Sandbagging Yeats’ tower: finding the uncaged bird

enter the sacred grounds

– Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society

Midwinter and the Streamstown River runs fast but within its banks. Sandbagged, the doors are prepared and the sun is not long up. Jackdaws own all they can. A jogger and an old dog go to and fro. We’ll stay outside “the grounds” but get as close as we can. Retain our independence, not getting caught up in anything but moss, leafless trees, fields, stone, road.

Or maybe walk away, up the narrow road, leave it all behind. The fields are sodden and the moss heavy on roadside branches, but it’s all bare and the soil is washed away. An oncoming tractor forces us into the gutter-stream, wet to the ankles. What is it we’re trying to connect with? We can make no claims.

It’s not the ghost of the poet or his sad wife in the tower by the rushing water that we are looking for: sensation, awareness, presence. No, that’s circumstantial. It’s a bird, a rare bird we are hoping to spot to rewrite the truth of being there. We are searching for the ageless bird that opened its own cage and now opens the cages of other birds. The uncaging bird that won’t be trapped in a bird guide or a poem. No wren to be stuck onto the end of a pole. It is not a decoration, not a statistic or part of a survey. It is pure birdness as a cage is pure cageness.

Each sandbag to protect the tower from flooding is a sealing-in, though a door can be opened inwards and the bags stepped over, but we will have to pile them over the doorframe during the flooding of the world when the bird will fly and fly looking for landfall, departing from the peak of the tower, denying even a faint memory of the cage. It will be finished with cages for good, even if there’s nowhere left to perch… only water that it might float on for a while before growing sodden and going under. It’s not a waterbird, but fully understands the consequences of water. It will have no regrets. Some fates are much better than a cage bound to the immortality of a poet.

She didn’t want to be trapped in there with him, someone said in an ear. My ear, your ear. And then the conversation switched around to matter-of-fact details, like where to get fuel. The bird would say they are now forever entwined and there’s no way out of the loop.

What are we conserving here? This past, remodelled in its present for the future, as if posterity was all that mattered. Who said that, as we were shunted off the road into the ditch, the mud flinging from the rear wheels of the tractor, the gradual spread of fields? Each revolution of a big clodded wheel says, life goes on. You’d think it was mockery, but someone is keeping the accounts back in the farmhouse and a lost key to the bureau will mean it will have to be broken open, just as matter-of-fact as fixing a computer fried by lightning. Or losing all those manuscripts that were never backed up.

The bird overflies the overlaps: it’s not then and now, it says... no, it’s all of a flow you let loose long ago... it’s why you’re all so obsessed with ancestry, with sorting out where you began... you’d think you’d take responsibility when you get back to your beginnings, but no... as for myself, the only trace of my great-great-great-great-great grandmother’s tail feathers is in a glass case in a museum of natural history.

That jogger, that dog. They slow as they come into your ambit, which is their ambit. You’ve stepped away as far as possible. The river is rising and the sandbags will be called upon. There’s no going in, no perusing the tower – the Thoor. No following the uncaged bird with our eyes as if we’re free, too. The door is barred and the jogger and the dog have slowed to a crawl. The dog is sniffing around us, strongly suggesting we shouldn’t be there. Any of us. This is not the season and the river is flowing fast. It will not stay within its banks. We’ll stay outside, don’t worry, and will soon be moving on. Sooner rather than later. Migrating south.

One of us suggests quoting some lines, some tower-apt lines, some echoes of recovery and realignment that aren’t Anglo-Norman apologias. We know our heritage, even if we’re not the types to pay homage. The dog is pissing on the sandbags, the jogger is sniffing the cold air and studying a small patch of grey sky. We guess they are looking for the bird. It seems almost offensive that we know where the bird has gone when we’ve only been on the scene for such a brief time. The tractor is sludging away in the field over the rocks, past the thin ribbon of trees. A puff of diesel exhaust rises and is a clattering of jackdaws, then it isn’t. We are sure the bird is not a jackdaw. The puff of smoke is the cage, we are sure of that. We look back over shoulders to the vehicle we arrived in, the vehicle we intend to depart in. We are hoping the dog won’t savage us, the jogger won’t attack us, the tractor won’t bury us. We have no reason to think this could or would happen, but there are no other visitors at this time of year – it’s as if, closed up and sandbagged, there’s nothing to visit. But we only visit in off-seasons.

How close to home can we come? The uncaged bird says we are its canaries in the coalmine. One of us says there’s a coalmine in Tipperary and it replies: the motorway’s only a stone’s throw away, that Whitegate refinery is down in county Cork. The jogger and the dog clearly want us gone, want to resume their exercise without having to think about extraneous details beyond the inevitable rising of the river, its breaking of banks. Even the outbuildings are prepared. There’s no need for us to stay and lend a hand. Our help and words are unwanted. Unnecessary.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 21, 2023 as "Sandbagging Yeats’ tower: finding the uncaged bird".

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