In Search of the Spirit of the Irish Poet and Mystic – William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats was born on June 13, 1865, in Dublin, Ireland. On January 28, 1939, he died at 73 years old in France of an undisclosed illness. He is buried in Drumcliffe Churchyard in Co. Sligo, Ireland.
Yeats’s father was John Butler Yeats, who was a portrait painter. His mother was Susan Mary Pollexfen Yeats. Yeats had four siblings.
Growing up, Yeats attended school in London. He spent his time between London and Co. Sligo, Ireland. Despite growing up in Ireland and England, he did not identify himself as Protestant or Catholic; however, he was pro-Ireland’s Independence from England. Yeats was a gifted and successful writer/poet and playwright. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. In addition to his writing, Yeats also spent many years of his adult life studying spiritualism and practicing magick. His interest in mysticism is a thread that weaves throughout Yeat’s life, interweaving in his relationships and writing.
William Butler Yeats – the Mystic
Yeats had a lifelong interest in mysticism and spiritualism. He was specifically interested in understanding what happens after death but was interested in communicating with the deceased. His interest was also in how he could use magick to influence his life on earth.
In 1885, Yeats was involved in the formation of the Dublin Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. They held seances to communicate with spirits. He was also a member of the Theosophical Society. In 1892, Yeats wrote: “The mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”
In 1911, he became a member of the paranormal research organization “The Ghost Club.”
Yeat’s First Love and Muse – Maud Gonne
For many years Yeats had a romantic relationship with the beautiful and rebellious Maud Gonne, who was active in the fight for Irish Independence. In 1891 while living in France, Maud Gonne became a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a magical organization, as was Yeats. They began a romantic relationship in 1889.
Yeats proposed marriage to Maud several times over the years, however, she never accepted. Maude was married twice. Maud’s second marriage was in 1903 to John MacBride, an Irish Freedom Fighter. John MacBride took part in the famous Irish Easter Rebellion against British rule in Ireland at the General Post Office in Dublin, Ireland, on April 24, 1916. John MacBride was captured and executed by British troops via firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin for his involvement in the uprising. Yeat’s famous poem “Easter 1916” is written about John MacBride. In 1916, after John MacBride’s death, Yeats again proposed to Maud, and once again, she turned him down.
In 1918, Maud Gonne was arrested in Dublin and imprisoned in England for six months for her political activities. During the Irish War of Independence, she worked with a relief organization caring for violent victims of the war. In 1921 she opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty that ended the war between England and Ireland – supporting the Irish Republicans who opposed the Treaty. She settled in Dublin, Ireland, in 1922.
Maud Gonne inspired many of Yeats’s poems.
In 1917 Yeats married Georgie Hyde Lees (she was 25 and Yeats was 51). Together they had a son, Michael, and a daughter, Anne.
In 1922, Yeats received an Honorary Degree from Trinity College, Dublin. He also served as a senator of the Irish Free State for six years before resigning due to health issues. In 1923, he was the first Irishman awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel Committee described it as “inspired poetry, which is a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.”
Yeats continued his study of spiritualism and magick with his wife Georgie. They practiced automatic writing, which is writing directed by a spirit during a séance. Georgie claimed to have contacted spirits and guides while in trances. The spirits communicated to her and Yeats otherworldly theories and symbols. Yeats used material gained from these communications with spirits in his book “A Vision” published in 1925.
Haunted Thoor Ballylee Castle, Gort, County Galway, Ireland
In 1916 Yeats bought Thoor Ballylee Castle in Gort, County Galway, Ireland. Thoor Ballylee became Yeats’ and his family’s summer home for twelve years. Thoor Ballylee Castle is also known as “Yeats’ Tower.” It is an impressive stone Norman tower built in the late 15th to early 16th century. The castle is in a serene, secluded setting surrounded by nature. Prior occupants of the castle included the Earls of Clanricarde (the Burke family), the Carrick family, and the Gregory family. Lady Augusta Gregory was a neighbor and close friend of Yeats. She lived at the expansive Coole Estate. There she hosted Irish literary groups and events attended by famous writers, including Yeats.
During Yeats’ time at Thoor Ballylee, he wrote numerous poems and furthered his magick’s study and practice. Yeats wrote a book of poetry titled “The Tower” published in 1928. This book contains the poems “The Tower”, “Ballylee,” and “Coole.”
Yeats and his family stayed at Thoor Ballylee until 1929. Sadly, after they left, the castle was abandoned and fell to ruin over many years. The castle is rumored to be haunted.
In 1961, the Kiltartan Society was founded and renewed interest in the local area’s literary history including Thoor Ballylee and Coole Estate. Thanks to private restoration efforts, Thoor Ballylee opened to the public on June 20, 1965, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Yeats’s birth. Thoor Ballylee was restored as a museum containing a collection of first editions and furniture. In 2014, the “Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society” leased Thoor Ballylee from Fáilte Ireland to develop it into a culture and education center that is now open to the public.
Ten years after leaving Thoor Ballylee, Yeats died in France of an undisclosed illness at 73 on January 28, 1939. Although buried in France, his family exhumed his body and reinterred him in Co. Sligo, Ireland in 1948. He is buried there with his wife. On his gravestone are the last lines of his final poem “Under Ben Bulben.” The inscription reads:
“Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!”
A bronze sculpture of William Butler Yeats exists on Stephen Street overlooking the town of Sligo. The sculpture is inscribed with excerpts from his poetry. In Dublin, the National Library of Ireland contains over 2,000 items, the most extensive collection of W.B. Yeats manuscripts in the world. The collection was donated by the Yeats family and included the genealogy of the Yeats family.
RIP William Butler Yeats