In Search of Ireland, as Yeats Knew It

Article excerpt

Ireland reveres its storytellers. William Butler Yeats once graced the nation's 20 note, as James Joyce now appears on the 10. Important sites in writers' lives are preserved, and a handful of poets and writers are national icons more easily recognized than any politician or sports star.

Why? Perhaps because its writers best capture Ireland's mythic view of itself, or perhaps because poets have always occupied an esteemed spot in Irish culture.

Either way, Ireland enjoys one of the world's most illustrious literary reputation, with four Nobel Prize-winners - Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney - and almost as many poets, playwrights, and novelists as fieldstones in its emerald pastures.

Because Ireland is so entwined in poetry, a traveler must understand its poets to understand the Irish character - and vice versa.

Chief among the poets is Yeats, whose inspiration welled mainly from the scenic district where he spent the best years of his life and which now bears his name.

"Yeats created a new Irish identity which was, in part, to provide an ideological base for the new nation-state," says Frank Kelly, owner of the Book Nest, a small bookstore in Yeats's beloved Sligo. "This identity was formed from Irish myths and legends as well as folklore, much of which was rooted around Sligo."

Start your Yeats exploration at the Dublin Writers Museum (18/19 Parnell Square North). The magnificent 18th-century Georgian mansion, just five minutes walk from O'Connell Street, in the heart of the city where the poet was born, houses the books, letters, portraits and personal items of Dublin's literati over the past 300 years.

With Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory in 1905, Yeats founded what became Dublin's famous Abbey Theatre, a former morgue at the Liffey end of Marlborough Street. As its director and dramatist, Yeats nurtured the Abbey into a center of the Irish literary revival called the Irish Renaissance.

The theater premired raucously controversial plays, which were often disrupted by riots. But that was the old Abbey, which burned in 1951; the new Abbey has little of the same romantic character. Nonetheless, tickets are hard to come by, so book early.

After Yeats returned to Dublin from Oxford in 1922, a year before he won the Nobel Prize, he bought a Georgian mansion at No. 83 Merrion Square. That same year, he became a senator of the new Irish Free State, illustrating the passionate blending of his art and his politics. In "A Vision," Yeats mounts an elaborate attempt to explain the mythology, symbolism, and philosophy that underlie his writing. …