Sport 35: Winter 2007
Fiona Farrell — Going to Lissadell
In January 2006, on our first morning in Ireland, we walked past Lissadell.
Pink stucco, double glazing and columns at the front door in fashionable Dinky Doric.
Next door was Valhalla. And beyond that, Tír na nÓg. A vast building boom was consuming Ireland. Forty per cent of the country's entire housing stock had been built in the preceding ten years. Three bedroom exec residences were springing up, pink and yellow and khaki, in green fields. Identikit suburbs ringed every town and lined up along the seashore. The residents of New Ireland were abandoning the white cottage as fast as they could organise that 100 per cent mortgage at 2.5 per cent per annum, to move out into a whole variety of mythical locations.
'The light of evening, Lissadell,' said Doug as we pressed ourselves into a hedge to avoid a muckspreader the size of a small cathedral lumbering past, trailing cheesey clouds of pig slurry.
Great windows, open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle …
Lissadell had accompanied him to Afghanistan back in 1973, packed into a woven shoulder bag along with a blanket, a pocket knife and a spare T-shirt. ('And underpants?' I ask. He pauses. 'I don't recall underpants,' he says.) He had copied Lissadell and the airman reeling down to his death with the memory of Kiltartan on his burning mind, and the wild swans at Coole, alongside the lyrics to various songs— Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young—into a special green folder: one side was poetry, the other left blank for his own diary entries.
Six months later, we finally visited Lissadell. The real one, not its pink stucco namesake. It is up in Sligo, in that part of Ireland now marketed as 'Yeats Country'.
On the way there, we stopped at Gort to visit Coole. The wild swans of Coole …
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams, or climb the air …
Only the foundations of Lady Gregory's former home survive. The Kiltartan airman was her only son who died in France and his widow—'a little suburban minx' according to Lily Yeats—did not like Coole. Even as Lady Gregory lay dying of breast cancer in an upstairs room, the minx had the living-room curtains taken down and rehung in her new house some miles away. The vast estates which had once sustained the family had been redistributed after the Civil War and subdivided, and by the 1950s the house was a ruin. It was pulled down. There are still woods, though, and a lake where there are indeed swans. And a copper beech in the walled garden where bark is slowly growing back over the carved initials of Synge and Shaw and other notable visitors. In the former stable block there is a museum, where the story of Coole is told, not from the point of view of some adult dazzled by fame, but through a child's clear, satiric eye, in the words of Lady Gregory's two granddaughters who were raised here. Indulged by their remarkable grandmother, they were left free to ride their ponies, drove the car before they could quite reach the pedals, and terrorised the Yeats kids by stuffing mud in their mouths. In this version of Coole, the wild swans flap off to the periphery leaving behind a Yeats who is a self-absorbed perpetual guest who never says please or thank you and persists in sitting with his chair pushed back so that the maid finds it awkward to serve the dinner. (She had her revenge, as maids will, by kicking the leg of his chair every time she passed.) Shaw, on the other hand, is all playful delight.
Beneath the lively chatter lies a darker theme: the complex business of being Anglo-Irish. There is that intense love for a landscape encountered in childhood, the nostalgia for a life of comfort and page 114happiness, the growing consciousness that this life has been bought at the price of a terrible history of oppression and indifference to suffering, the guilt that comes with such knowledge, the attempt to make amends for the sins of one's forebears and to engineer a better society for future generations, the losses that this entails, the disillusion that sets in when the inevitable shortcomings of the post-revolutionary utopia gradually become apparent. It's a story with resonance for any pakeha New Zealander whose ancestors may have been forced by hunger or eviction to flee Ireland or Scotland or some teeming European ghetto, only to execute that colonial two-step mid-ocean and arrive somewhere else as exactly the kind of oppressors they had left behind.
We left Coole and drove north, to Sligo.
We came upon the poet first, buried at Drumcliffe a few miles north of Sligo city, in the shadow of Benbulben. Exactly as he had requested when he lay dying in Roquebrune, a few kilometers up the hill from Katherine Mansfield's Menton in southern France. The mountain loured, massively leonine, its flanks serrated and its flat back draped in fog. Across the road from the church, signs directed visitors to the Yeats Tavern and the Yeats Lounge Bar—commemorating a man who is on record as having set foot in a pub only once in his entire life. The carpark was large enough to accommodate several tour buses, though only a couple were present on a dull day, rain threatening, midweek in June. We parked next to a statue of a man squatting suspiciously on his haunches before a bronze rug engraved with 'He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven':
I have spread my dreams under your feet …
A large plinth recorded that this had been erected in 2002 by the Drumcliffe Development Association with partial funding from the National Roads Authority.
Drumcliffe church itself had a prosperous air, rare among Protestant churches in Ireland. Despite being usually the most notable building in any town—the oldest, the most interesting architecturally—they often have a desolate quality. Dead leaves on the step. A faded notice tacked to the door advertising services once a month. The Catholic page 115church will be somewhere down the road and it will be functional concrete with a tower like the funnel of a Cunard liner, sixties stained glass and a massive carpark buzzing with parochial goings-on. But Drumcliffe C of I is prosperous, thanks to Yeats.
There is his grave with its exquisitely austere stone, bidding the horseman pass by.
And, dead opposite, the grave of Reggie Siggins and his brother Ronnie. I know you shouldn't laugh at the deceased, particularly not in a cemetery, but maybe I have seen too many Carry On movies at a formative stage. Somehow, a pantomime horse, front and back in perfect synchrony, clippety-clops off alongside Yeats's dignified horseman among the gravestones. We leave Drumcliffe feeling remarkably cheerful, thanks to the Sigginses.
And so to Lissadell.
The house is sweetly set among woods above a little sandy bay. We park the car and walk the mile or so along the drive between new leaf and the sea. Some travellers are camped with their horsetrucks and caravans by the bay and here their lives look pleasantly free and nomadic, and not that glimpsed life of grim squalor in some litter-strewn pull-in, centimetres from thundering traffic.
There are gumboots by the door to Lissadell, and children's bikes, a reminder that this is still a home, the property of a Dublin family. 'Both lawyers,' a woman tells us in a muted whisper as we wait for the tour to begin in the billiard room among the family photographs and a wall display of harpoons and other sharp implements. The legacy of Sir Henry Gore Booth who used to sail up to the Arctic to go game-fishing for whales. His grandson sold the property to the Dublin lawyers a few years ago, says the knowledgeable woman. 'They've spent a lot of money on the restoration. But sure, they've got a lot, haven't they? The wife inherited some business to do with issuing pub licences.' She and her husband smile knowingly.
Whatever the source of their wealth, the Dublin lawyers have spent it well. The house is solidly Georgian with stone flagged floors and Doric columns in the stairwell. We are led by our guide up the stairs to the room where Yeats slept when he came visiting. Pale plastered walls, framed prints, dimity fabrics.
We look reverently at the bed, as in the past I have looked at the page 116couch where Emily Brontë reclined and Thoreau's chair and Janet Frame's wooden desk. This is not even my first contact with a poetic bed in Ireland: I have in fact spent an entire week sleeping in the bed that, the landlady informed me on my last day, was generally occupied by Seamus Heaney and his wife whenever they visited that corner of Clare. The knowledge lent a whole new dimension to matching-duvet-and-curtains.
But Yeats's bed, Yeats's visit, Yeats's poem are not really the central story of Lissadell, any more than Yeats's swans are the whole story of Coole. The narrative here is about one of the two girls in kimonos: Constance Gore Booth, daughter of the whaler, and, as Constance Markiewicz, one of the notable figures in the 1916 Easter Uprising. She is most often seen in a studio portrait clad in the dashing uniform of the Citizens Army and fondling a Mauser in the pose adopted by Edwardian ladies to contemplate a spray of carnations.
The story begins with a privileged childhood in the shadow of Knocknarea, where the legendary battle queen Maeve reputedly stands buried upright beneath a massive hilltop cairn, sword in hand. In adulthood, the equally forcible Constance, child of the Anglo-Irish hegemony, abandons the conventions of her class and becomes convinced of the need for violent action to free Ireland of British rule. She is condemned to death for her role in the abortive uprising, but escapes execution because the British military are reluctant to shoot a woman. She lives to be the first woman elected to Westminster—but refuses to take her seat (though a friend reported that she did slip into the Houses of Parliament incognito to look at her own name written above an MP's coatpeg). She becomes a Minister in the first Dail Eireann and works feverishly for the poor of Dublin. She dies young, at 59, of cancer during that appalling era when the enemy has become not some readily identifiable external empire but that more troublesome creature: your own kind.
We knew something of that story before we visited Lissadell. The area where we had been living near Cork saw some of the fiercest fighting during both the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War. Only a few days before we left for Sligo, a friend had shown us a letter that had been delivered back in 1923 to a farmhouse that page 117stands just down the road from the pink stucco Lissadell and her mythic neighbours.
'My dear Father,' it begins in a careful sloping hand. 'Just a few lines to let you know I am to be executed on tomorrow morning.' Liam Healey, aged twenty-three, is writing from Cork Gaol. A veteran of the fighting since 1918, he is about to die at the hands of other Irishmen because he opposes the Treaty and they are prepared for compromise. 'I was out for a Republic,' he writes, with only hours to live. 'And I hope it will be got some day.' The priest is waiting to take his confession. He sends his regards to family and friends and instructs them, should they meet any of the shooting party, to shake their hands 'as I am going to shake hands with the officer in charge and the guard'.
We stand in the doorway at Lissadell, looking into the room that opens to the south and hear the echo of a poem written thirty years after the poet had actually seen those young girls in their kimonos. Both those girls, like young Liam Healey, were already dead when he sat to write those lines with their soft-lit longing. Had they been alive it's certain that one of them at least would have objected strenuously to the version of her later life as
drag[ging] out lonely years
Conspiring among the ignorant.
(Political militancy was not a quality Yeats especially admired in a woman. When his muse, Maud Gonne, was recovering from an illness incurred while trying to assist evicted tenants in Donegal, she received a poem in the post entitled 'An Epitaph':
I dreamed that one had died in a strange place
Near no accustomed hand;
And they nailed boards above her face,
The peasants of that land …
Which could not be construed as particularly encouraging.)
The note of neuraesthenic despair aroused by the vision of the girls in the sunlit room is more characteristic of Yeats than of the page 118uncompromising Constance, stationed in Stephens Green and shooting at the members standing in the windows of the United Services Club. (Dr de Burgh Daly, medical officer in the RAMC, to Mr Best, later Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland: 'Look out! There's a woman on the Green pointing a gun at us!') But his lines have a power that is separate from journalism or truth: a luminous power that is addressed to that part of the human psyche that hopes for perfection and is forced to recognise mutabililty.
A terrible beauty is born …
Yet context is inescapable. We visited Lissadell in the week that the former Taoiseach Charles Haughey died. The media shrilled with accusation: that he institutionalised corruption at the very centre of power. That he accepted bribes and kickbacks to finance a luxurious lifestyle while telling the Irish electorate to tighten its belt. That he had so many handmade shirts from Charvet in Paris that they erected a bust of him in their foyer. That he publicly opposed abortion and divorce while conducting a 27-year affair with a gossip columnist. (There were photos on every front page, of the two of them arm in arm on his yacht, feeding one another little titbits, kissing.) That he preached nationhood while avoiding paying millions of euros in taxes and costing the country more millions in evasive lawsuits.
This kind of thing affects the reading of a poem. During the week that we visited Lissadell, the idealism of the past took on a special poignancy alongside the tawdry pragmatism of the present. The poem may have been written in the past but the reader always lives in the present. The light of evening changes.
On the way home we stopped over in Gort. It is a little eighteenth-century market town with a wide square. In the morning, it fills with a crowd of stocky, black-haired, brown-skinned men and women: Brazilians, brought from South America a few years ago by some Celtic Tiger to staff his meat works. Hundreds more followed that first contingent until a third of Gort's population is now Brazilian. Each morning they wait patiently in the square for the vans that will pick them up for a few hours' employment on the construction sites. The women work as cleaners. Reputedly for three euros an hour. A page 119quarter of the legal wage. Around Gort, 'getting a Brazilian' means not Posh Spice's favoured brand of topiary, but shiny en suites and trim lawns for those new executive residences.
Reading a poem is never an easy thing. The light through those southfacing windows falls a little differently on the words once you have to take into account Liam Healey and Charlie Haughey's handmade shirts and Brazilians waiting in a square for work on the subdivisions.
It is, I suppose, a faintly silly thing to travel to Yeats Country or to any other literary shrine: the Brontë's parsonage, Walden Pond, Janet Frame's little house on Eden Street. It brings you no closer to the words. In fact, it often challenges them or undermines them or makes them seem absurd or overstated. The only thing such a visit can guarantee is that it will demonstrate the transformative power of the individual witness.
I don't know why we went to Lissadell.
Because it is mentioned in the tourist guide.
Because it gave a brief focus for a couple of middle-aged, middle-class people who were driving round Sligo in a little white Ford Ka on a murky afternoon.
When pilgrims walked to Santiago in the Middle Ages they fell into various categories, carefully recorded by the church historians. Some went to do penance. Some to worship. And some simply from 'curiositas', that most human of impulses.
If we made a kind of pilgrimage to Lissadell, it was from curiositas. And because the lines of a poem possess a power that has ensured their continued quotation.
And we went, most of all, because a young man copied them to carry with him, along with a T-shirt, a pocket knife, a blanket—and no underpants—to Afghanistan, in 1973.