I love the idea behind these Passport posts, to see a city or country through a writer’s eyes, but I want to tweak it just a little. I want to try and double the lens for you and show you the west of Ireland through two sets of writers’ eyes – my own and those of the poet WB Yeats. Yeats loved Ireland explicitly as a poet and a senator. He was born a hundred years before I was, but he stars as one of the romantic leads in my new secret history novel, “In Dreams Begin,” so I feel like I know him well enough to build a travel itinerary that combines our love of his country.
Wake up on your first day at Lough Key House. It’s a bit of a splurge, but worth it. It’s presided over with warmth and bustle by Frances McDonagh who, makes a brief cameo in Dreams. “She has yogurt and cereal waiting, and would be happy to make us some eggs, or a full Irish breakfast with ‘bacon from our own pig.’” From there, drive the short distance to Lough Key and rent a rowboat from Peter Walsh. When you return from the island, sit on the stone steps with him and hear his stories, but skip lunch at the cafeteria. It isn’t that nice and you had a big breakfast.
Yeats spent an afternoon or two out on this lake and exploring its island. He comes back for a night in it as well, in my version of history. But it’s certainly worth spending a morning on. I’m not great with a rowboat, but it didn’t take me more than ten minutes to paddle from the dock to the island, although it took me most of a day to photograph and map it in enough detail to write the chapters that are set there.
Yeats called it “an island almost all castle,” which is fairly accurate. It still had a roof and floors in his day, but it had already been deserted for years and had stories attached to as wild as those the boatman told me later. Yeats imagined it as the future home for Irish poets and artists. “The situation in the centre of the lake, that has little wood-grown islands, and is surrounded by wood-grown hills, is romantic, and at one end, and perhaps at the other too, there is a stone platform where meditative persons might pace to and fro. I planned a mystical Order which should buy or hire the castle, and keep it as a place where its members could retire for a while for contemplation, and where we might establish mysteries like those of Eleusis and Samothrace; and for ten years to come my most impassioned thought was a vain attempt to find philosophy and to create ritual for that Order.”
From Lough Key, drive up to Sligo for tea and a cry. Yeats was born in Sligo, and he’s buried there, in the gorgeous little cemetery of the church where his grandfather had been rector. Ben Bulben, the mountainside he memorialized in several of his poems is visible from his grave, per his request to be buried “under bare Ben Bulben’s head,” where other tourists will keep a respectful, or perhaps wary distance from the writerly type trying not to cry.
There’s a very serviceable little teashop and a stunning sculptural tribute in front of the church depicting his poem “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” written for Maud Gonne, the strident Irish revolutionary to whom he, the intellectual, politic poet, proposed to four times over twenty years.
Their bizarre relationship, their mutual involvement with the occult, and strange lines in Yeats’s poetry combined to create the outline of a story for me, and I set “In Dreams Begin” into the empty spaces left by their lives, letters and poetry. In my history, Gonne’s body was possessed over the years, but only sporadically by the wandering, pilgrim soul of a contemporary American woman, and it was she Yeats loved. Yeats tells her, when he meets her inhabiting Maud’s body for the first time, that he misses Sligo, but his father, a fervent atheist who believed Will’s interest in Irish faerie lore was silly, mocks him and dismisses his homesickness for romantic nostalgia. And to a certain extent, he was right. Will loved Sligo, but real home of Yeats’s Ireland is further south, in Galway.
It was to Lady Gregory’s Galway manor that Yeats retreated when his pursuit of Maud was at low ebb where he walked the woods in emotional turmoil so great he records “it would have been a relief to have screamed aloud.” He wrote the hauntingly beautiful poem “The Wild Swans at Coole” there and, together with his hostess, conceived of the Abbey Theater and the entire Irish National Theater movement it represented.
Coole House itself burned down in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, but we have photos of it as it looked in Yeats’s day, and the grounds are beautiful so I couldn’t resist writing it into the story.
“All things wicked come from the west, and although Ida was not particularly adverse to evil, she was now the furthest west she had ever been, and found it did not suit her. The light was too thin, the air too bright, and Will Yeats’s legs too long by half. Ida scuttled after them across the rough gray cobblestones of the stableyard at Coole Park House. The poet flourished here, where the magic hung close and Lady Gregory hauled him between peasant cottages in her dogcart, collecting tales of the sidhe. But Ida brimmed and bubbled with wanting to rip the whiskers from their hostess’s fat chin and set fire to her big white house.”
The grounds are well preserved and almost painfully picturesque. There are hiking trails and the famous autograph tree so take a good long walk through it all. It’s important to work up a good appetite because this is where you’re eating dinner:
Moran’s Oyster Cottage “on the Weir” in Galway. Have a Guinness.
From there, tired and full, head down to Gort and check in to Sullivan’s Royal Hotel which, despite its rather lofty name, is an antique, homey place with a spiraling staircase of its very own steep and long enough to rival Yeats’s.
When you wake up the next day, take the short drive to the Norman tower Yeats purchased in 1917 for thirty-five pounds. Although he didn’t live there for long, the tower and its spiral stone staircase became central metaphors for him. There’s a small gift shop and a mandatory education movie, but otherwise the tower is much as it looks in the black and white pictures we have of the original, and you’re allowed to explore it alone for as long as you’d like. “In Dreams Begin” ends at Yeats’s tower, so I think it’s an appropriate place for me to say good-bye as well.
“I close my eyes against the vertigo and hear the rain-filled stream boiling over stones—it sounds miles beneath us. We’re standing on the square roof of his tower, the first gray light of morning beginning to drag itself from the black of trees. I straighten my knees, test them, and meet his eyes. His gentle hands reach into my hair. He kisses me, holding me like new cheese—like I might run out between his fingers. He must bend to kiss me. Maud is his height. My lips feel thin returning his kiss. I push my awareness over my wind-touched surfaces, and they form an unfamiliar container against the Irish air. I am in the body of Will’s wife.
Skyler White is the bestselling author of dark fantasy novels ‘and Falling, Fly’ (Berkley, March 2010) and ‘In Dreams Begin’ (Berkley, November 2010). She lives in Austin, TX. Visit her on the web at http://www.skylerwhite.com/.
Skyler White crafts challenging fiction for a changing world. Populated with angels and rock stars, scientists, demons and revolutionaries, her dark stories explore the secret places where myth and modernity collide.
The child of two college professors, Skyler grew up in an environment of scholarship and academic rigor, so naturally left high school to pursue a career in ballet. She’s been dancing around research and thinking through muscle cramps ever since. She has a master’s degree in theater and work experience in advertising; she’s won awards as a stage director and appeared on reality TV. She is a mother and an instigator, a wife and a realist, a liberal living in Texas and an atheist who believes in mythology. She is a sucker for paradox, and it’s a fortunate thing, too!
Check out her novels, both set in Ireland.
“Close your eyes tightly—tightly—
and keep them closed . . .”
From a Victorian Ireland of magic, poetry and rebellion, Ida Jameson, an amateur occultist, reaches out for power, but captures Laura Armstrong, a modern-day graphic artist instead. Now, for the man or demon she loves, each woman must span a bridge through Hell and across history . . . or destroy it.
Anchored in fact on both sides of history, Laura and Ida, modern rationalist and fin de siècle occultist, are linked from the moment Ida channels Laura into the body of celebrated beauty and Irish freedom-fighter Maud Gonne. When Laura falls—from an ocean and a hundred years away—passionately, Victorianly in love with the young poet W. B. Yeats, their love affair entwines with Irish history and weaves through Yeats’s poetry until Ida discovers something she wants more than magic in the subterranean spaces in between.
With her Irish past threatening her orderly present and the man she loves in it, Laura and Yeats—the practical materialist and the poet magus—must find a way to make love last over time, in changing bodies, through modern damnation, and into the mythic past to link their pilgrim souls . . . or lose them forever.
Olivia is a vampire bored with modernity. Tattooist, boyfriend, black-metal singer: everyone you don’t love tastes the same. Since the fall from Eden, she has hungered for love, but fed only on desire. Dominic O’Shaughnessy is a neuroscientist plagued by impossible visions.
When his research and her despair collide in Ireland’s L’Otel Mathillide – a subterranean hell of beauty, demons and dreams – rationalist and angel unite in a clash of desire and damnation that threatens to destroy them both.