney as the most important building in Ireland. It is a fine and well-preserved fourteenth-century tower but its significance is due to its close association with his fellow Nobel laureate for literature, the poet W.B.Yeats. It was here the poet spent summers with his family and was inspired to write some of his finest poetry, making the tower his permanent symbol. The tower and associated cottages can still be viewed but are currently closed following flood damage and extensive repair work. A local group the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society has come together and are actively seeking funds to ensure its permanent restoration and opening. Below is Robert Gregory’s vision of the tower and environs, sketched before his death fighting in Italy in 1918. Once the tower is fully restored it is hoped that once again it will become a cultural centre for reverie and reflection for visitors from around the world.


Robert Gregory, Ballylee Castle, c.1916