For visitors to Ireland who are fans of Ireland’s literary legends, a new trail in County Sligo highlights the Nobel Prize-winning poet, William Butler Yeats, but it also focuses on the beauty of Sligo’s landscape that inspired so much of Yeats’s work.
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The new Yeats Trail includes 14 places in Sligo that are deeply connected to the life and poetry of the Dublin-born poet.
Developed with the help of €500,000 from Ireland’s Rural Regeneration and Development Fund and additional monies from Sligo County Council, the trail is meant to compliment the popular Wild Atlantic Way, which runs through Sligo.
County Sligo has long been known as “Yeats Country” because of the important part it played in the poet’s life and work.
He called the county “The Land of Heart’s Desire” which today forms part of County Sligo’s tourism appeal.
Along the trail, visitors will encounter artistic installations and interpretative signs that feature the words of the poetry associated with that location. Here is a look at each of them.
Stop #1: Knocknarea
The looped trail starts at Knocknarea, a popular mountain for hikers and those curious about the Stone Age cairn on its peak.
The large mound is believed to cover the body of the warrior Queen Maeve, who features heavily in Irish mythology.
References to Knocknarea can be found in Yeats’s poetry, including in his poem, “Red Hanrahan’s Song About Ireland,” when he says: “The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea, And thrown thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say.”
The cairn is visible for miles around and speaks to Sligo’s rich archaeological history.
Researchers say this passage tomb, like ones found at the Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, was likely used for burials from the Stone Age period through the beginning of Christianity.
Stop #2: Rosses Point
At the seaside village of Rosses Point, visitors will find an installation that is a tribute to the entire Yeats family.
They include the poet himself; his brother Jack B, an accomplished painter; his sisters Susan (Lily), an embroider and Elizabeth (Lollie), a publisher; his father John B., also an artist, and his mother, who influenced his writings with her renditions of local folklore.
Rosses Point was near and dear to Yeats’s heart, as he spent many happy days along the shore with his cousins, recalling those happy times in his poem, “Reveries Over Childhood and Youth.”
The walking route at Rosses Point offers views of Oyster Island and Coney Island.
Stop #3 Drumcliffe
This is where visitors will find the graveyard of Yeats. Even though he died in France in 1939, it was the poet’s wish to be laid to rest in County Sligo.
The cemetery is beside the church where his great-grandfather was once a rector.
A famous quote from his poem, “Under Ben Bulben,” can be found on his headstone: “Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by.”
A new installation marking this third stop on the trail is a poignant reminder of the poet’s vulnerability as he wrote the poem about a year before his death.
Stop #4: Lissadell House
Yeats visited this local Sligo attraction as an adult, but some say he may have visited Lissadell House as a child, too.
During his visits, he befriended Eva and Constance Gore-Booth, the daughters of Sir Robert Gore-Booth, who is known to have assisted many families in the local area during the Great Famine.
Constance would later become Countess Markievicz and play a pivotal role in the Easter Rising of 1916.
In The Winding Stair, a volume of poetry by Yeats, the sisters feature in one of its poems titled “In Memory of Eva Gore Booth and Con Markievicz.”
Lissadell House is open to visitors during the summer months only as it is also a private home.
Stop #5: Benbulben
The table mountain known as Benbulben dominates the Sligo landscape and both its beauty and the mythology surrounding it greatly influenced Yeats, leading him to write the poem “Under Ben Bulben.”
When he visited his grandparents’ house at Merville, Yeats had a perfect view of the unusually shaped limestone mountain, and over time took an interest in the folklore that surrounds it.
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One story that fascinated him was the legend of the lovers Diarmuid and Gráinne, who sought refuge on the mountain while being pursued by Fionn McCool (Mac Cumhaill) and his warriors.
It no doubt influenced his co-writing of the play “Diarmuid and Grania,” which was first performed at the Gaiety Theatre in October of 1901.
The Benbulben Forest Walk gives visitors a good overview of this magnificent part of County Sligo.
Stop #6: Glencar Waterfall
This beautiful waterfall, which is actually in County Leitrim, a couple of miles from the Sligo border, was featured in Yeats’s “The Stolen Child,” which draws from stories that he heard from his mother as a child regarding fairies taking children and replacing them with changelings.
Sligo Walks highlights three ways of getting to the falls that takes visitors through country roads and forest terrain.
Stop #7: Hazelwood
Located along the scenic shoreline of Lough Gill, the forest at Hazelwood is referred to by Yeats in this poem, “The Wind Among the Reeds.”
Hazelwood House was designed by the noted architect Richard Cassels in the 18th century and was the home of the Wynne family until the early 20th century.
It is one of the few surviving Palladian-style houses in Ireland today.
Lough Gill Distillery now occupies the space.
Stop #8: Deerpark
The prehistoric Stone Age burial monument at Deerpark is considered one of Ireland’s finest court cairns.
It is known locally as the Giant’s Grave and was the inspiration for poems that focused on Irish mythology and talk of ancient civilizations, including “The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland.”
The Deer Park Loop or Court Tomb Loop as it is also known leads to the internationally renowned court tomb. Along the route, visitors will get great views of Lough Gill below.
Stop #9: Innisfree
The poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” was written by Yeats while he was in London as he yearned for peace and tranquility away from the hurried city environment.
Innisfree is one of 22 islands on Lough Gill. It is situated very close to Parke’s Castle, which is in neighboring County Leitrim.
Stop #10: Slish Wood
Slish Wood was once part of an ancient oak forest around Lough Gill. Today, there is a lovely lakeshore walking trail that runs through it, forming part of The Sligo Way.
Yeats referred to this area of Sligo in his poem “In Reveries Over Childhood and Youth.”
In it, he imagined a child being lured away by fairies: “Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand.”
A walk in this area of Sligo takes visitors along Lough Gill, into the forest and up to the surrounding hills.
Stop #11: Dooney Rock
Dooney Rock located in Dooney Forest on the shores of Lough Gill features prominently in Yeats’s poem, “The Fiddler of Dooney.”
In fact, he visited this place often as a young boy, and in this work, he emphasized the importance of fiddlers.
Sligo is known for its unique fiddling style made famous by Michael Coleman and others.
Walkers will get breathtaking views of Lough Gill and its islands on this trail, especially from the top of Dooney Rock.
Stop #12: Union Wood
This area of Sligo is known for its mythological figures, including The Cailleach Berra (born as a mortal but known as a fairy woman).
She features in his poem, “The Celtic Twilight.”
Union Wood can be found between the villages of Collooney, Ballisodare and Ballygawley and is popular among walkers.
The installation at this trail stop includes a large inkwell hand carved from Kilkenny limestone and depicting two swans in water.
Stop #13: Ballisodare
Yeats was a frequent visitor to Ballisodare, which is about a 10-minute drive from Sligo town.
It is where he visited his great uncle William Middleton at Avena House and it is also where the family flour mill was located.
Based on his time in Ballisodare, Yeats created the poem, “Down by the Salley Gardens,” which was later put to music.
The poem was in reference to The Salley Gardens, a popular salmon fishing location in the town with impressive cascading waterfalls.
Stop #14: Glen Wood
Glen Wood is located beneath the Ox Mountains and overlooks Ballisodare Bay.
The region formed the basis for Yeats's play, “At the Hawk’s Well.”
The easy woodland walk in this area gives visitors impressive views of Doomore Mountain, Sligo Bay and North Sligo.