The enduring legacy of W.B. Yeats in Irish music

Elisabeth A. O’Hea


Elisabeth A. O’Hea

The enduring legacy of W.B. Yeats in Irish music
William Butler Yeats wrote in 1922, “I have loved you better than my soul.”

William Butler Yeats wrote in 1922, “I have loved you better than my soul.”

Yeats’ words remain as mystical as the autumn mist that descends and forms an ethereal blanket over Ben Bulben on a cold Irish morning. Like icing on this year’s 150th birthday celebratory cake, numerous Celtic artists and songwriters have been influenced by Yeats. The Irish poet/playwright has left an indelible mark and gift on the world of music and word.

Within the works of local Gweedore singer-songwriter Enya Brennan, we also see traces of Yeats’ earthiness and Irish mystique. Scholarly studies have suggested a link between Enya’s works and Yeats.

Whether hiking western trails or wild rugged coastline with an iPod, there is no mistaking the silken resonance and sweeping serenity of Enya. When Enya and collaborator lyricist Roma Ryan intersect, the world is again gifted with a multitrack Celtic mosaic. With Enya’s focus on the boundless benediction of nature, there is no denying that if Yeats were alive he would be cranking up Enya.

Likewise, Bono was influenced by WB. While in Dublin middle school, Bono learned the poetry of Yeats. In a 2001 interview, Bono explained that the teacher said “and then Yeats went through this dry period. He had a writing block and couldn’t write about anything.” Bono recalls putting his hand up and saying, “Well, why didn’t he write about that?” The teacher looked at Bono and said “Oh, be quiet.” To this day Bono attributes Yeats with helping U2 overcome writer’s block.

Van Morrison lives and breathes Yeats. One of Van’s songs, “Crazy Jane on God”, is based on one of Yeats’ poems. “Crazy Jane on God” was included in initial pressings of Morrison’s 1983 album “A Sense of Wonder.” Many of the Belfast Cowboy’s themes center around water, wildflowers, or even a simple honeybee.

Seven decades later. Yeats’ poetry still permeates Irish life and inspires artistic expression. Van Morrison, Bono, Enya, and Clannad are a few who have blended elements of Yeats or have been influenced by his works within their own creative processes, either musically or lyrically.

Drumcliffe today

Drumcliffe defies space and time. It soothes the soul and beckons wandering pilgrims to stop and breathe.

Sligo’s 150th birthday boy has surely smiled down at the new crowds and returning pilgrims this fall, having already seen a few celebrities and dignitaries pass through the doors of Drumcliffe within the last few years.

Van Morrison was here in October 2012, when he performed at Sligo Live. Sinead O’Connor has strolled the grounds. In addition Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, visited this spring. The royal couple marked the occasion by planting a London oak adjacent to Yeats’ grave.

On a crisp autumn day at Drumcliffe Teahouse, imagine a glimpse of a world-renowned Nobel laureate. Clad in spectacles, he wanders the grounds. Standing in the mist, he pulls out a fountain pen and paper. On a second glance, as if by magic, the figure seemingly vanishes.

Time to sit back and check the shelves for a new Yeats read. Turn the IPod to Van the Man and “Tupelo Honey”. Chamomile tea, please. And pass the Lissadell honey and a spoon.

Elisabeth A. O’Hearn Doehring is an award-winning American writer. Her family is from western Ireland and she spends summers and falls in Donegal and Sligo.