James Ruggia | June 19, 2015 3:18 PM ET
A Year for Lyrics and Lighthouses in Ireland
About 70 working lighthouses lie along the coast of Ireland, even though technology has all but rendered them obsolete in the practice of maritime safety. A new tourism initiative, the Great Lighthouses of Ireland, is throwing a lifeline to these beautiful structures so that they can survive this impatient century. After all, towers looking out on the sea have a provenance in Ireland that reaches back centuries to the days when the monks of the West Coast prayed for storms strong enough to keep the Vikings at home.
When you wander the stony landscape of the Burren in County Clare, you come across the ruins of old stone towers built by those monks. It’s easy to imagine the brothers scurrying up their ladders to the second story doorways of the towers to escape the onslaught of marauding Vikings with their two-headed axes.
Next Friday, lovers of author J.R.R. Tolkien will gather in the Burren for the Tolkien Festival. The Burren inspired some of the settings of Middle Earth including the Poll na Gollum Cave, in which he first imagined the unctuous Gollum, whom Peter Jackson manufactured using computer animation for his Tolkien films.
This year, Tourism New Zealand bids a tearful farewell to the franchise of Jackson’s Hobbit films. Those films drove New Zealand tourism for more than a decade, a business that still simmers with travelers looking to walk in the footsteps of Gandalf at Hobbitton, the North Island set where Jackson did much of the filming.
This year Ireland is celebrating a real wizard, William Butler Yeats, on his 150th anniversary. Born on June 13, 1865, Yeats wrote lines that burn with the acid patience and care of a crafting genius. His best poetry reads like the last articulation of the Druids; as if Merlin himself was looking out from Galway’s Ballylee Tower, where Yeats did so much of his greatest writing.
Maybe Yeats, who believed in spirits, will be spotted in the “bee-loud glade” by travelers wandering the Lake Isle of Innisfree this year. In its tourism promotions, County Sligo calls itself “Yeats Country,” and so it is. It took mythic Irish landscapes such as Sligo’s, with its Stone and Iron Age ruins to nurture a vision like Yeats’. Maeve, the Iron Age Queen of Connaught who became the source for the legends of Queen Mab, the Fairy Queen, still haunts those ruins.
Yeats himself was laid to rest in a churchyard on Table Mountain in the Sligonian village of Drumcliffe. Dublin and Galway were also important for Yeats as were London and Sussex, where he worked closely with his secretary, the young Ezra Pound in the famous Stone Cottage.
Ireland is a land where poetry and storytelling seem to come naturally. It’s a place where many go just to engage in conversation. A highly ornate literacy is common even among Ireland’s non-writers. Modern Irish writers have made Dublin a home to literature just as another age of composers made Vienna a home to music. Yeats became Ireland’s first Nobel laureate in 1923. Dublin, a UNESCO City of Literature, is home to three more: George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney as well as some writers without the Swedish prize including Oscar Wilde, Jonathon Swift and James Joyce, to name just a few.
In April, Tourism Ireland came to another storytelling medium when it launched an advertising campaign in partnership with HBO to showcase Northern Ireland’s Game of Thrones film locations. Dragon eggs and three-eyed ravens popped up in Belfast and other places on top of old-fashioned wooden signs to point the way to where the series is filmed. It should be no mystery as to why HBO chose Ireland as a backdrop for the ruthless war lords, wicked witches, giants, dragons and white walker armies of Westeros. Ireland looks so mythological because so much of the mythic realm that’s conjured up in Thrones was originally imagined in Ireland.
Even as travelers tell tourism’s marketing pollsters that they seek authentic experience, they continue to flock to where movie fantasies are filmed. It’s not an either/or proposition, as both kinds of attractions do well.
The Yeats promotion, like the lighthouse promotion, carries on Tourism Ireland’s recent emphasis on the country’s authentic character and characters. Last year, the world turned its eye toward the wilds of Ireland and the wildly successful Wild Atlantic Way, which helped attract some 8.6 million overseas visitors to Ireland and about €4.26 billion.
Like the Irish lighthouses, Irish literary genius has been shining a beacon for generations. At a time when modern technology threatens the relevance of lighthouses and literature, you sort of hope efforts like Tourism Ireland’s can help keep both relevant in this new busy hand-held century of ours.
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