WB Yeats and the Winding Stair of Thoor Ballylee

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | October 3, 2014 0

ThoorstairsThe Winding Stair is a volume of poems by Irish poet W. B. Yeats, published in 1933. It was the next new volume after 1928’s The Tower. (The title poem was originally published in 1929 by Fountain Press in a signed limited edition, which is exceedingly rare.) The title refers to the staircase in the Thoor Ballylee castle which Yeats had purchased and lived in with his family for some time. Yeats saw the castle as a vital connection to the aristocratic Irish past which he admired. The phrase “winding stair” is used in the book’s third poem, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.”

My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair;

Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,

Upon the broken, crumbling battlement,

Upon the breathless starlit air,

thoorballyleeriverHis tower was a 16th century Anglo-Norman castle built by the de Burgo (Burke) family. Yeats bought it to satisfy his country longing and to be close to his deep friend and love, Lady Gregory. He restored it for his wife George. Yeats saw the tower as very full in history and romance and once said in a letter to Olivia Shakespeare that “We are in our Tower and I am writing poetry as I always do here, and, as always happens, no matter how I begin, it becomes love poetry before I am finished with it.” In 1928 he published the collection titled The Tower and in 1933, The Winding Stair and Other Poems.

One of William Butler Yeats’ most famous quotes captured the pessimistic outlook of a nation. “Being Irish,” said Yeats, “he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy”. But this doesn’t ring true of the campaign to revive his ancestral home in Thoor Ballylee, as optimism abounds that the building could be reopened by next Summer.

The building, also known as Yeats’ Tower, has been closed for the past five years due to severe flood damage. Now, a local group, The Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society, has ambitious plans to have it re-opened in time for the Nobel Laureate’s 150th birthday in June 2015. Minister of State for Tourism, Michael Ring this week granted a licence that allows the group to start fundraising to secure the money needed to re-open and keep open what was once described by Seamus Heaney as “the most important public building in Ireland”. Its closure has been a source of frustration and annoyance among visiting academics and concerned people. However, it has been totally cleaned and heated and restored to pristine condition, even though it remains closed. Engineering works in recent times should ensure that such extensive flooding will be a thing of the past. Thoor Ballylee 001L

Located on the bank of Cloone River near Gort, it was in this impressive Hiberno-Norman tower where WB Yeats was inspired to write some of his most lauded poems. After buying the property in 1917 for £35, the tower was restored by Yeats and he spent Summers with his family there from 1921 to 1929. The building was badly flood damaged in 2009 and has remained closed ever since. Ireland West, the custodian of the tower, no longer exists and the building was subsumed into Fáilte Ireland whose mandate does not include protecting or promoting heritage sites and which cannot afford to re-open it. yeatsThoorSign

The Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society, chaired by Senator Fidelma Healy Eames, stepped in with plans to revive the building. The society comprises people from the local community, business and academia who feel Thoor Ballylee is a “national treasure” that should be enjoyed by all.  “It would be an utter travesty if this iconic building, a national treasure, was not reopened in time for Yeats 150th birthday,” she said. “We thank the Minister for granting the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society a licence to allow us to start fundraising and secure the monies needed to re-open and keep open this culturally important building, of huge touristic, heritage, academic and educational potential. We are determined to make it happen and as chair, I will lead this project. The granting of this license is significant and enabling. It gives a new lease of life and hope that Thoor will re-open.”yeatsthoor


The rare 1929 first edition of The Winding Stair

Minister Ring said: “The work by this community group is to be congratulated and shows that much can be achieved at grassroots when people are impassioned about a cause. “I am delighted to support them in their efforts to raise the necessary funds to see Thoor Ballylee once again open to the public. “It would be quite an achievement to have this historic building open in time for Yeats’ 150th birthday next year and would be sure to prove a huge attraction for the area and boost tourism revenues for Ireland as a whole.” yeatspoetry

This area of South Galway and the town of Gort nearby have many cultural redolence’s with Yeats co- founders of the Irish National Theatre Company (The Abbey Theatre) with Lady Gregory’s Coole Park and Edward Mayrtn’s home at Tulira Castle nearby. The video from the The Lady Gregory & Yeats Heritage Trail below tells of the many connections in the area. I was astonished to find this historic and  atmospheric tower which WB Yeats rescued from destruction had been closed to visitors for so long. Having rescued it with love it fulfilled its pact with Yeats  by inspiring the poet and providing him and his family with much happiness on the 12 summers they spent together here.  Failing health forced the poet to abandon his trips after 1929 but the Thoor (a name coined by Yeats from the Gaelic Túr Bhaile Uí Laí) lived on in his memory and the memory of all who admire his poetry.

I hope future visitors will be able to sit in Yeats study on the ground floor overlooking the Cloone River in summer and experience the peace and sense of contemplation with the dappled light and constant relaxing murmur of the river which the poet so enjoyed. In 1951, a scene of John Ford’s The Quiet Man in which John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara cross a river was shot next to Thoor Ballylee. Yeats described the ground-floor chamber as “the pleasantest room I have yet seen, a great wide window opening over the river and a round arched door leading to the thatched hall”. He also admired the mural stair, symbolically declaring “This winding, gyring, spring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair; That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have traveled there.” ThoorPlaque

There is a tablet on the wall that commemorates Yeats’ sojourn:

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.

See also: WB Yeats and the Cold Eye






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