#163;100 Holidays: The wild west

31st July 1998 at 01:00
In a strange collision between literature and tourism, large parts of Great Britain have been quietly renamed. What was once north Hampshire is now advertised on sign posts as "Jane Austen country". What was once quaintly known as Dorset is now "Thomas Hardy country". Large numbers of people are now living in areas such as "James Herriot country", "Bront country" and "Dickens country". It's only a matter of time before we have a "Jeffrey Archer country".

In Ireland, this process has gone a stage further. Large swathes of Dublin and many of its pubs seem entirely dedicated to the memory of James Joyce, a writer who was as emphatically rejected in the city when he was alive as he is now celebrated when dead.

And, as you drive to the north-west of Ireland, into County Sligo, you'll begin to see signs telling motorists that they are about to enter "Yeats country". It's a rather delicious irony that Yeats, who was almost as great a snob as he was a poet, should end up with his face on souvenir ash-trays, promoting Yeats country. He would have hated it.

But this is the destination of our #163;100 holiday, using William Butler Yeats as our reluctant tour guide to the rugged beauty of Ireland's Atlantic coast.

Thanks to a price war between airlines, getting to Ireland has never been cheaper. If you're flexible about when you travel, you can reach Dublin or one of the regional airports such as Sligo for between #163;50 and #163;90.

But to begin our "Yeats country" journey at the end, the poet is buried in the graveyard of the small Protestant church at Drumcliff, a few miles north of Sligo. The best description of the setting is in his own poetic epitaph, "Under Ben Bulben", which sets out how he wished to be commemorated.

No marble, no conventional
On limestone quarried near
the spot
By his command these words
are cut:
Cast a cold eye
>On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
Yeats died in France in 1939 (he had been sent there for his health), and after the war his body was brought back for burial in Drumcliff, with his headstone inscribed according to his instructions. For the resting place of the man who was arguably the greatest poet in the English language this century, the setting is commendably understated - there is no visitors' centre or souvenir shop. Apart from the roar of traffic on the nearby main road, little has changed here since Yeats's lifetime.

The main road leads south to the town of Sligo, a small county town that in the summer months becomes the headquarters of all things Yeatsian. Every year academics, poetry lovers and literary pilgrims come to Sligo for the Yeats Summer School, which provides a mix of lectures, debates, performances, scholarship and sociability.

But if you want to get an impression of what first stirred Yeats's literary talents, you should drive out of the town and head along the coast into the wild countryside of County Sligo and County Mayo.

As a young man, Yeats was fascinated by the local rural culture in the north-west of Ireland, by the survival of an ancient way of life that seemed to have side-stepped the arrival of the modern world. He travelled around the countryside, collecting folk stories and observing traditions, feeding his discoveries back into his poetry about the myths of Celtic Ireland.

You can still see the kinds of villages that he would have visited - a few whitewashed cottages around a crossroads, turf smoke in the air, dogs barking on long, summer evenings. But the area isn't a museum, and if you go into a pub, you're as likely to find Sky Television as folk music.

The physical landscape of the west of Ireland also inspired Yeats's writing. It is windswept and wild, and the vast skies beside the Atlantic are the backdrops for many of his poems. These are big landscapes for big feelings, with mountains, huge empty strands and operatic storms blowing in from the sea.

For a cheapskate traveller such as myself, perhaps what's most surprising about the west of Ireland is how very different it is for somewhere that is so close and so accessible from London. I'm sitting on an empty beach, listening to the sea and looking at miles of uninhabited, rocky land, but I'm only an hour from Heathrow.

A sense of place is a strong element in Yeats's writing, with locations becoming symbols with a literary life of their own. If you journey south from County Mayo down into County Galway, you'll reach a setting that appears frequently in his later poetry - Thoor Ballylee, the medieval tower that Yeats bought, renovated and used as a summer house.

It is now open to the public and you can use a visit as an instant crib-sheet to some of the poet's greatest work. This is the setting for "The Tower" and "The Winding Stair", the background to "Meditations in Time of Civil War", "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory" and "The Road at My Door".

It's a pretty setting, without being twee, and after you've paced around the battlements pretending to be Yeats, there's a bookshop in the tower where you can add a little intellectual roughage to your holiday.

A few miles away from Thoor Ballylee is another setting that appeared repeatedly in Yeats's poems. Coole Park was the home of Lady Gregory, an Anglo-Irish landowner who, with Yeats, created an Irish literary movement. Coole Park became a symbol of threatened nobility, appearing in poems such as "Wild Swans at Coole" and "Coole Park 1929". Although the house has since been demolished, the grounds at Coole are open to the public.

You don't have to write poetry to realise that there is something deeply poetic about the west of Ireland. Even though Yeats lived in London, Paris and Dublin for much of his adult life, it was the west of Ireland that he used as his literary canvas.

For the literary rambler, this part of the world - at the furthermost western edge of Europe - makes you feel as though you've travelled much further than #163;100 has any right to take you.

Aer Lingus (tel: 0645 737747), Ryan Air (0541 569569), British Midland (0345 554554) and City Jet (0345 445 588) provide flights to Ireland, which, out of peak season, will be under #163;100

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today