Sir Bob Reads Yeats

 By Kathleen Dixon Donnelly

[This piece originally appeared on June 8, 2005, as a posting on my blog about our first year living in Birmingham, UK, Gypsy Teacher: A Yank in ‘Brum, still posted at]

Last month a listing in the Guardian newspaper announced a reading of Lytton Strachey’s letters at the British Library in London. Lytton was one of “my writers,” part of Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury group, so I checked the train schedules, did the math, and quickly computed that the tax-deductible day trip would be worth the time. At the Library I picked up a flyer about an upcoming reading of William Butler Yeats’ poetry by Irish actress Sinead Cusack.  Tucked it into my diary for future reference.

Still debating whether to go, I saw in the Guardian that Sinead would be joined by two other readers:  The actor Rupert Graves and the activist/singer/Irishman Sir Robert Geldof. Now THAT is worth a tax-deductible trip. Even My Irish Husband  Tony decided to come.

When booking our tickets by phone, I asked if Sir Bob was really going to show. “He has been a bit busy, hasn’t he?” laughed the operator, understating his ubiquitous presence on British media this past week promoting his Live8 concert. “Will there be protesters?” I asked, hopefully. “I don’t think so. He’s done things for us before and it’s always fine,” she added.

So after packing up turkey sandwiches and mini-Snickers, Tony and I hopped the bus to the train today, using tokens from the Birmingham Post to buy two return tickets for ten pounds each. We ate our lunch on the Chiltern Railway special to London Marylebone and I corrected a few papers to assuage my guilt. We arrived two minutes ahead of schedule at 3:59.

Having done this same trip just a few weeks before, it was easy to catch the right Tube to King’s Cross/St. Pancras, and make our way through the construction of the new Euro tunnel station to the British Library. We had a light supper at a nearby bistro, and then soaked up the rare English evening sun outside the Library’s conference centre.

Tony saw him first. There was Sir Bob, walking alone, talking on his mobile, heading into the building for the gig. Black cotton top, white cotton pants. Does he own a comb?

From our vantage point in the last row we had a good view of the crowd, a mix of little old lady book club members and young groupies. Were they here for Sir Bob or Rupert?

The hostess introduced the three well-known participants, but not herself. Because it was billed as the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour, we were supposed to recognize her as Josephine. She introduced Geldof by saying, “We called him because we felt sorry for him. He seemed to have nothing to do this week. So we said, ‘Come along Bob and read some Yeats.’” He looked down at his black binder modestly, laughing along with the crowd.

Having her name above the title also gave Josephine the right to inform us, between readings, about Yeats’ life in relation to his poetry. She intimated that all her information came from just one recent biography. Ha! Amateur.

From up in peanut heaven we could see lovely Sinead’s dark roots. Her light Irish accent was the perfect touch for the brief early love poems—

That only God, my dear,

Could love you for yourself alone

And not your yellow hair. 

Rupert’s upper class British whine was suitably sombre for “Friends”—

And what of her that took

All till my youth was gone

With scarce a pitying look?

But Sir Bob’s low-key, south-Dublin, nasal tones gave the perfect emotional intensity to Yeats’ paeans to his life-long unrequited love, Maud Gonne—

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread upon my dreams. 


How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.


O she had not these ways

When all the wild summer was in her gaze. 

But I’m partial to Dublin men falling hopelessly in love with their women anyway.

Then came the section devoted to Yeats’ political poems. 

Geldof gently mourned,

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone.

It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

And lamented,

But the fools caught it,

Wore it in the world’s eyes

As though they’d wrought it.

Then, leaning forward, elbows on knees, he repeated, slowly, intensely,

All changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born. 

You could feel Yeats’ passion for the rift that turned Ireland from one of the Lesser Colonies of Britain into an independent, intense, emotional republic.

As they left the stage, Sir Bob graciously gestured to allow the ladies to exit first, and Tony said, “C’mon. I want to see this guy.” 

I assumed he would be surrounded by hangers on and groupies, and we didn’t have anything for him to sign, but I followed my Irish husband’s lead. There was Bob, over in a corner, just one or two people around him. As soon as the blonde guy monopolizing him moved away, Bob went to leave, and Tony moved in.

“Bob. I’m from Dublin.” 

Smiling, more grizzled and grey than we are, even though about the same age, Sir Bob stopped and shook our hands. 

“I thought that was fabulous. Congratulations,” Tony said. 

I added, unnecessarily, “I did my research on Yeats. Your ‘Changed utterly’ was perfect. I could hear old Willy rattling in his grave.”

“Well, thanks,” he said cheerily. And moved on.

As we walked out, I said to Tony. “When Pope Benedict canonizes him, you can tell your granddaughter that you shook his hand.”

On the train back tonight I asked Tony for some background about his fellow Dub.

“He went to Blackrock College in South Dublin.”

“So is he uppity?”

“Yeah. Well, I think he actually was expelled from Blackrock College.”

“What did he do before he started saving the world?”

“He hung around a lot of clubs in Dublin and started the Boomtown Rats in 1978, ‘79. They were punk, sort of. They had two number one hits.”

“Hum them.”

“’I Don’t Like Mondays,’ and I can’t think of the other one. Then he went to London and hung around with other guys. And then he saw this documentary about the starving in Ethiopia and so he decided to do Band Aid.”

“Bono is from north Dublin. Did they know each other before?”

“In his book Geldof says that Bono came over to him at an event and said, ‘My name is Bono…’ back before anyone had heard of U2.”

“So what do the Irish think of Geldof?”

“Well, y’know. Secretly we’re really proud of him. But we’re a nation of begrudgers. So we always have to say, ‘Aaah, y’know, he’s just a bollocks.’”

When we got back to Birmingham, Tony texted his son in Galway to tell him that he’d met Sir Bob.

Stay tuned.

Read more about all the groups by clicking on the pages or categories to the right. Check out the blog about what they were doing 100 years ago this month, or the daily postings to find out what happened on this date. For annotated reading lists about your favorite authors, leave a comment or e-mail me at


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