I drive through vast expanses dotted with pink wildflowers, rolling meadows with hedgerows, pastures dotted with shaggy sheep and gabled houses. I am in County Sligo in western Ireland, with its dramatic landscapes, on the trail of my favourite poet, Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats. I am here to celebrate his 150th birth anniversary, in the town that inspired many of his poems and a play, and which he called “the land of heart’s desire".

Sligo comes from the Irish word sligeach, which means “abounding in shells". Yeats was born in Dublin in 1865, the son of an artist, was educated in London, but throughout his youth he returned to Sligo for holidays with his maternal grandparents and cousins. There he was free to roam and dream. Yeats’ uncle had a housekeeper named Mary Battle who fired the young boy’s imagination with magical stories of Sligo interwoven with Celtic legends and lore.

I walk with Carr through the grey Sligo town, its stone bridges spanning the Garavogue river, pots of bright flowers hanging outside shops, and pedestrian streets filled with lively pubs and cafés. “Sligo is like a moody woman, sometimes dark with threatening clouds, sometimes sunny and bright...but always mercurial," Carr tells me.

On shop windows, Yeats’ image, displayed with his writings, is omnipresent. One special one catches my eye: “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met." There is a giant-sized mural of him on the wall of a building, bespectacled and serious as he usually was. Outside the Ulster Bank stands a striking contemporary sculpture by artist Rowan Gillespie, of Yeats wrapped in a cloak of his own words. It was erected by the people of the town in 1989, on his 50th death anniversary.

In Sligo, Yeats is as much an industry as he is a poet. In end July-beginning August every year, the town hosts the annual Yeats summer school, with expert sessions on his plays and poetry that many American students attend. A short stroll in the town throws up myriad connections to Yeats—a pub named after him, quill pen signs, the church where his parents got married, and paintings by his brother, Jack, at The Model arts centre.

My magical moment is when I read lines from my favourite Yeats poem, The Cloths Of Heaven, at the 1pm slot in Hargadons pub, with its dark interior, old wooden snugs—small alcoves in a bar used for women to drink without being exposed to inebriated men—and 19th century bar fittings. A fellow journalist reads the same poem in Italian.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

It’s a stormy day when we take a trip on Lough Gill, on a boat called the Rose Of Innisfree. The sailor recites lines from Yeats’ poetry with a lyrical, musical tone as the wind whips my parka into my face. “When he was a boy, his father had read him (Henry David) Thoreau’s Walden, and its pastoral content reminded him of the landscape of his childhood," he explains. He recites the magical lines that Yeats wrote one day in London when he heard the tinkle of water and was wrought with homesickness for Sligo.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

I find neither cabin, nor nine bean rows, for these were just visions conjured up by the poet’s imagination. But I do find some magic that day in the grey mist and rolling waters of the lake, and in the pint-sized outcrop that is the Isle of Innisfree. I think of the meditative Yeats as I walk through tall Norway spruce and Scots pine and 250-year-old oaks to the water’s edge to see Dooney Rock, which used to be a favourite spot for dancing and romancing. Yeats would have seen a blind fiddler who regularly played there.

When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,

Folk dance like a wave of the sea…

Yeats died in France, but asked his wife to bury him in Sligo, within sight of Benbulben. I visit the simple grave at Drumcliffe, with views of the mountain, adorned with a single red rose, and the epitaph, which is the last stanza of his poem Under Ben Bulben.

Cast a cold Eye

On Life, on Death.

Horseman, pass by.

The most memorable evening of the entire trip is hosted by the local Yeats Society president, the ponytailed, bow-tied and eccentric Damien Brennan. We sit in his lovely house, filled with art, book-lined shelves and floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking Lough Gill. As his wife, Paula, and he serve course after course, interspersed with readings from Yeats’ poems, the magic seems to bring Yeats alive. The poem he wrote for Maud Gonne is the most romantic poem I have heard:

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face…

There’s a rainbow at the window, and we run to capture it with our cameras forever. Sligo is etched indelibly in my memory.

It feels like I know my favourite poet better.

TRIP PLANNER

Go

There are one- or two-stop flights from all the Indian metros to Dublin. Drive down from Dublin airport to County Sligo (around 3 hours).

Stay

Radisson Blu on the outskirts, with views of the countryside, is a good option (www.radissonblu.ie/hotel-sligo). In Sligo town, The Glasshouse is a modern hotel with comfortable doubles (www.theglasshouse.ie).

Eat

Irish specialities such as champ, Irish stew, potato bread and soda bread, and black pudding—a kind of blood sausage.

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