The First Pure Clear Place

The story of the visit to Ireland of Sylvia Plath in September 1962 and her admiration of her literary hero, William Butler Yeats.

First broadcast: 12 February 2023, RTÉ lyric fm. Re-broadcast: 10 December 2023, RTÉ lyric fm.

Listen back:

Leontia Flynn

In September 1962, Sylvia Plath and her husband, Ted Hughes, visited Ireland as guests of the Irish poet Richard Murphy, who at the time was living in the fishing village of Cleggan, in Galway. Murphy brought them to visit Yeats’s tower at Ballylee, which Plath later described in a letter as ‘the first pure clear place’ that she had been for some time.

This programme, presented by Belfast poet Leontia Flynn, explores Sylvia Plath’s lifelong admiration of WB Yeats. She loved his work and studied it carefully and it influenced her own development as a poet.

The visit to Ireland, as well as being a pilgrimage to the land of Yeats, was meant to rekindle Plath and Hughes’s relationship, but even Yeats’s blessing was not enough to save the marriage.

And there was another Yeats element to the story when, in December 1962, Plath moved into a flat in a house in London where he had lived as a child. She was full of plans and enthusiasm, but only a few months later it is where she died by suicide on 11th February 1963.

Contributors to the programme are: Heather Clark, author of the acclaimed biography Red Comet: The short life and blazing art of Sylvia Plath; academic researcher Dr Maria Johnston, who describes seeing Plath’s own books of Yeats’s poetry, full of her notes and underlinings; poet Gerald Dawe, who recalls Richard Murphy, whom he knew personally.

Sylvia Plath’s poems and letters (published by Faber) are read by Annie Ryan and extracts from Richard Murphy’s memoir The Kick (published by Cork University Press) by Sean O’Neill.

The programme also contains rare archive of Sylvia Plath speaking about Yeats and reading some of her work in a 1958 Library of Congress recording.

The First Pure Clear Place is produced by Claire Cunningham (Rockfinch Ltd) and funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland from the Television Licence Fee. Producer for RTÉ lyric fm: Eoin O’Kelly.