Thoor Ballylee - Yeats' Thin Place

There was no part of Ireland I did not travel, from the rivers to the tops of the mountains. I saw no beauty what was behind hers ~ W.B. Yeats
My ImageThoor Ballylee
Castle Restored by William Butler Yeats


In County Galway near the town of Gort, lies a 16th century Norman castle with a small cottage attached. The Irish Literary Revival began near this castle - in Coole Park, an estate owned by Lady Gregory where she hosted the likes of George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge. It was a haven - a place of retreat for William Butler Yeats.

Yeats was aging - nearly 50 - when he opined to his dear friend Lady Gregory that he wanted to settle down; to have a home - a family. For years his heart belonged to Maude Gonne, but his love was unrequited. He was alone. Lady Gregory discovered an old castle with attached cottage for sale near Coole Park. In 1917 Yeats purchased it for 35 pounds, and left for France to propose to Maude Gonne one last time. She refused. Shortly after, he traveled to England where he met and married Georgina Hyde-Lees. No longer single, Yeats labored to restore the old Castle for his new bride "George."

In naming the property Yeats dropped the term "castle" and replaced it with "Thoor" - the Irish word for tower, and the place became known as Thoor Ballylee. Yeats and his wife and their children enjoyed this country retreat, and used it as their summer home for 12 years. He is quoted in a letter to friend regarding Thoor Ballylee "everything is so beautiful that to go elsewhere is to leave beauty behind."

And what a fair setting, on the banks of the River Cloon snaking through a landscape shaded with large trees and flowering shrubs. The traveler entering the property from the main road turns onto a winding lane that connects to an old stone bridge just before the tower. The lane continues past the cottage, through the trees, and becomes a river walk that eventually leads to an old mill. The seclusion, even today, wraps the estate in a presence that shuns the outside world, carving out a protected niche where good things - love, peace and creativity - can flourish. It's no wonder a poet was compelled to create here. It was at Thoor Ballylee that Yeats wrote "The Tower" poem collection.

An Ancient Bridge, and a more ancient tower,
A farm-house that is sheltered by its wall,
An acre of stony ground,
Where the symbolic rose can break in flower,
Old ragged elms, old thorns innumerable,
The sound of the rain or sound
Of every wind that blows,
The stilted water-hen
That plunged in stream again
Scarred by the splashing of a hundred cows.

From the battlements atop the tower one gets a panoramic view of the grounds, the river, the trees and the cleared area where the bones of an old garden lay in wait to be resurrected. Further out in the distance lay the soft hills and plains of the Galway landscape.

On the first floor of the tower a steep spiral staircase hewn from stone, winds to the upper floors.

I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair;


Time spirals like the winding stair at Thoor Ballylee. The turning of years is noted by symbols marking each era.... Like the old castle - once home to Irish warriors, sleeping in ruins behind weeds and underbrush, crumbling and forgotten. Centuries later a poet resurrects the castle. He makes it his home, his fortress, his writing place. He makes the castle live again, like the symbolic rose that broke in flower despite the stony ground. As the poet thrives in his restored castle, he senses the turning of time - both past and future.

The poet looks to his ancestors, to those that laid stone upon stone erecting the tower and cottage on this particular tract of land. And he writes of his reflections.

He looks forward and in his mind forecasts his graceful tower falling into ruin after he and his family are long gone. He yearns to be remembered... to be known as the poet, as the restorer of Thoor Ballylee, as someone with a significant spot in the legacy of this place.

As part of the restoration, Yeats had a slate slab carved with a short verse. The slate was embedded into the tower wall under his direction. All who pass can read the words and trace the letters with their fingers ...

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.

I traced those letters one February as I stood in the rain by the deserted tower. Empty as it was, the old place still breathed and the surrounding landscape echoed the life force that was Thoor Ballylee. I recalled a passage Mark Twain wrote about the Victorian mansion he built for his family in Connecticut ... "Our house was not insentient matter -- it had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with ... it was of us, and we were in the peace of its benediction. We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up and speak out its eloquent welcome -- and we could not enter it unmoved. "



The sketch above is a work by Lady Gregory, Yeats' dear friend. It is her interpretation of Thoor Ballylee. The shadowy phantom dolmen in the sky hints at the mystical charism of the place.

I concur. It's a thin place.

There in the February damp I assumed my place in the time spiral - looking back at Yeats, at those who came before him. I feel the presence of Lady Gregory, the writers, the poets and masses who passed here over the centuries. Now I'm a part of that collection - ascending ancestral winding stair.

And what of the future? Perhaps Thoor Ballylee will crumble into ruins again. And perhaps some artist, poet, or warrior of the time will collect the fallen remnants and craft them into a grand home and protective shelter that nurtures creativity and repels the white noise of outside world. He or she will assume a position on the winding stair and continue the legacy of Thoor Ballylee. And time will keep circling. And we, who have been here will be with them.

Benighted travellers
From markets and from fairs
Have seen his midnight candle glimmering.
The river rises and sinks again;
One hears the rumble of far below
Under its rocky hole.
What Median, Persian, Babylonian
In reverie, or in vision, saw
Symbols of the soul
.

verses from The Tower by W. B. Yeats.

6 comments:

  1. Anonymous9:26 PM

    My ancestral Irish ancestors are from the very same part of southwest Galway ~ have been to Thoor Ballylee many times... then I did a study of his relationship to Maude Gonne, and found that her brief marriage to Major John MacBride resulted in one child: son, Sean Mac Bride, Nobel Peace Laureate, who was a founding member of Amnesty International, his finest legacy. It is a small world, indeed! Theadora Davitt-Cornyn

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    1. It is a small world, Theadora. I loved reading the history of the period surrounding Yeats and the others engaged in the Irish Literary Revival. Another sad note is that Lady Gregory's house was destroyed by Nationalists because it represented the Anglo oppression. That's in itself could provide content for a long blog post. Thanks for staying connected with us. :)

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  2. Disappointed that you never mentioned the Burke's who built the castle/tower house. They were one of the most prolific castle/tower house builders in the country http://www.irishorigenes.com/content/burke (click on the image to enlarge) originally of Norman extraction they appear to have become more Irish than the Irish! If I remember correctly Mr Yeats was also Anglo-Irish.

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    1. Dear Tyrone Bowers Ph.D. Thank you for taking the time to read this post on Thoor Ballylee. I state in my bio that I'm not a historian.

      Blogging is a very short literary form and posts are always niche focused. The niche of this blog is "thin places" and I focus more on the spiritual power of each site, rather than history or architecture or genealogy.

      But the commenting feature in a blog allows readers like yourself to contribute important bits that might interest others. So I'm grateful that you offered your insight here on the Burkes, and yes, W. B. Yeats was Anglo Irish, as were most of his literary counterparts of the time.

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  3. I agree Mindie, even though Thoor Ballylee has been closed for several years now its still wonderfully atmospheric (perhaps its a blessing in disguise? Susan Byron author of www.irelands-hidden-gems.com

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    1. Thanks Susan. My husband and I were able to tour the castle in September of 2009. The rain storm that flooded the place and caused its closing was shortly after that. Thoor Ballylee is a stop on our Thin Places tour this year. I hope they can find the money to renovate this old relic and reopen it.

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