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NPR Arts & Life

In A One-Room Schoolhouse, Irish Family Keeps Legacy Of W.B. Yeats Alive

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're about to hear a long dead poet come to life. William Butler Yeats was born in Ireland 150 years ago this week. People in Ireland are celebrating his birthday with public readings and festivals. In County Galway, far from the big cities, NPR's Ari Shapiro visited an old one-room schoolhouse. He met a passionate nun who has created a small museum to the hometown poet.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: On a country road in far western Ireland, a squat stone building sits surrounded by lilacs and farmers' fields. Inside, Sister Mary de Lourdes Fahy is the guardian of local history.

Hello.

SISTER MARY DE LOURDES FAHY: Welcome. You've come from Ballylee?

SHAPIRO: Surrounded by books and photographs, Sister Fahy looks like a historian or a teacher as much as a nun. She's actually all of those. The first time she walked into this building was 1942. She was 5 years old.

FAHY: My first introduction to Yeats' poetry was here in this room where the only Yeats poem we learned was "The Lake Isle Of Innisfree," which he wrote in his younger days and which is beautiful.

SHAPIRO: Can you recite any of that poem?

FAHY: I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree, a small cabin built there of clay and wattles made.

SHAPIRO: Fahy helped transform this one-room schoolhouse into the Kiltartan Gregory Museum, named for one of Yeats' patrons. Local history is Fahy's passion, and that's one reason she's so devoted to Yeats. Many of his poems capture the paths and the people of this exact place.

FAHY: One of Yeats' most famous poems is "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death." Two of the best known lines in that poem are, my country is Kiltartan Cross, my countrymen Kiltartan's poor. You are now standing at Kiltartan Cross.

SHAPIRO: Fahy was too young to know Yeats personally. Her father and her uncle farmed the land nearby in the early 1900s. Sometimes they would give the poet rides into town on their horse-drawn cart. Fahy says Yeats rarely thanked them or even said hello.

FAHY: He was kind of in another world, like, you know, composing. That was one side of Yeats. I'm giving Yeats, warts and all - OK.

SHAPIRO: She says maybe if he were an ordinary person, his poems would not have been so extraordinary.

FAHY: Yeats regarded poetry as a form of music, and so it is.

SHAPIRO: It seemed when you read just now "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," that even after having read that poem, I'm sure hundreds of times, it still moved you.

FAHY: It did. It did. I felt he was talking about my own people.

SHAPIRO: The people of Kiltartan did not conquer empires or colonize far-flung lands, but thanks to William Butler Yeats, they are now known around the world. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, County Galway, Ireland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.