Sunday, 22 July 2012

Plath, Coole Park and the autograph tree.

Sylvia Plath led an extraordinary life - travelling to many places - and reading, writing, enjoying her way through these experiences. As an Irish person, it is with great pride that I read about Plath's love for Ireland, "my happiness was compounded of the sailing, the fishing, the sea, and the kind people..." (461, Letters Home). Plath was fascinated by the poetry of W.B. Yeats and was a voracious reader of Joyce, Beckett, MacNeice, among many others. In turn, Plath's poetry has been a font of inspiration for many Irish poets. Dr. Maria Johnston from TCD has written an interesting paper on Plath's impact on Irish poetry, ranging from Seamus Heaney to Meabh McGuickian. The essay was published in Plath Profiles and you can click here to read it.

Sylvia Plath's trip to Ireland in September 1962 was against the backdrop of marital disintegration. The trip, taken with Ted Hughes, ended in confusion. Hughes left Plath in Connemara under the guise of going fishing with a friend. In reality, he went to spend time with Assia Wevill. So, while Plath did enjoy her time on our green Isle, I can only imagine it must have been a very confusing and hurtful time for her. The Irish Independent had an interesting (if a little factually inaccurate) piece on Plath's Ireland trip, for those interested in reading the specifics. In brief summary, Plath and Hughes spent time in Cleggan, outside of Galway City with fellow poet Richard Murphy. Cleggan is a beautiful, but remote part of the world. Murphy was working as a skipper, running a boat across from Cleggan to Inishbofin island. Plath and Hughes stayed in Cleggan, visited Inishbofin and took in some of the surrounding sights and sounds of the West of Ireland. I have not made it over to Inishbofin personally, but I do know that many people go over for the music and craic. Irish singer-songwriter Gemma Hayes has cited it as an important place of inspiration for her music.

This Friday past, I went down to Killarney, Co. Kerry with my Dad.We were heading south to watch out county GAA team play arch-rivals, Kerry. The trip from our home to Killarney is upwards of 6 hours, so we took our time and tried to enjoy the road. About half-way through the journey, I saw a road-sign for Gort and badgered my poor father to make a pit-stop on the outskirts of the town. Gort is famous for two things: it is the site of W.B. Yeats's Thoor Ballylee house, and also Coole Park: once the home of Irish literary revival pioneer, Lady Augusta Gregory. As fate would have it, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes visited these sites in 1962, tracing the Yeats legacy themselves!

Because we were pressed for time, I was only able to stop at one location and I choose Coole Park. I chose it especially because of the autograph tree. I knew that on their trip to Coole, Plath urged Hughes to climb up the railings surrounding a tree located within the Coole Park walled garden. This tree is filed with the engravings of famous Irish authors. So sure was Plath of Hughes's genius, she believed he should carve his name into the beech bark. Peter Steinberg thinks he can spy the elusive initials, but ever the cynic, I'm not too sure if I saw them. The beech tree is covered with moss in parts, making it difficult to identify actual initials. Someone (yes, I'm volunteering here) should really be offered a job tracing the entire trunk and trying to identify the who's who of the autograph tree. Take a look at my pictures and see if you can spy a "TH" or even an "EJH." Personally I think "SP" would have been most welcome at Coole Park! 

It really was a wonderful visit to Coole Park, and something I would recommend to anyone who has the opportunity to visit Ireland. Literary pilgrimages are quite popular within the world of us Plathies, probably because Plath wrote so much and felt so strongly about the trips she made. Gail Crowther has explored the "connectedness" of Plath pilgrimages in two very interesting essays (complete with photos), 'The Wild Beauty I Found There' and 'The Playfulness of Time'. I have experienced a lot of the same thoughts Crowther dissects in her essays: particularly when I was in Northampton. Each evening I would walk around Child's Park and think of Plath and her poem, and all the poems she wrote when she was at Smith. I often wondered if the other park-walkers considered Plath, and was I being weird, superimposing myself into Plath's shoes and memories - allowing my thoughts to go to places I could never get to, because I did not know Sylvia Plath and I will never get into her mind.

This mixture of feeling goes to show how much emotion Plath the person and Plath the writer inspires in us all, I think. And I love going to places where I know she has been, because it is a respectful homage. Gail Crowther notes her lack of connectivity with Plath when in Connacht. She writes, "How could you be so absent? You, who I was always connected to in some way or another, why could I not feel you here? I had read a detailed account of your stay written by your host. And then it dawned on me. I had read nothing that you had written. Your journals from this time were destroyed. When you have been silenced, I feel nothing. When I cannot hear your voice, you are invisible, as if you had never existed at all" (36, Plath Profiles 1). While I do understand where Crowther is coming from, in some respects I find myself closer to Plath in Ireland than anywhere else. Maybe it's because I'm from Ireland and when I go to the coast, I feel rejuvenated and free, connected to my soul at it's most deepest. But I think a greater part of me is able to connect with Plath in Ireland because of the literary silence. We as human beings can feel so many different things, all at once, over and over. Words cannot ever fully describe our emotions. The imposed silence - Plath's burned journals - in a way frees us to look at the surroundings and think about how we feel about them, and then how we think Plath might. When we critique her journal entries, we impose our own supposes and exaggerations anyways. Perhaps sometimes the silence can give breathing room to look at the bare essentials, the items that change little through time (trees, landscapes) and use those as solid lynchpins to connect to Plath. I digress!

Really, Coole Park is a beautiful place, entwined with a rich Irish literary history. I hope Plath had a nice time visiting. I gave her a respectful nod while at the autograph tree. Just a little extra information: Coole Park is not just home to this famous tree. There is a wonderful exhibition centre with very helpful and friendly staff. The park also has cute tea rooms, stables and gardens; with the remains of Big House finery providing an interesting insight to Ireland and her troubled past. After Lady Gregory died, the house fell into a state of disrepair under the Free State government, perhaps highlighting the often uneasy tensions between the Big House, Anglo-Irish writers and the Irish Catholic population. Sadly, the lack of public funding to keep Big Houses running has seen the dilapidation of many richly historic sites, such as Lissadell House (home of the Gore-Booths - more Yeats muses!); but hopefully someday soon the economic climate will begin to get better and the Irish government will wake up and realise that these time-capsules of days gone by, fine literature and intellect are slipping away from us and need investment/tourist promotion! To finish what has become a mammoth blog entry, here are some more pictures of the beautiful Coole Park estate.

The grassy plinth-type object in the distance of this photograph is where Coole Park should stand today. It was "actively demolished" in 1941.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Thank you for this! I have a friend who went recently, and it is nice to compare photos. It feels ALMOST like I've been there now!

Rehan Qayoom said...

...Ireland, where for over two thousand years the master-poet was also the historian, doctor, musician, magician, prophet, Chief Justice and Counsellor to the King - and ranked high above soldiers and sailors.

(Robert Graves. 'Address to the Poets of Hungary'. Budapest, 1970. In Difficult Questions, Easy Answers. 1972 & Collected Writings on Poetry. Edited by Paul O'Prey. Carcanet, 1995. 537).

Zoƫ said...

Maeve this was beautiful to read, I particularly like how you spoke of feeling closer to Plath in Ireland because of those silences - those burned journals. I must make the visit to Coole Park soon, I particularly appreciate the Lissadell House link. I'm afraid that I cannot see that opening again in the near future. When the govt were presented with the opportunity of buying it they were more concerned with economic/building growth and look where that's landed us.

The Plath Diaries said...

So glad you all liked the comment!

@Julia - Happy to add to your growing collection of Coole Park photos! :) Are you attending the Plath Symposium this October in Bloomington? I will be! Would love to make your acquaintance!

@Rehan - As always, you have a quote for every occasion, haha :)

@Zoe - Glad you liked, Zoe. I really feel that when you look at how these historic buildings are being treated, it is clear to see that there's something wrong with our society. The poetry of Yeats will be read in hundreds of years from now, long after the memory of this recession has passed over. What kind of legacy are we leaving for future generations when somewhere like Coole Park (a place that was in existence in our grandparents lifetimes) has been demolished and Lissadell is left to rot. So upsetting.

red-handed said...

How could these places not be grand, and sad, and lovely?

The Plath Diaries said...


koralimba said...

This was such an interesting post to read, Maeve. I will have to try and get to Coole Park once day. We considered the name Eva for our baby - I have always loved it because of Eva Gore-Booth. Hope your studies are going well, Lisa.

Anonymous said...

Do you know how it got the name Coole Park?