“This summer school can change lives”, as Margaret Mills Harper, former director of the International Yeats Summer School has put it. And she is absolutely right. This summer, I had the pleasure to spend two weeks in Yeats Country, Sligo, among the most determined Yeatsians, and I am looking forward to sharing this amazing experience with you. This school almost bewitches its attendees, and has its way of drawing them back to Sligo every year for five simple reasons.
The first one is the mesmerising beauty of this country with its Wild Atlantic Way coastline and mysterious woods. “Certain woods at Sligo […] are so deep in my affections that I dream about them at night”, recounts Yeats who finds beauty, peace and freedom in this country. You can see the round and plane silhouette of Knocknarea with Queen Maeve’s tomb on its top and the majestic slopes of Ben Bulben facing each other, though torn apart by the sandy and grassy shores of Strandhill and Sligo Bay, and Mullaghmore Beach. River Garavogue follows you throughout the town, leading to the enchanting Lough Gill. You encounter mossy trees, myriads of ferns, the pleasant aroma of verdant meadows, and the sound of little streams everywhere. This is a visionary, magical landscape – no wonder Yeats considered Sligo a place haunted by supernatural creatures where stories of changelings became real. He downright thought that the white square stone on Ben Bulben issued an unearthly troop (fairies), and “[m]any [people] near the white stone door […] [had] been stolen away.”
Secondly, this school has been the gathering place for the most internationally acknowledged Yeats scholars and the most enthusiastic young researchers (BA, MA, and PhD students as well), all of them truly devoted to researching some intriguing aspect of Mr. Yeats’s work. But there were some people who came along from thousands of miles away just for their childhood affection for Yeats’s poetry (students from China, Korea, Brazil, and also an investment manager from the States). But the Sligo people were the most impressive with their love for their national poet: though non-academics, they could recite most of Yeats’s poems by heart, knew even the more difficult concepts of his work, and the whole town was decorated with Yeats quotations / paintings everywhere.
Also, we took some wonderful tours together or in individual groups to Glencar Waterfall, Slish Wood, Innisfree, Thoor Ballylee, Coole Park, Lissadell and Mullaghmore. These tours were immortalised in our minds by the unforgettable reciting of Yeats’s poems by Martin Enright and Damien Brennan, both devoted Yeatsians.
The fourth best thing about this school is its intriguing lectures and thought-provoking seminars: the former ones delivered by such fantastic scholars as Denis Donoghue, Margaret Mills Harper, Matthew Campbell, Marjorie Howes, Eamonn Hughes, Alexandra Poulain, David Lloyd (and I could go on for a while). Sometimes we continued our seminar discussions at lunch in Hargadon’s Pub or the Swagman with two or three people just for the pleasure of it, just because we shared the love for Yeats.
Apart from our seminar discussions, the most invigorating parts of this fortnight were the performances of some Yeatsian plays by the Blue Raincoat Theatre Company and the students of the school’s drama workshop. This summer, the Blue Raincoat has staged or read all 26 Yeats-plays at various points of the countryside: at the Strandhill coastline, at O Rourke’s Table, near Ben Bulben, so in authentic settings regardless as they were of the strenuous rain. I saw the otherworldly The Dreaming of the Bones, and The Only Jealousy of Emer – both were almost supernatural experiences, truly impressive – and Calvary directed by Sam McCready and performed by some students from the school. These, along with my seminars on Calvary and Resurrection, have proved that Yeats’s plays indeed hide an enormous potential, though being extremely dense with symbols and complex ideas, and are really worth delving more deeply into them – just do not give up after the first reading.
All in all, this has been an enriching, unforgettable fortnight in Yeats’s beloved country, in the Land of Heart’s Desire as he called it. I felt that I was among the Yeats scholars of the next generation to which I would love to belong in the future. Mesmerizing landscape, enlightening lectures and seminars, memorable tours, otherworldly theatrical experiences, and the company of such amazing people is what makes this school so special that everyone is looking forward to going back next year. Would you also like to be part of such great fun at the 57th Summer School in 2016? I will be there again!
- pictures taken by the author
- Yeats quotations from W.B. Yeats, The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats: The Complete Works, PergamonMedia, Kindle Edition.