Ambassador Opening Speech

Speech by Dominick Chilcott, the British Ambassador to Ireland, when opening my "Into the Twilight - the Landscape of WB Yeats" exhibition.

Hyde Bridge Gallery, Sligo 
11th March 2015

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to be in Sligo for this important occasion, the opening of 'Into the twilight - the landscape of WB Yeats', which, as you will see, is an exhibition of black and white photographs of the landscape of WB Yeats' favourite county by the renowned photographer, Ciaran McHugh.

It is a great pleasure to be here in the Hyde Bridge Gallery in Sligo's Yeats Memorial Building.

I hope to return to Sligo in June when, partly through the sponsorship of the British Council, all four of the national poets of the United Kingdom will be coming here for Yeats' day, to take part in the celebrations of the life and works of the author of so many great poems.

As far as anyone knows, that will be the first time that the UK’s four national poets have been together in the same place, which in itself shows the very high esteem in which Yeats is held in the United Kingdom.

It is rather humbling to be invited to say a few words this evening and officially to open Ciaran’s exhibition. For I am neither a Yeats scholar nor an expert on photography.  But I suspect that I share with many of us gathered here a love of poetry, its language and images, a love of landscape too and a great appreciation of the skill involved in capturing that landscape photographically.

Great photographs are, of course, much more than a simple reproduction of a momentary image on the surface of one's retina.  At its best, photography communicates to us on an emotional level, conveying and provoking feelings and sentiment about its subject matter. It is not a mere, cold blooded, objective thing.

Good photography should be able to surprise us, most obviously by making us look at the world in a new way. The camera does not lie, anymore than poetry lies. And like poetry, the camera embellishes and enriches our experience of living in the world. Black and white photography is particular powerful in this regard. For it presents pictures of the world to us that are different from the coloured world that we see in the normal scheme of things. Not being distracted by colour, our minds find significance in other things that might otherwise have been overlooked.

Portraits of people often seem to tell us more about their subjects when rendered in black and white than in colour. We seem better to understand their personalities; our imaginations are able to penetrate deeper under the skin. Similarly for landscape. We may lose the beauty of the greens and yellows and blues around us. But black and white enables us to see the details of the natural world in a way that can attach to them more meaning. I am sure you will agree that Ciaran’s photographs achieve all this and more.

It is very fitting that WB Yeats should have inspired Ciaran. As you will know better than I do, Yeats believed we inhabited two different but interconnected worlds - the world of our senses and the world beyond our understanding.

It is not going too far to suggest that Ciaran’s black and white photographs, as they are not simple reproductions of the world as we see it, offer us an insight into what this parallel other world might be like by providing a different perspective, filter and focus on otherwise familiar places.  As Ciaran says himself, he hopes this collection of photographs can, in a small way, help people refocus on the familiar landscapes we are immersed in and take a fresh look at the different interconnected worlds around us.

Ladies and gentlemen, as you know the earth has orbited the sun 150 times since William Butler Yeats was born. And to mark this significant anniversary, the country is celebrating for the whole of 2015 the life and works of Ireland's national poet. Although he was born in Dublin and spent much of his youth in London, Yeats was clear where his spiritual home was. And it lay here in Sligo. He spent his childhood holidays here. His mother, Susan Pollexfen, came from a wealthy merchant family from Sligo town.  As a young poet, Yeats came to think of this area as his spiritual home. Its landscape became over time, both literally and symbolically his 'country of the heart'.
'I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:

You will recognise the opening lines of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'. The poem was written in London in 1888 when Yeats was 23 years old.  

The inspirational spark for the poem was Yeats hearing a little tinkle of water and seeing a fountain in a shop window in Fleet Street, which made him think of lake water and of a particular lake, full of islands, that he remembered from childhood, and in particular a little islet called Innisfree, with a rocky centre covered in bushes to where he had dreamed, as a child, of rowing and building a wooden hut and listening at night to the ripple of water and quivering of the bushes.

Yeats' longing for such a pastoral idyll, while living in the smoke and bustle of London, is not difficult to understand. The Lake Isle of Innisfree may be the most famous example of the landscape of this county influencing Yeats' poetry but it is, of course, far from being the only one.
A year or so ago, on a first visit to Sligo, Damian Brennan, now the President of the Yeats Society Sligo, very kindly took me on a guided tour of Yeats country, stopping at various points to read me the poems inspired by different places along our route.  It was a delightful way to spend a morning and a wonderful way to introduce the county to a newcomer . The mix of Sligo's stunningly beautiful landscape and Yeats' elegant mastery of language and image was utterly compelling, indeed somewhat magical.

Someone who unfortunately can't be here is Senator Susan O'Keefe, the Chair of Yeats2015.  She sent me a very nice note, which I would like to acknowledge, regretting not being able to be present at Ciaran McHugh's exhibition. He is a wonderful photographer, she wrote, and his collection is inspiring.  Alas, the exigencies of the banking inquiry detain her in Dublin.  In addition to Damian Brennan and Susan O'Keefe, I should also like to mention Ian Kennedy, the manager of the Yeats building.  I understand that the lion's share of the work - other than that undertaken by the artist himself - in putting together the exhibition has been done by Mr Brennan, Mr Kennedy and their staff and colleagues.  On everyone's behalf, may I say thank you to all of them.

Ladies and gentlemen, Yeats was not just a poet with deep connections to Sligo. He was a pillar of the literary establishments in both Ireland and Britain as well as being one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. His work forms a central part of the English literature A level - or leaving certificate - syllabus in Britain. In 1923, as you know, he became the first Irishman to win the Nobel prize for literature. The Nobel committee described his work as 'inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form, gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation'.

Indeed, Yeats' own interest in Irish history and in nationalism had a profound effect on his poetry and, in return, his explorations of Irish identity had a significant influence on the creation of Ireland's own sense of itself.  As Professor Roy Foster of Oxford University, who wrote the two volume biography of Yeats that looks accusingly at me from the bookshelf in my embassy office, said: 'Napoleon's dictum that to understand the man you have to know what was happening in he world when he was twenty is manifestly true of WB Yeats'. To that I might add, and to understand what moves him spiritually and emotionally, you need to know the landscape in which he lived, physically and in his imagination.

This exhibition, through the skill of Ciaran McHugh's work behind the lens, fuses together the man, his poetry and philosophy, and the place, Sligo, that was dearest to his heart.

It is a very worthy contribution to the calendar of events celebrating WB Yeats in the 150th anniversary of his birth. I am honoured to have been invited to the Hyde Bridge Gallery this evening and, with the greatest of pleasure, I now declare this exhibition officially open.

Thank you.

Ambassador Dominick Chilcott