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Why Western Ireland Is the Best Place to Be Sad

Western Ireland’s isolation is wildly poetic—and maybe even healing.


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Knocknafaugher, a small town with a gorgeous coastline in the county of Sligo, Ireland. Photos by Jooney Woodward.

The level of turbulence was high for a hotel room. As the late afternoon wind howled up from the white-capped bay, the rain-lashed window rattled in its frame, the pipes in the bathroom groaned, and periodically the building itself gave an overwrought shudder. It had been a long day. Then again it had been a long month, arguably a long year. I brushed my teeth at the old sink, pulled on every piece of warm clothing from my bag and started walking.

I set out from a grassy bluff above Clew Bay, where the Mulranny Park Hotel has sat for over a century. Evidence of time’s passage was scant. It could’ve been yesterday that these parts were ruled by Grace O’Malley, the swaggering 16th-century chieftain and Ireland’s so-called Pirate Queen. Her wildness can’t be separated from the place. After giving birth to her son at sea, she saw her ship boarded by Algerian pirates; she wrapped the boy in a blanket and led her crew in fighting off the invaders. At port, she was said to sleep with a mooring rope tied to her bedpost, the other end run all the way down to that same ship. If someone tried to steal it, she’d know. The legend is meant to illustrate the depths of her seafaringness. As I walked through the rain in Mulranny, I just thought she sounded lonely.

It was my first day in the west of Ireland, nearly two hours by car northwest of Galway. The country is its rugged, woolliest self here. The wind is harder, the greenery shaggier. A narrow road curled away from the hotel, ran through the brief bit of town, and somewhere in there intersected an overgrown stairway leading down to the bay. I made my way with little resembling a plan. I was soaked, as foretold; no traveler flies to Ireland without first being warned 400 times about the rain. I’d nodded earnestly in these conversations, then ignored the whole matter. I do not melt in water. Anyway, a sunny beach in Mallorca will scratch many itches but not all. Now and then a soul needs to get drenched.

A narrow path ran along the bay, and as I hopped over puddles I fell into conversation with a tall, ruddy young man. You can do that in Ireland, just talk to fellow humans. His name was Matthew. He’d grown up here. He had a shaved head and a friendly, shy manner; with a little prodding he told me the seesawing history of this tiny coastal town. Once it had been a quiet agricultural outpost. Then in 1894 the local railway station opened, and suddenly Mulranny was a destination. The hotel opened soon after, a gleaming thing from the future—it had electric lights years before anyone else around, hot baths, and at great expense a swimming pool with water pumped up from the bay. Mulranny exploded, was twice the size it is today. And then it all went away. Cars started to get popular in the 1930s, the train was discontinued, and soon the economy withered. The hotel limped along, then shuttered. 

Windswept, isolated, desolate: These traits do not diminish the appeal of seaside towns like this one. To a certain state of mind, they heighten it.

Matthew does maintenance for holiday homes in the area. His mother worked at the hotel before it closed in 1990. His father farmed. The family goes back three generations here, which isn’t uncommon—it’s going forward that’s increasingly rare. In secondary school Matthew had 60 classmates. All but four eventually emigrated or moved to Dublin. When Matthew’s son starts school here, he will have one other child in his class.

It gets lonely here, he told me. But he said it without complaint. Windswept, isolated, desolate: These traits do not diminish the appeal of seaside towns like this one. To a certain state of mind, they heighten it. It was true—I hadn’t seen a place so pretty, so movingly pretty, in some time.

But you know that already. You know of the pull Ireland has on certain types, at certain points in life. You know that the bedraggled heart seeks out the leaden sky over the low stone wall, finds dark poetry in the wisps of smoke rising from the stone chimney. You know also that we mostly travel happy, but sometimes we travel sad. One night your partner of 16 years turns to you and says things are complicated. Weeks later you’re in western Ireland without a plan except to bob about atop the moodiness, hope to wash up somewhere in a better turn of mind.

Wood burns in the stove at Tricky’s McGarrigles pub in Sligo, Ireland.

Back at the hotel that evening, I stared out at the churning bay. Mulranny is changing again. In 2005, the hotel reopened, obviously, and then the Great Western Greenway was unveiled—a gorgeous 26-mile cycling and walking trail along the path of the old train line, skirting Clew Bay. Lately locals have launched a campaign against light pollution; a town that once celebrated its lights now proudly dims them. Something’s in the air. At one point I stopped into a craft workshop called Gift of Hands. A dozen local women were seated at tables making rugs, jewelry, goat puppets. The proceeds help pay for community projects such as heating the local tourism office. There’s a local tourism office.

Traditionally, my interest in the ups and downs of tiny Irish towns has been limited. Now the ups and downs of everything and everyone had come to obsess me. I thought about places moving backwards; the population falling, not rising; the specific sadness of life not doing what it’s supposed to do. “The world’s more full of weeping than you can understand,” William Butler Yeats wrote. Suddenly I was someone who knew Yeats quotes.

The next morning I’d start driving, heading off somewhere new to burrow deeper. Into what I couldn’t say. Later, improbably, I’d decide megalithic tombs had something important to say about my life. I didn’t recognize myself, but I was propelled. “We are happy when for everything inside us there is a corresponding something outside us.” Yeats again. Whatever was inside me, I thought I’d find its reflection in Ireland.

Outwardly my movements across the west were those of a deranged person. Inwardly, too, I suppose. From Mulranny I meandered northwest a couple hours for no reason but poetry, and a road trip awash in evocative greens. This one green makes you want to draw a hot bath, or drink heavy beer somewhere with a roaring fire. That one somehow calls to mind Sunday football matches you never even played in, next to a church you’ve never seen. Don’t make that face. I didn’t care about green before this, either.

I arrived in Sligo to find a seemingly ordinary Irish town. Here’s the pub, there’s the halal butcher. Old rowboats dot the Garavogue River, KATIE and LIZA and CIARA handpainted on their sides. But look closer and Yeats is everywhere. He wrote about that river! At Eala Bhán, a bistro-like spot in town, you eat under Yeats quotes. He didn’t live in Sligo, but it was his special place; he insisted on being buried here. In front of the bank is a statue not of a general or politician, but Yeats. In turn, he dedicated much of his career to Sligo’s haunting beauty.

The old brown thorn-trees break in two high over Cummen Strand,
Under a bitter black wind that blows from the left hand;
Our courage breaks like an old tree in a black wind and dies.

I was never a Yeats guy. I couldn’t get with the mysticism. His nationalist politics always felt distant to me. He called women shrill. But there’s that one aspect of him that everyone relates to at some point: He was heartbroken. He spent his life pining for Maud Gonne, the actress and revolutionary. She would constitute his broken emotional core from the very first time he laid eyes on her in 1889, when he was 24. She’d just stepped out of a hansom cab.

A view of the rooftops and colorful homes of Sligo.

“Wait right here, I’ll only be an hour,” she told the driver. Yeats was mesmerized. He began writing about her (“The Song of Wandering Aengus” was an early love poem) and never really stopped. They became friends, soul mates even, and exchanged intimate correspondence, but she rejected every proposal, loved other men. He spent his life searching—via spiritualism, séances, a fixation on magic—for something that would help. When she’d finally rejected him for the last time, he proposed to her damn daughter. I tried to grasp a heartsickness that lasted not months or years but decades. Eventually Yeats married another woman. There’s evidence he found happiness with her. But he only ever wrote love poems for Gonne.

I don’t want to overstate my connection to Yeats’s romantic life. His love for Gonne feels adolescent to me now, undercooked. Also, I’m not insane and face neither core sadness nor unrequited love. But I found that if you have even a little heartache, even just the temporary kind, it is impossible not to wonder about a man so consumed and undone by his own heart. So I did what anyone would do: I walked around reading Yeats on my phone, and one brisk night I knocked on the door of Damien Brennan and Paula Gilvarry.

It’s wild, being in a country where poetry matters.

Brennan and Gilvarry are the opposite of Yeats in a way. They’ve been married 36 years, no daughter proposals issued. Still, they spend a good chunk of their time throwing Yeats Evenings: Over the course of an elaborate meal, Brennan tells his guests—five of us that evening—about the poet and reads some of his verse. This happens at their jewel box of a house overlooking Lough Gill, the shimmering lake immortalized by Yeats himself. Brennan’s a wry man with a tight gray ponytail. He owns 125 bow ties. Gilvarry, a retired doctor, is the less flamboyant of the two; her focus on this night was the smoked leg of lamb, the sweet onion and thyme soup. (Did she love Yeats as much as her husband did? He’s OK, she told me. Sort of pompous.)

For three hours Brennan slathered us with Yeats. It’d be hard to overstate his love for the man. He was president of the Yeats Society. His dogs, Georgie and Rico, are named after Yeats’s wife and Gonne’s monkey. Should you need to know how many times Yeats mentions birds over the course of his work, he can tell you: 167. Most of all, the poetry retains its power to knock him over.

“The Sligo landscape still looks like what it looked like for Yeats,” he said as we peered out toward the misty lough. “The other day I took an early walk and thought of those lines from ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’: ‘Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings.’ I was amazed at how precise yet another poem of his was.”

Damien Brennan and his wife, Paula Gilvarry, host Yeats Evenings at their home in Sligo.

It’s wild, being in a country where poetry matters. It’s wilder still being in one where the most important poet was defined by deep, warping sadness. The place and the poet seemed so deeply entwined. Did a municipal Yeatsian sadness course through Sligo, carried on its bitter, black wind?

Poor Ireland, forever indulging the projections of saps like me. Over the next few days, in pubs and by the riverside, I struck up as many conversations as I could, looking for Yeats’s mark. Mostly what I found were joyful, kind people who told funny yarns and then ordered another Guinness. Clever of them, I thought, burying their sorrow in happiness.

In defense of my ridiculousness I will just say this: There exist only two schools of thought on heartache. One, you blast Katrina and the Waves all day until your sadness melts into simple syrup. Two, you embrace that sadness, go so absurdly deep that you pass through to the other side. I’d chosen the latter, or it had chosen me. Turns out the other side can be found 10 minutes outside Sligo.

It was a blustery Tuesday morning and I hadn’t wanted to do anything but carefully monitor the grayness of the river from my room and write emails to my wife in my head. But here I was, tromping across an expanse of grass, craggy mountains all around, wind whipping up from every direction. Welcome to Carrowmore, said the woman with the badge, home to the country’s largest collection of megalithic tombs. I made my best I-know-what-a-megalithic-tomb-is face.

Understanding what happened here means understanding a wildness that dwarfs anything Ireland can muster now, anything Yeats could summon. Bears and wolves roaming the forest—that kind of wildness. For the settlers who arrived some 5,000 years ago, life revolved around basic survival. This led to large rocks.

The tombs don’t leap out at you right away; Ireland’s Stonehenge doesn’t have that clear Stonehenge look. Mostly I saw Volkswagen-size piles of giant stones scattered about this rolling field. Here and there a stone was laid carefully atop others, but nothing requiring an engineering degree, exactly. Then I walked a ways more and suddenly understood why I had come.

Looming at one end of the field was a huge mound of rocks, like something you’d find at a construction site. Walking around its outer edge, I saw that a passageway had been cut into the pile. This was a passage tomb, a corridor of stones leading to a central burial chamber. In I walked, walls of rock stacked higher than my head on either side. In the center was a flat, 15-ton stone, balanced precariously across a framework of smaller stones. What looked like a crude assembly was anything but. Every year on the first and last days of winter, the sun would pass just so through a slit in the rocks, the ray crawling up the back of the chamber until it met perfectly with a corresponding shadow. And every year on these dates, everyone would come here, slogging miles to do so, just to be together for it.


The Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, one of four passage tomb sites in Ireland, dates back to 3700 B.C.

Why? Because they were terrified. Winter meant profound, horrifying uncertainty. Will we go hungry? Will we stay warm? Will my children die before spring? In the face of this doubt they would dance and feast and pray.

That killed me. Imagine that—feeling so uncertain about your future that you somehow drag this unimaginable weight down a mountain, somehow hoist it atop some other stones, somehow grasp astronomy and then, because nothing is assured in this life, you fucking pray. You pray that things will be OK.

I don’t know how long I stood there, gawking at that stupid rock. Long enough to feel something shift in me. A giant sycamore rustled at the edge of the field and I snapped to. I drove back to Sligo. A few days later I drove to Dublin, then flew home.

I’ve been back three weeks and I bring news of the human condition: None of us knows anything. Time works us over. We live largely in the dark, subject to forces beyond our measure or control. But there’s this, too: You can turn things around now and then. The old hotel reopens. The lovesick poet gives it his best shot with the new lady. The cold and frightened summon the strength to hope for the best, and they throw in some freaky solar math to boot.

I’m writing this from a car in California, laptop balanced precariously on my lap, heading home from the beach. Amy’s driving, the kids are jabbering in the back about how cold the water was. Back at the house we’ll pack their lunches for tomorrow, then lie in bed, and I’ll try to explain about where I’ve been, though I might just say it’s complicated, because it is.

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This post originally appeared on Afar and was published February 6, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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