Grand plans for WB Yeats’s ‘invincible tower’ at Gort
The 15th-century Norman tower Thoor Ballylee was home to the poet and his family for 12 years. An auction is planned to raise funds to turn it into a cultural centre
Auctioneer Colm Farrell dressed as WB Yeats at Thoor Ballylee near Gort, Co Galway. Farrell will auction a number of items at the tower, which is the former residence of the poet, on Sunday, May 31st, to raise funds to re-open the tower. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Not everyone would pick a draughty old Norman keep for a home to grow old in, but then not everyone shared the mindset of WB Yeats.
“I am making a setting for my old age, a place to influence lawless youth, with its severity and antiquity,” he explained in a letter to New York lawyer John Quinn on July 23rd, 1918.
By then, he was three years the owner of the 15th-century tower house built by the de Burgos in south Galway, which he renamed “Túr Ballylee”. Twelve summers he spent there with his wife, George, and children, creating a “fitting monument and symbol” and writing some of his best poetry for his collections The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1933).
“He was happy, content, imbibing the atmosphere of those stone steps and those thick stone walls, with his children running through the woods to Lady Gregory’s estate in Coole,” says Ronnie O’Gorman, founder of the Galway Advertiser.
“To him this was an extraordinary building, with an energy and force that one senses even now, sitting on its winding stair with a glass of wine in hand, reading that volume of great poems.”
So O’Gorman, who for many years has been director of the Lady Gregory autumn gathering at Coole Park, could appreciate the outrage felt by University of Oxford history professor Roy Foster when he took a phone call from him several years ago.
“He was down with two friends at the tower and it was closed, and he was furious. He clearly told me that it was my duty to make sure that this scandal was addressed,” says O’Gorman.
Yeats had hired an architect, Prof William A Scott, for the tower’s restoration, installing larger windows in the lower floors (the sort of work the Office of Public Works might disapprove of now). He hired a builder named Rafferty – reputedly naming him “Raftery” after the poet – and used local materials where possible.
Constellations and esoteric symbols reflected the poet’s interior design tastes, while a verse was inscribed on the stone wall. George would fish from the tower, and the winding stair became for the poet a reflection of “spiritual ascent” to another life.
Here he wrote many of his most important works. His poem, In Memory of Major Robert Gregory, recalls the family’s settling into the tower and the cottage beside it, while also commemorating the death of Robert Gregory, Lady Gregory’s son.
However, the building fell into disuse after 1929. Yeats was more prone to illness, and had begun spending more time abroad. Some time after his father’s death, Michael Yeats donated it to the State. Through the influence of the late Mary Hanley, founder of the local Kiltartan Society, Bord Fáílte helped to refurbish it. Hanley inveigled poet Padraic Colum into marking its opening in June 1965, on the centenary of Yeats’s birth.
Trouble struck in 2009, when the Streamstown river, prone to flooding, burst its banks. The tower closed, and funding for repairs was only approved in 2012. Some €200,000 was spent by Fáilte Ireland on that work.
Last year a local community group formed the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society to develop it as a cultural and educational centre in time for the 150th anniversary of Yeats’s birth next month.
“It is an invincible tower, proof of the fact that the Normans knew how to build,” says film-maker Lelia Doolan, who is part of the community group. “However, there was never any great sense that the State recognised its potential.”
Ronnie O’Gorman puts it more forcefully. “The Wild Atlantic Way is wonderful, but we are spending vast monies on it when we should be bringing people inland,” he says. “Visitors can see the coast any time – of course they are going to be drawn to it – but the trick is to get them to drive a bit east. And I do wish that the State would put even half of the energy and resources into our built and literary heritage.”
Last year, some €10 million was allocated to the Wild Atlantic Way.
The Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society, chaired by Senator Fidelma Healy Eames, has secured a lease from the tourist authority, which is committed to maintaining the fabric of the building.
The committee has been busy organising a series of fundraising events, and recently received a donation of €31,000 from Irish-American lawyer Joseph Hassett, who was sent on a scholarship by his home town of Buffalo, New York, to the international Yeats Summer School in 1963.
This Sunday, the committee is holding an auction. Master of ceremonies Colm Farrell will be dressed as Yeats and will command a rooftop position. A first- edition set of The Complete Works of JM Synge, printed by Maunsel & Co Dublin in 1910, and a candlelit dinner for four on the rooftop will go under the hammer, while Senator Healy Eames has pitched in a tour of the Dáil and Seanad and lunch for four in Leinster House.
“Its going to be a bit of fun and a bit eccentric,” says Doolan, whose relationship with the tower dates to 1982, when she moved to the west coast from Dublin and shot a film based on Yeats’s poem Meditations in Time of Civil War, at Thoor Ballylee with former Irish Times journalist Maeve Donelan.
Party on for Yeats
The group is determined to use the funds to reopen the tower to the public 13 days later, when it will host what it is billing as the “greatest Yeats party in Ireland”, rivalling similar events in Sligo.
It aims to develop a “world-class cultural centre”, with a new Yeats exhibition, a cafe, bookshop, and space for exhibitions, lectures and classes. It will be complemented by the Lady Gregory & Yeats Trail, also developed locally and linking literary and historical locations between Gort and Loughrea.
“Mark my words: a Unesco world heritage designation awaits,” says O’Gorman. “Meanwhile, no one should leave Coole or Thoor Ballylee without a a book of Yeats’s poetry in hand,” and a memory of the inscription written by its former owner:
“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.”