Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand
THE STOLEN CHILD
William Butler Yeats
This poem has been knocking on the door of my subconscious for quite a few years now and I’m proud to have it gracing the first page of my book, The Story Collector.
Growing up in Ireland, it’s easy to take things for granted. To me, Yeats was just another poet whose lines I had to learn off by heart at school and coldly analyse for exams. But it was during the 80’s, when my brother bought a record (remember those!) by The Waterboys called Fisherman’s Blues, that it all changed. The band were aiming for a more stripped back sound and spent some time in County Galway, writing and recording the album in an old house in Spiddal. I’ve always loved that record, but one of their greatest triumphs was in marrying the words of WB Yeats to music. Some poems have music in them and Mike Scott reveals the lyrical prose with a haunting recording of the poem. It features Tomás Mac Eoin, a local Sean-nós singer, narrating the verses and as Scott himself remarked, once they ‘had the poem fastened snugly to the music, worlds merged.’ For me, that recording brought the words to life and I’ve been enchanted by the poem ever since.
The idea that the fairies can lure beautiful boys and girls is an old one, and Yeats captures the romantic picture they might paint of life in the wilds of nature. My novel also features an old Irish lullabye, Seoithín seothó. I first heard it on the radio, sung by Roisin Elsafty (another Galway woman!) and I was mesmerised by its beauty. The song tells the story of a mother lulling her baby to sleep with soothing promises to keep them safe from the fairies, who are playing in the moonlight on the rooftop. There is a wonderful fascination with The Good People in Irish ballads, where people are helplessly drawn to their beauty, despite the dangers. I love that sense of push and pull, the lure of the unknown. But again, this song came to me long before the novel, weaving its way in amongst my memories and waiting until the right moment.
Novels are funny creatures, because you realise you’ve been collecting knowledge all through your life without understanding where it may lead. A few years ago, I visited Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’ tower home in county Galway. I was with my sister, who is the poet in the family, and so I figured this pilgrimage was more for her than myself. But once there, I experienced such a sense of ease, of playfulness and yes, magic! I could completely understand how he had been inspired to write about The Good People. Maybe the spell was cast even then to write The Story Collector!
The summer home of W. B. Yeats and his wife George, Thoor Ballylee is a 15th century tower house built beside the Streamstown River, it’s idyllic setting is simply mesmerizing. We arrived late on a sunny evening, crossing the little bridge just as the sun began to set. At once, I was under the spell of the place. Surrounded by trees whose leaves whispered in the breeze, I could feel a sense of timelessness and calm in this beautiful place. It wasn’t hard to imagine why he loved to escape to Thoor Ballylee and I’m sure he was never short of inspiration there.
We spent a long time there, exploring the pathways that led through the woods and down by the stream and discovered the sweetest little picnic tables across the road that resembled little toad stools. I’ve never felt such an instant connection with a place and I really cannot wait to return. As Yeats wrote in a letter to a friend about leaving Thoor Ballylee, “Everything is so beautiful that to go elsewhere is to leave beauty behind.”