POETRY IN MOTION
Damien Brennan is a witty expert on Yeats, Paula Gilvarry is a superb cook, so, pooling their talents, they use their wonderful home to introduce visitors to our national poet. Edited by Mary O’Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
Damien Brennan and Paula Gilvarry live in a house with the most stunning views. Lucky them, you might say, but most likely you would also add that so do many other people; after all, Ireland is blessed with gorgeous lakes, mountains, rivers and forests.
But Damien and Paula’s aspect is extra special; they live in Sligo, within spitting distance of both Lough Gill and Benbulben, and the view from their lofty living room contains the locations and inspiration of four of William Butler Yeats’s early poems. “That’s the hazel wood out there; remember, ‘I went out to the hazel wood/Because a fire was in my head’, from the poem,
says Damien, going on to explain the other poems as he points out different elements of the landscape outside his window. “That’s Dooney Rock, as in ‘When I play on my fiddle in Dooney’; and see there, where the mountain dips down into the lake? That is ‘Where dips the rocky highland/ Of Sleuth Wood in the lake’, from
Innisfree is just around the corner,” he finishes proudly.
Damien has had a lifelong interest in Yeats. Although he’s from Dublin, he spent all his childhood holidays in this very spot in Sligo, and also had
of Wandering Aengus?” Stolen Child. The song The
inspirational teachers — Jill Noone and Father Tom Dooley — who ignited in him a love of Yeats. However, it wasn’t until three years ago that he and Paula decided to capitalise on their incredible location and Damien’s vast knowledge of the poet. These days, the couple run the Yeats Experience, which involves regular Yeats lunches, dinners and even tours, but they had a whole other life before Yeats took over their thoughts and their home.
Damien is a flamboyant dresser — olive-green trousers, a green-and-white striped shirt and a green-and-red spotty bow tie would be everyday wear for him — and he’d be hard put to pick the right bow tie, as he has a collection of 125. So it’s difficult to believe that he was once prepared to spend his life in black. “I studied for the priesthood with the Marists for three years,” Damien explains, adding that he left for a year, then came back again, but after a further 12 months, he left for good. “As one of my superiors put it, ‘A vocation is an invitation from God, you can accept, or you can decline with grace’,” Damien notes, adding that he declined.
It’s obvious from the way he speaks of the Marists that he doesn’t regret the experience; in fact, he is enriched by it, adding that he made friends for life during his days in the seminary. “His friendship with those men is such that if we were in trouble, one of them would always turn up to help,” Paula, who’s a doctor, notes.
After the seminary, Damien got a job in the Sligo Park Hotel, and two years later, in 1978, he opened a pub of his own, called Beezies, which became the happening place in Sligo.
Paula, who’s from a medical family in Castlebar — her father and two sisters are also doctors — was a house doctor in Sligo General at the time, and she shared a house with Damien’s sister, Susan, a physiotherapist. The girls, of course, had to go in and check out Beezies, and that’s where the couple met.
However, Damien was a bit slow off the blocks. “I met him in May, 1979. We started going out in June; I went to England in July. I came back a couple of times, and then on New Year’s Eve of 1980, I rang him up and proposed to him. He said he’d think about it. Three days later, he rang me back,” Paula says with a laugh. The marriage is still going strong 36 years later.
The pub didn’t last, for various reasons. Damien got out of that business, and then went into selling catering equipment.
Paula went into community medicine and has had a long career as a doctor, but she also adores cooking, and in 1985, the couple opened a restaurant in Rosses Point, which was a huge success; it was called Reveries, after Yeats’s autobiography,
In 1988, when the EuroToques movement was started in Ireland by Myrtle Allen, Paula’s reputation was such that even though she practiced medicine by day, she was one of the first to be invited to join, as she was considered one of the leading chefs in the country.
The couple ran the restaurant for six years. However, when their children Sarah and Paul were born, they decided to sell it. Initially they planned to buy a country house, with a view to running it as a guest house, but instead Damien got a job with Failte Eireann, and Paula continued with the medicine.
Then in 2012, after 20 years with
‘I rang him up and proposed to him. He said he’d think about it. Three days later, he rang me back’
and Youth. Reveries Over Childhood