Monday 12 September 2016

More literary footsteps in Ireland: Brontë & other literary greats - Part I

Last year I was wondering what the 2016 annual holidays in Ireland could bring as far as Brontë literary links are concerned. I should not have bothered. In Ireland, the country of literary greats, there is always something to be discovered and literary footsteps to trace.

This year, the annual holidays started in Cork/Crosshaven. This was a great opportunity for me to do some more research on the honeymoon trip of Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Bell Nicholls. For a very long time, I have been wondering where Charlotte and Arthur stayed in Cork at the end of their honeymoon. I had already been checking all possible biographies. A lot of information can be found on the other places in Ireland that they visited, such as Dublin, Banagher, Kilkee, Glengariff, Killarney, mostly from letters that Charlotte wrote to her friends, but on Cork not much is known. I became intrigued and wanted to find out more. So, I contacted the Cork archives and Cork library before I travelled to Ireland, and made an appointment to have a look at some of the newspapers of that period.  As my husband was out fishing at sea for a whole day I was free to spend my days as I wished, and doing some research at the Library was one way of spending the day. Probably not what you would expect someone to do on their holidays (and I did get a funny look from the people at the B&B where we were staying), but this was my way of having fun indoors on a “soft day in Ireland” (note: for those who do not understand Irish humour, this means a rainy day)! However, the newspapers of July 1854 did not mention anything on Charlotte, as I could have expected. But I was not disappointed and was not yet ready to give up. I had to look at it from another angle. Back in the B&B, while waiting for my husband to return from his fishing trip, by sheer coincidence, I was browsing through a book on Cork describing all streets in Cork city throughout the ages and also mentioning the businesses that were located in the various streets. I found the names and addresses of some hotels and lodging houses that must have been open for business in 1854, when Charlotte was visiting. I decided to spend another day in Cork trying to discover what was left of the “Victorian Cork” that Charlotte may have seen. I even discovered that Charlotte’s idol, William Makepeace Thackeray, stayed in one of the hotels in Cork when he was writing his “Irish Sketch Book”. Many buildings still survive and what I saw and discovered gave me some more ideas on how to proceed with the research on this particular subject. To be continued!!!!

Some architectural remnants of Victorian Cork

Next stop on our journey was Connemara on the west coast of Ireland. No Brontë link this time! Following a book I had read on Oscar Wilde’s family in Connemara and Mayo (“Oscar in the Wilds” by Anthony Dudley), I had decided to try and locate one of his family’s haunts in Connemara: the hunting lodge and holiday home ”Illaunroe”(the Gaelic word for” Red Island”). Over the years, having travelled in the Connemara crisscross in all directions, we have become very familiar with the area. We had more or less an idea where to try and find this location, so, with the book in hand, off we went on our discovery tour. It was not the best of days weather-wise, but that did not bother us. The hunting lodge was built by Oscar’s father Sir William Wilde and is located on an “island” (strictly speaking, it is a peninsula) in Lough Fee (near Little Killary). It became the favourite holiday spot for the Wilde family. I had seen some pictures in the book, but I could imagine that it would not be obvious to see it from the main road. Oscar liked to call it ” the little purple island where we children learned to fish and hunt”. We had not too many problems  finding the narrow road winding its way around the lake, but as the book mentioned that the house stood “almost in the middle of
Lough fee”, we were looking (through the rain-stained car windows) further onto the lake and therefore did not see the “peninsula” right under our noses. We went all the way past the lake and had to return. But then, coming from the other side, you could clearly see the peninsula, and on nearing and slowing down, through the trees we could detect the house very vaguely. It is surrounded by trees and it is well hidden. We could then also see the gate on the main road that closes off the driveway towards the house. It is now in private property. But I was happy enough to have located the place! That was our mission for the day.

Lough Fee

Lough Fee

Next destination on our holidays was the small cottage we rented in Boyle, Co Roscommon, which is only at a stone’s throw from Sligo and surroundings, also known as William Butler Yeats’ country. Over the past years we have been on the Yeats’ trail many times: from Thoor Ballylee and Coole Park (home of Lady Gregory, friend and patron of Yeats, co-founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin), to Lissadell House (home of Eva and Constance Gore-Booth, which Yeats visited regularly), to Drumcliff and Ben Bulben (where Yeats found his final resting place) and all the nooks and crannies in the area that have inspired Yeats to write his beautiful poetry. It is the area where he grew up, to which he returned often and where he is buried.
On a warm sunny Sunday (no fishing was planned!) we decided to visit Sligo city and to tour around the area. In Sligo city the headquarters of the Yeats Society (established in 1958 to preserve the artistic heritage of the Yeats family) is housed in a beautiful old (AIB bank) building (called the Yeats’ Memorial building, near Hyde Bridge named after the first president of Ireland, Dr. Douglas Hyde). The two-and-a-half-storey red-brick building was erected in 1895 and was donated to the Yeats Society in 1973 by AIB bank as a memorial to the Yeats family. At regular times exhibitions on Yeats (both William and his brother Jack who was a famous painter) are being held here, and the Society also provides space for book launches, poetry readings, lectures and public meetings. It also organises each year the Yeats International summer school which brings together students and professors from every country and continent of the world to Sligo for a two week cultural and literary experience.

Yeats' memorial building
Statue of Yeats in Sligo

Unfortunately, we were just in between exhibitions. A new exhibition was being installed, but we could not yet visit! So we decided to enjoy the building and have a coffee/tea in the garden of Lily’s & Lolly’s Cafe which operates as part of the Yeats’ Memorial building, while listening to the rushing waters of the Garavogue river in the background. Lily (Susan Mary) and Lolly (Elizabeth Corbet) were WB Yeats’s sisters. We then strolled through Sligo on a quiet Sunday morning, visited the Abbey (really worthwhile!) and headed back to Lily’s and Lolly’s for lunch. After lunch we decided to tour around the Sligo area and to visit some of the spots that influenced and inspired Yeats when he wrote his poetry. The tour took us to Glencar Lake, a beautiful, serene, silvery lake with a wonderful view of Ben Bulben, both of which inspired Yeats. The spot I was interested in,  was the Glencar waterfall, mentioned in one of my favourite Yeats’ poems “the stolen child”. The beautiful, romantic Glencar Waterfall in County Leitrim is well hidden off the road between Sligo and Manorhamilton/Enniskillen, at the bottom of Kings Mountain. There is a short fairly steep walk up the mountain to reach the bottom of the waterfall: a shallow pool into which the waterfall tumbles down.  With a drop of about 50 feet, it is a small but enchanting cascade. Its lush foliage and craggy, layered rocks offer a kind of "lost world" atmosphere.  It is so quiet there, the only noise being the water falling down into the dark pool. I could stand there for ages just sipping in the atmosphere. It really is a magical and mystical place. If you believe in fairies, this is the place where you could see them! If you wish, you can climb all the way up to the top of the waterfall via a charming walkway. Glencar is particularly impressive after a night's rainfall (this being the west of Ireland, your chances here are good!).

Glencar lake and Ben Bulben

Glencar waterfall
Our tour continued through Yeats’ country via Lough Gill, where the “Lake Isle of Innisfree” inspired Yeats to write one of his most famous poems (and another favourite of mine). The whole area of Yeats’ country with its lakes, rivers and forests and a coastline that varies from long sandy beaches to high limestone ridges, is such a beautiful, idyllic area, you can easily understand where Yeats got the inspiration for his beautiful romantic poetry.

To be continued

Marina Saegerman
27 August 2016

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