Yeats summer school’s future hangs in balance

Sligo society dedicated to poet turns to crowd funding to try avert ‘imminent closure’

WB Yeats: The Yeats Society Sligo will seek to raise €100,000 by September “to guarantee its survival”. The appeal comes following a low-key Yeats Day celebration in Sligo marking what would have been the poet’s 156th birthday on Sunday.

WB Yeats: The Yeats Society Sligo will seek to raise €100,000 by September “to guarantee its survival”. The appeal comes following a low-key Yeats Day celebration in Sligo marking what would have been the poet’s 156th birthday on Sunday.

 

The future of the International Yeats Summer School , “the longest running literary school in the world” is in doubt following an announcement by the Yeats Society Sligo that it is facing “imminent closure”.

The society which has been attracting writers, students and academics to the Sligo-based summer school since 1960, will on Monday launch a crowd funding appeal in a bid to raise €100,000 by September “to guarantee its survival”. The appeal comes following a low-key Yeats Day celebration in Sligo at the weekend marking what would have been the poet’s 156th birthday on Sunday.

Susan O’Keeffe, director of the Yeats Society since 2017, said she was “heartbroken” by the threat to the “key custodian” of Yeats’s legacy in Sligo, a place which inspired so much of his work. Ms O’Keeffe explained that the pandemic had forced the closure of the Yeats Building to visitors and tours in March 2020, the cancellation of the Yeats Summer School in 2020, followed by a pared-back online 2021 school, thus losing the Yeats Society its main sources of revenue.

Only 800 people had visited the Yeats Memorial Building, the headquarters of the Yeats Society last year, down from 14,000 in 2019, she said. While the society has received intermittent “project funding” over the years from the exchequer and Sligo County Council, it gets no core funding from the State. Over the years the Yeats Society has had to depend on support from private benefactors.

In 1960, writer Peadar O’Donnell wrote a cheque for 50 guineas to cover the fees of all the lecturers for the first summer school, and since then, support has been received from a number of anonymous benefactors. The current crisis comes two years before the centenary of the awarding of the Nobel prize for literature to Yeats in 1923, and Ms O’Keeffe said the Yeats Society had anticipated that it would play a role in the 2023 ceremonies.

Literary heavyweights

“In 1923, the Nobel academy recognised that it was also marking the emergence of the Irish State and, in terms of the decade of centenaries, we wanted to play a role in 2023 in marking it [Yeats’s Nobel prize] in an appropriate way.” Among the many literary heavyweights who were regulars at the Yeats summer school, was another Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney. He first attended in the 1960s along with his friend and fellow poet Ted Hughes, and he read there for a final time in August 2013, some weeks before his death. Reflecting on her father’s links with the summer school at the weekend, Catherine Heaney said that from his first visit as a student to his last appearance in 2013, the annual event was of great significance to him.

“It kept him connected to a community of scholars, students, poets and writers from around the world who shared his belief in poetry, and his regard for the work of Yeats in particular.” Quoting her father’s description of Yeats’s “marvellous gift for beating the scrap metal of the day-to-day life into a ringing bell” , she said many of those encounters at the summer school “were to grow into close and sustaining friendships”.

“He and my mother returned time and again, always receiving a warm welcome in Sligo, a place that was and remains dear to our family.”

Other writers who attended the event over the years include Austin Clarke, Cecil Day-Lewis, Richard Ellmann, Derek Hill, Benedict Kiely, Louis MacNeice, Mary Lavin, Frank O’Connor, John Montague , Francis Stuart, Paula Meehan, Eavan Boland, Jessica Traynor, John McGahern and Edna O’Brien. The Yeats Society was founded in Sligo in 1960, 21 years after the poet’s death, by a group of locals determined to preserve his legacy and links with the landscape which had inspired so much of his work.

Custodian of legacy

In a statement, the Yeats Society said the poet’s words had given hope, inspiration and comfort , and had told Ireland’s story, for a century. “That is now under threat as the key custodian of his legacy in Sligo, his source of great inspiration, faces imminent closure.”

Ms O’Keeffe, the society’s only full-time employee, said it was important to stress that despite having lost its main revenue streams, including the cafe and art gallery in the Yeats building, as well as the summer school and tours, no debts had been accrued. “Careful financial management of savings has allowed the society to continue through 18 months,” she said. The society has estimated that if it meets its €100,000 target by September, it will allow it to operate until December 2022.

“We are heartbroken we have to take this step,” said the Yeats Society director who added she was confident that “the Irish people will step up”. Ms O’Keeffe said an unsuccessful approach had recently been made for State funding to avert closure, but she said she accepted that the Government had many other demands on State funding at this time. “We take their answer in good faith.”

She said that in recent years the headquarters of the Yeats Society had transformed into a centre for the local community as well as writers, academics and international students: “We brought our poet to the people, especially for the people of Sligo.”