I’ve enjoyed W B Yeats’ poems since I was a teenager, and recently I’ve been reading more about his magical life and his ambitions to found a mystical order based on the sacred places and spirits of Ireland. So I decided to try and write something about one of his poems, and in the process find out a little bit about how Yeats saw things. The poem is called The Hosting of the Sidhe, and before we go any further, we need to know that ‘Sidhe’, which is an Irish word for faeries or otherworld spirits, is pronounced ‘Shee’. Yeats writes about the Sidhe in his notes on the poem:
“The gods of ancient Ireland, the Tuatha De Danaan, or the Tribes of the goddess Danu, or the Sidhe, from Aes Sidhe, or Sluagh Sidhe, the people of the Faery Hills, as these words are usually explained, still ride the country as of old. Sidhe is also Gaelic for wind, and certainly the Sidhe have much to do with the wind. […] When the country people see the leaves whirling on the road they bless themselves, because they believe the Sidhe to be passing by.” 
The Celtic Mystical Order
William Butler Yeats was deeply involved in esoteric work for most of his life. He was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, joining it around 1887 when it was first formed, and staying with it and its daughter organisation Stella Matutina for over 35 years. Ritual and inner work was a central part of his life and poetry, and one of his aims was to found an Celtic Mystical Order, involving the old gods of Ireland.
In his autobiography, Yeats talks about his plan to form a mystical Order at the Castle of the Rock in Lough Key:
“I planned a mystical Order which should buy or hire the castle, and keep it as a place where its members could retire for a while for contemplation, and where we might establish mysteries like those of Eleusis and Samothrace; and for ten years to come my most impassioned thought was a vain attempt to find philosophy and to create ritual for that Order.” Yeats thought that this philosophy would “turn our places of beauty or legendary association into holy symbols. I did not think this philosophy would be altogether pagan, for it was plain that its symbols must be selected from all those things that had moved men most during many, mainly Christian, centuries.” 
His rituals were to be made “by that method Mathers [of the Golden Dawn] had explained to me, and with this hope I plunged without a clue into a labyrinth of images, …”
Castle Rock in Lough Key
Yeats worked on this project with his uncle George Pollexfen, who was also a member of the Golden Dawn, and Yeats also brought together a group who used astral travelling to help him get a better idea of the functions of the old Irish gods. This group included Golden Dawn members Dorothea Butler and her husband Edmund, uncle George Pollexfen, the Mathers and Annie Horniman; as well as some acquaintances of Yeats’ who were not in the Golden Dawn. 
As a child, Yeats spent many summers in Sligo on the West Coast of Ireland, where his mother’s family lived. When Yeats began working on the Celtic Order, he spent a lot of time there with his Uncle George Pollexfen. In his autobiography, Yeats talks about a period where the two of them and Pollexfen’s second-sighted servant, Mary Battle, shared a kind of joint ‘dreaming’. Yeats would use symbols or images ‘learned from Mathers’ to start reveries and they would share visions:
“We never began our work until George’s old servant was in her bed; and yet, when we went upstairs to our beds, we constantly heard her crying out with nightmare, and in the morning we would find that her dream echoed our vision. One night, started by what symbol I forget, we had seen an allegorical marriage of Heaven and Earth. When Mary Battle brought in the breakfast next morning, I said, ‘Well, Mary, did you dream anything last night?’ and she replied (I am quoting from an old notebook) ‘indeed she had’, and that it was ‘a dream she would not have liked to have had twice in one night’. She had dreamed that her bishop, the Catholic bishop of Sligo, had gone away ‘without telling anybody’, and had married ‘a very high-up lady, and she not too young, either’. She had thought in her dream ‘Now all the clergy will get married, and it will be no use going to confession’. There were ‘layers upon layers of flowers, many roses. all around the church’.” 
Places in the Poem: Knocknarea
In the poem, the Sidhe are riding from Knocknarea (Cnoc na Riabh), which is a thousand foot mountain located about 4 miles west of Sligo Town. At the summit is a large mound (or cairn) of loose stones called Meascan Meadhbha – Meave’s Cairn. It is the largest unopened cairn in Ireland and is thought to conceal a neolithic passage tomb dating back to 3,000 BC. Yeats says of it: “The country people say that Maeve, still a great queen of the western Sidhe, is buried in the cairn of stones.”
From Knocknarea can be seen other sites such as Croaghaun Mountain, Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery, and Cairns Hill. Carrowmore passage tomb cemetery is located at the eastern foot of Knocknarea. There’s more information and pictures of the Knocknarea on the SligoTown website, and of course Wikipedia.
Knocknarea Mountain, by Willie Duffin
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
Maeve’s Grave by Bob Embleton
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Places in the Poem: The Grave of Clooth-na-Bare
The other place mentioned in the poem is the grave of Clooth-na-Bare. Yeats writes:
“I have written of Clooth-na-Bare in The Celtic Twilight. She “went all over the world, seeking a lake deep enough to drown her faery life, of which she had grown weary, leaping from hill to hill, and setting up a cairn of stones wherever her feet lighted, until, at last, she found the deepest water in the world in little Lough Ia, on the top of the bird mountain, in Sligo.” I forget, now, where I heard this story, but it may have been from a priest at Collooney. Clooth-na-Bare would mean the old woman of Bare, but is evidently a corruption of Cailleac Bare, the old woman of Bare, who, under the names Bare, and Berah, and Beri, and Verah, and Dera, and Dhira, appears in the legends of many places.” 
An Cailleach Bhéara – the old woman of Beare – is an important figure in Irish and Scottish folklore, often linked to mountainous places and winter. There is a good description of the Cailleach on a webpage about the Loughcrew Passage Tomb Complex in County Meath. It begins:
“This hoary figure may have had her origins in the Celtic goddess Buí, the Old Irish word for cow, and perhaps the origin of the other Irish sovereignty goddess, the River Boyne. The most striking feature of An Cailleach Bhéara was her unfathomably long life span. It was said of her “she passed into seven periods of youth, so that every husband used to pass to death from her, of old age, so that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were peoples and races.”
Here’s a 2007 short film animation about An Cailleach Bhéara – definitely worth a watch!
An article by Pádraig Meehan identifies the locations mentioned in Yeats’ notes. The lake on bird mountain is Lough Dha Ghe, the lake of two geese, beside Sliabh Deane (Sliabh dha Éan, the mountain of two birds). These places are in the Ballygawley mountains, a few miles south of Sligo Town. Meehan finds that when viewed from Carrowmore, the Ballygawley Mountains “assume a profile reminiscent of a pregnant recumbent female; the Cailleach Bhérra of local folklore”.
The Sligo Walks website describes a walk from Ballygawley village to Slieve Daeane, and mentions that “Legend has it that the passage tomb located on the hills of Slieve Dargan above the Sligo Way is the final resting place of the Hag of Beara, who lost her magical powers after she drowned in the ‘bottomless’ Lough Dagae.” Presumably this is the tomb.
Personages in the Poem
Two members of the Sidhe host are mentioned in the poem by name:
Caoilte (pronounced “Keel-cha”) was a nephew of Fionn mac Cumhail and a member of the fianna in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. He could run at remarkable speed and communicate with animals, and was a great storyteller.
Niamh (pronounced “Neev”) is the daughter of the god of the sea, Manannán mac Lir and one of the queens of Tír na nÓg, the land of eternal youth. She was the lover of the poet-hero Oisín.
The Hosting Of The Sidhe
The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing ‘twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.
W.B. Yeats (1865–1939). The Wind Among the Reeds. 1899.
Riders of the Sidhe, 1911 By John Duncan (MerlinPrints.com)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
 Autobiographies, W B Yeats, Macmillan Press, 1980, p. 254
 George Pollexfen in the Golden Dawn: http://www.wrightanddavis.co.uk/GD/POLLEXFEN.htm
 Autobiographies, p. 260
 Yeats’ Notes on The Hosting of the Sidhe http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/yeats/lpy/lpy167.htm