Locals and tourists arise and go to Sligo to celebrate 154th birthday of WB Yeats

Minister of State for the Diaspora composed a piece of music, An Tur, for the occasion

Joan Gleeson (81) cutting WB Yeats’s  birthday cake on O’Connell Street,  Sligo. Photograph:  Donal Hackett

Joan Gleeson (81) cutting WB Yeats’s birthday cake on O’Connell Street, Sligo. Photograph: Donal Hackett


Joan Gleeson got the honour of wielding the knife when a birthday cake to mark what would have been WB Yeats’s 154th birthday was shared outside the door of Hargadon’s pub on Sligo’s O’Connell Street on Thursday.

Passing tourists may have wondered whether the party had been moved outside because it was too rowdy, but 81-year-old Joan, a native of Killavil, Co Sligo, had been the soul of decorum a short time earlier when she and a number of other Yeats fans took part in an open mic poetry session on the premises.

“I have no favourite. I love them all, although when I went to school 70 years ago Yeats was tucked at the back of the poetry book behind Keats and Shelley” recalled Joan who recited, The Ballad of Fr Gilligan to the delight of the lunchtime crowd.

All over Sligo, and all over social media, there were people reciting a line or three of their favourite Yeats poems to mark Yeats Day, which, like all good parties, has been extended to last a few days, and will collide with Bloomsday this Sunday.

Irish Ambassador to the US Dan Mulhall must also have found it hard to choose a favourite. He tweeted videos of himself reciting three different poems, including what appears to be a favourite this year, When You are Old.

Minister of State for the Diaspora Ciarán Cannon went one better. He too chose, When You Are Old, but accompanied it with footage filmed at Thoor, Ballylee, Co Galway, a place synonymous with Yeats, and he composed a piece of music, An Tur, to go with it.

There are those who would say that every day is Yeats Day in Sligo, but on Friday the festivities continue with a talk by Kevin Connolly, former owner of the Winding Stair bookshops in Dublin and Sligo, named after a 1933 Yeats collection. His book, Arise and Go: WB Yeats and the people and places that inspired him, has just been published.

Connolly, who got turned on to Yeats as a “sullen teenager growing up in Co Cavan” had no problem finding material for the book, even though some might wonder what is there left to say about the Nobel-prize winning poet. Among the stories he unearthed was one about Maud Gonne being released from prison in Britain and fleeing to the home she owned on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin much to the horror of her tenants, WB Yeats and his heavily pregnant wife George.

“It wasn’t all love and berries between Yeats and Maud,” explained Connolly. Insights into the Joyce family may be gleaned at a Sligo Yeats Day/Bloomsday event on Sunday hosted by artist Paul Murray, whose great grandfather John Murray was a brother of Joyce’s mother May Murray.

His aunt Lila used to get letters from Joyce in Trieste asking for invaluable help for Ulysses . “He’d ask her to pace Grafton Street and tell him ow many paces so that he’d know then how much time he had for a stream of consciousness for Bloom,” explained Murray.