Memories of Innisfree

Pretty soon now, Leonard Cohen will arrive in my home county of Sligo to play two concerts in the grounds of Lissadell House.

This is the same Lissadell House where Sligo’s beloved poet W B Yeats spent so much time and became so enchanted with the area.  So enchanted that he effectively wrote his own epitaph, in a poem which set out where his final resting place should be and exactly what words should be cut into his headstone:

“Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by”

And these last three enigmatic lines are indeed cut into limestone ‘quarried near the spot’.  The poem is like a treasure map and Yeats' grave is there to be found at the end of it, exactly as one would expect.

So it seems likely to me that the great poetic soul of Leonard Cohen will be drawn the few miles up the road from Lissadell House to visit this much-visited place.

I bet he will.

But what I also wonder is whether he will be tempted to seek out the island on Lough Gill made famous by a much earlier Yeats Poem.  Will he, too, “Arise and go now, go to Innisfree”?

If you are, indeed, thinking that way, Leonard my lad, (yes, I know you read this) well, let me give you the inside scoop on Innisfree.

Because I know Lough Gill.  I grew up beside the Garavogue river and I fished on the lake for salmon with my brothers on freezing New Years Days where you wouldn’t send a dog outside.  I’ve sat in placid bays of an spring evening among the dark spent mayflies and watched the trout suck them down, without hardly causing a ripple on the water.

I was never the fisherman my brothers or, of course, my Dad was but I knew a little about the lake all the same.

So let me tell you about Innisfree.

There are boats and buses that will take you to Innisfree and they are completely honest and well-meaning, for the island they will show you is indeed called Innisfree.  And you will probably be bewildered and a little disappointed because all you will see is a tiny tree-laden island not far off the shore with no room for docks or moorings let alone beehives or wattle huts.

For this is Innisfree… but it is not Yeats’ Innisfree.

Yeats’ Innisfree is out on the lake and is harder to get to and it is bigger and more sprawling and more baffling.  It is called Church Island.  This is Yeats’ Innisfree.

Back in those days when we went fishing, we would often pull into a sheltered bay on Church Island for the ‘Tea’.  We would light a small fire with twigs and would boil a black crusty kettle with no lid.  We would have white bread sandwiches and, more often than not, watch the rain plant circles out on the lake.  And the smells that haunt us from those times are not of the island or the lake but rather they are of the things we brought  there ourselves and the things we did there ourselves. The wet wood we caused to smoke in the fire, the petrol that dripped from the Seagull ‘Forty Plus’ outboard motors that stained the water with wide flat rainbows.

And what of Yeats?  Well he had been here long before us.  Yes here, not on some tiny tree-ridden rock a stone’s throw from the shore. Here, lost on this island.  He took the name from the other little island and put it here for his literary purposes.  Why would he not?  He was a Poet, it was what he did.

You can look this up on the internet, you can check it out.  But, unless you look quite hard, you won’t find anything of what I am telling you here.  Perhaps I am just making it up, I can’t say who told it to me because I don’t really know. 

But the final proof is out there, on Church Island, because Peace is indeed there, still, and it still comes dropping slow. It really does.

You may think this is all rubbish, that’s okay.  I know in my heart that I’m right.

And if you go there, Leonard – or any of you – then you will know it too.


Laura Cousins said...

There's no "rubbish" here, Ken. I loved reading this. It was beautifully written.

Rachel Fox said...

We had hoped to make it out to these parts this see these places and maybe even borrow you as a guide! Sadly family life (or lack of life...) has intervened so it probably won't be this summer. But another keep collecting the notes for the alternative guidebook please.

Ken Armstrong said...

Lozzie: Thank you. :) I've written more on this subject which I hope might see the light of day (in another medium) soon.

Rachel: I would love to show your family around! I'd hijack a boat... and we'd have a fire and... and... whenever you say. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

How Swallows and Amazons of you. I have to say I knew nothing of Innisfree before I read this but there are some places that should stay in the imagination. It's like when I wandered around Dublin a few years ago and it was just a city.

Kate said...

Your post is poetry in itself, Ken. Wonderful writing, thank you.

Kat Mortensen said...

Really enjoyed this. I think Leonard's on Twitter, isn't he? Have you linked your post to it? You can leave him a tweet.

I saw him in concert a couple of years ago. No words. Just...


Kat Mortensen said...

There you go!

WiseMóna said...

Gorgeous. What a lovely piece to read and share with others.

June Calender said...

I've never been to Ireland but I feel I've been to Yeat's Innisfree, or it's been planted in me for a long time. Love reading this, you've told it not only convincingly but beautifully. I'd love call the airlines and arise now and go ... it must be be laden right about now.

Ken Armstrong said...

Jim: Astute as ever. I only read 'Swallows and Amazons' a few years ago to one of the boys and I was suprised how similar, in some ways, my own childhood had been.

Kate: Thanks. That's very kind.

Poetikat: Hi Kat. I never fully trust there Unverified Twitter accounts. I did it with Shane McGowan, chatting away like a good thing, and it turned out it wasn't him at all (at all). :)

Mona: Thanks. :)

June: Thank you. 'Laden' is such a good word for the place. It would indeed be so. :)

Kat Mortensen said...

Really! You tried to tweet with Shane McGowan? That must have been quite the conversation. Too bad it proved to be a fraud.


shinester said...

Thanks Ken. I bet he guessed that the artist has poetic license and knew, like you of another place where peace comes dripping slow....