Friday 21 October 2016

The Sligo soil thudded on the coffin

That's how one headline described Yeats's 1948 burial. Kim Bielenberg tells the suitably dramatic story of a long farewell

Published 09/05/2015 | 00:00

A crowd attends the funeral of Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats in Sligo
A crowd attends the funeral of Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats in Sligo
Sailors of the Irish Navy on the corvette 'Macha' taking a last look at France as they sail to Ireland with the body of William Butler Yeats for his burial in Sligo in October 1948.
WB Yeats on his deathbed in France.
Eamon de Valera with Irish dramatist Lennox Robinson at the funeral of William Butler Yeats in Drumcliffe, County Sligo.
WB Yeats's grave in Drumcliffe, Co Sligo.

William Butler Yeats died on January 28, 1939 in a small hotel room overlooking the Mediterranean at Cap Martin on the French Riviera. His wife George and his mistress Edith Shackleton Heald were at his bedside in his final hours.

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In one of his final poems, published in the newspapers within days of his passing, the poet made clear his desire for a final resting place in Sligo.

Under bare Ben Bulben's head

In Drumcliff churchyard

Yeats is laid.

An ancestor was rector there

It was to take almost a decade, two funerals and the intervening Second World War, before the remains of Yeats were finally brought to Drumcliffe in accordance with his wishes.  

The evocative account of the reburial in the Irish Press of September 1948 began: "They buried Yeats today in his new grave in Drumcliffe Churchyard near Ben Bulben's side. During the decade since the poet died they kept the margin marked around the clay."

There is still an element of mystery about what happened to Yeats's body after his first burial in Roquebrune in France.  

According to some accounts, the body that eventually came back to Sligo may not be that of Yeats at all, but possibly Alfred Hollis, an Englishman who died around the same time and was buried next to him in the same French cemetery.

Yeats spent his final two winters in France for health reasons. He suffered from angina. His friends had raised money for him, and he hoped the climate would make him feel better.

He worked on his poems and his plays until his final days, and was surrounded by women. As the author JB Hassett observed, "These interesting women rallied around him, trying to keep him alive, trying to keep him inspired."

Before he died at the age of 74, the poet told his wife: "If I die here, bury me up there (in Roquebrune) and then in a year's time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo."

A small group of friends stood at the graveside in Roquebrune for the poet's first burial in 1939, and none of the Yeats family apart from his wife was there. James Joyce sent a wreath, but it did not arrive until the funeral was over.

While Yeats himself and his wife wanted a reburial in Sligo, the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 put a stop to this plan.

George took a 10-year lease on the grave in France. When the war was over the plan to rebury the poet back in Ireland was resurrected, but to the shock of the Yeats family and his friends, they could not find his grave.

Yeats had been buried in a grave next to that of the Englishman Alfred Hollis, but in the following years, possibly amid wartime chaos, both bodies had been dug up and moved to another part of the cemetery. The families were not notified.

Both bodies had distinguishing features. Yeats wore a leather truss for a hernia. Alfred Hollis suffered from tuberculosis and wore a steel corset.

In 1948, a body thought to be that of Yeats was exhumed and placed in a new coffin in preparation for its transport to Ireland, but did the French authorities get the right body?

Members of the Hollis family were convinced that it was the body of their relative that was exhumed, but the poet's son Michael later said the bones had been measured and the truss of Yeats identified. He was "satisfied beyond doubt" that there had not been a mix-up.

In September 1948, the coffin was removed amid some ceremony from Roquebrune, accompanied by a French military guard of honour and it was taken to Villefranche harbour. There it was placed on the Irish naval corvette Macha, to be shipped to Ireland.

By a curious coincidence the whole operation was led by the Minister for External Affairs, Sean MacBride, who happened to be the son of Maud Gonne; the poet's unrequited love for her had inspired some of his best-known poems.

On the sunny morning of September 17, the ship bearing the coffin arrived in Galway harbour, to be greeted by an Irish military guard of honour and the Yeats family.

As the Irish Press reporter Liam MacGabhann put it, "As the reburial casket was unshipped the corvette's company presented arms and as the bells tolled out their sad alarms, the vessel's flags along the docks dipped."

The procession moved through Galway city, meandering northwards through Mayo.

Women stood next to stone walls in black shawls, and steamroller workers, big and bronzed, "knelt on their caps on roads just freshly tarred" to pay their respects.

The procession was met in Sligo by Mayor Rooney, who said: "On behalf of the people of Sligo I pay this sincere tribute to the memory of one whose genius was inspired by the lakes and mountains of our countryside, and whose poetry has given the name of Sligo a place in the literature of the world."

The writer Kate O'Brien was among the mourners in the cemetery at Drumcliffe and gave a vivid description.

"In the afternoon the rain fell as we turned northward for Drumcliffe. Ben Bulben was draped in cold rain.

"Yeats was met at his graveside by a silver-haired bishop with a silver crozier; there were five attendant clergymen, and friends of all kinds and degrees, old friends and young friends - and some ghostly ones."

According to reports, the little churchyard was crowded. The rain was closing in, and the shape of Benbulben was already hidden.

Among the mourners were Eamon De Valera, the playwright Lennox Robinson and Lord Longford. As the funeral proceeded, the poet Louis MacNeice was reported to have muttered: "You are burying the wrong man."

The early arrivals pushed forward to look at the grave, which was dug by the path near the church door and had been lined with ferns and brightly-coloured dahlias.

Kate O'Brien recalled: "The rain continued to fall; the turned earth gave up a pungent smell and rooks cawed from the tree-tops.

"The prayers were over soon, and the grave-diggers began to clank their shovels, but people waited to see the grave filled and the laurel wreath laid on it."

The poet's biographer Roy Foster sums up the importance of the reburial ceremony. It announced that the reputation of Yeats "belonged neither to government nor family, but to the country whose consciousness he had done so much to shape, and which would declare itself a republic by the end of the year".

The poet's epitath

Yeats probably has the most celebrated epitaph in the country on his tombstone in the cemetery at Drumcliffe.

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by

Whatever about horsemen, coach tours are certainly not passing by. The grave of the poet is one of the most popular tourist draws in the North-West.

The epitaph is taken from his poem, 'Under Ben Bulben', where he sets out where he wants to be buried:

Under bare Ben

Bulben's head

In Drumcliff churchyard

Yeats is laid.

An ancestor was

rector there

John Yeats had been rector of the parish from 1811 to 1846, and a tablet was erected in the church to his memory.

Irish Independent

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