By Emily Dauer
One weekend in late, drizzly January myself and the other members of Declan Kiberd’s Modern Irish Writing class (along with Declan himself) packed into a charter bus and headed across the country to the deep west of Sligo, Ireland to participate in the 22nd Annual Yeats Winter School. Armed with our textbook for the weekend (a small yet comprehensive compilation of W. B. Yeats’ poetry), notebooks, writing utensils, and the youngest minds at the school, we stepped off the bus at the Sligo Park Hotel and were immediately embraced in a bright, slightly eccentric whirlwind of Yeats enthusiasts and scholars from all over Ireland (if not the world). The weekend consisted of readings by and discussions with notable poets Paula Meehan and Theo Dorgan, conversations with other members of the school over generous amounts of tea and other more loquacious liquids, trips into the sloping town and the windy sea/countryside, and master lectures from the keynote speaker of the event—our Declan Kiberd himself. His deeply-considered and provocative insights on Yeats’ life and poetry were met with some surprisingly heated questions, which he answered with the artistic balance of thorough knowledge and sharp wit—a quality particular to those scholars not only trained as critics in the sphere of academia but as professors seasoned in the intellectual trenches of undergraduate classrooms.
One of the most memorable nights was also our last night in Sligo. Our lovely dinner in town unexpectedly ran late, causing us to miss the buzzed-about event of the weekend: a collaboration of Irish poets with Irish musicians and the platform for which some of us had brought poetry to share. Undeterred by circumstance, all the students decided to find a space within the hotel to gather (an auspicious second floor hallway) and hold our own poetry reading. After about fifteen glorious minutes we were shushed back into the lobby, where we ran smack into some of the poets and performers wondering with admonishment why we didn’t attend. Five minutes of explanation later and both Theo Dorgan and Paula Meehan, along with other notable members of the school, decided to spend the entire midnight hour listening to the writing of the students that remained: our scraps of poetry written months or minutes earlier, our nascent artistic expression. I have never before been a part of something where the level of vulnerability shown was met with an equal level of undivided, genuine attention from titans in that field—an experience that I cannot describe with justice except to say it will stick with me for longer than I realize.
Looking back, I feel astonishingly lucky that our class trek out to Sligo happened in one of the beginning weekends of the semester. The intimate groundwork laid in those four remarkable days is still unmistakable within relationships between the students that were there and each of us to Ireland: its countryside, its people, and its poets.