I have recently returned from a two week holiday in Ireland and while the trip was primarily scenic rather than literary, we did visit a couple of places with literary associations and, in particular, two places I have always wanted to visit.
The first was the Aran Islands. The Aran Islands consist of three islands. We visited only the largest Inís Mor (Inishmore). The key feature on the island is the ancient fortress of Dun Aonghasa (see photo at left), with the site having been occupied since 1500 BC. However, from the literary point of view and what first got me interested in the islands is J M Synge. Synge stayed there for several summers, mainly on Inis Meáin, the second largest island but he also spent time on Inís Mor.
While there he wrote a a book on the islands. He also improved his knowledge of the Irish language. (The locals still speak Irish to one another.) His play Riders to the Sea was set there and his stay on the islands undoubtedly influenced his other plays.
Synge was not born on the Aran Islands but Liam O’Flaherty was. Four of his books are on my website.
The Aran Islands were also the setting for one of the great classic films: Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran. Flaherty was born of an Irish father though he himself was born in Michigan. I will mention two other less worthy films, shot on the islands: Leap Year, based on Powell and Pressburger’s brilliant I Know Where I’m Going!, and Matchmaker.
I have long been a fan of US film director John Ford, particularly his Westerns. His mother was born on the Aran Islands. We also visited Cong where his film The Quiet Man was made. This was, in my view, a not very good romantic comedy(John Wayne as the romantic lead!) but Cong loves it as you can see from the photo of the statue of Wayne carrying Maureen O’Hara. Much of the town is devoted to honouring this film, which always seem to be showing. My view is stick to his Westerns.
W B Yeats has long been my favourite poet. As well as a noted poet, Yeats was one of the founders of the Irish Literary Theatre, which led to the Abbey Theatre. One of his co-founders was Lady Augusta Gregory. She and her family lived at Coole Park, near Galway.
The family welcomed many distinguished visitors, including Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, Augustus John, Violet Martin, the Ross of Somerville and Ross and many others. Sir William Gregory, Lady Gregory’s husband, was thirty-five years her senior, and died after they had been married twelve years. They had one son, Robert, who was killed in action during World War I, leaving behind a wife and three children. He was immortalised by Yeats, particularly in his poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.
Lady Gregory left Coole Park in 1927 but remained there till her death in 1932. Yeats forecast its demise in his poem Coole Park 1929. The house was abandoned, left to fall into ruin and demolished in 1941-42. It has since become a nature reserve and the Irish government has now built an excellent visitor centre about the house, its inhabitants, its history and visitors. There are rumours that they plan to do a lot more to develop the site.
The painting to the left is one of the items in the exhibition and it was painted by Yeats, W. B., not his brother or father both of whom were famous artists. You can also see the famous autograph tree, where many of the famous visitors, including those mentioned above, carved their initials. Though they are numbered, the bark has grown so that you can barely see any of the letters.
A couple of miles away, there is a Gregory Museum, which is, in fact, a schoolhouse, built in colonial style, for the local schoolchildren, funded by the Gregory family. When a new school was built, the building was kept on as a museum. It is run entirely by volunteers and a thanks to Tony and Yvonne for showing us around.
A couple of miles further on is the tower (right, above) that Yeats bought (called Thoor Ballylee) and where he lived in the summers. It inspired his poem The Tower. It was built by the de Burgos, a Norman family, probably in the fourteen century and is entirely surrounded by water, which means that it frequently floods. It also fell into rack and ruin but was restored and is now also run by volunteers. If the weather is nice, which it was for us, you get splendid views but I imagine it could be very cold (and wet) in winter.