Wednesday 21 February 2018

Don't tread on our dreams at the grave of WB Yeats

Liam Collins casts a cold eye on the lingering controversy over whose bones really lie in Drumcliffe churchyard

HOME: The burial of poet and playwright WB Yeats
HOME: The burial of poet and playwright WB Yeats
WB Yeats in Sligo on October 9, 1948
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Does it really matter whose bones lie under 'bare Ben Bulben's head'?

The controversy over what body was exhumed by a local pathologist in 1948 and brought back to Ireland as the mortal remains of the poet WB Yeats for reburial has been simmering for decades.

Now we learn that the French diplomat Bernard Cailloux wrote to the French foreign ministry in 1948 that it was almost impossible to identify the exact remains of the famous Irish poet and that the only way to overcome the problem would be to "reconstitute a skeleton presenting all the characteristics of the deceased".

And an eminently sensible solution it was.

Ireland got its most famous poet back and under the enigmatic lines 'Cast a cold eye/On life and Death/Horseman pass by', disciples of the bard - the last notables being Prince Charles and his wife Camilla - get to stand in awe before the slab of stone in Drumcliffe churchyard where he yearned to be laid to rest.

Yeats died in the French seaside village of Roquebrune Cap-Martin in the south of France in 1938 and, because of the war, his body was not brought home to Ireland until 1948 when Sean McBride, Ireland's Minister for External Affairs, was sent by gun boat to collect his remains.

It was an ironic choice as Yeats had viciously defamed McBride's father Willie McBride for all time as a "drunken, vainglorious lout" because Maud Gonne found the manly rebel shot by the British after 1916 a more attractive prospect and married him rather than the weedy poet and mystic.

It appears that during the war there was a need for more graves in the small town near Nice where the poet spent his final years and was buried. So WB Yeats and other residents of the graveyard were dug up and their bones placed in an ossuary, which is basically a communal collection of skulls and bones. The local pathologist in Roquebrune Cap-Martin, Mr Reboulliat, identified the bones of Yeats by an iron corset (or truss) that he wore "with certainty and precision".

Such certainty was particularly French, but not based on any great research.

But as fate would have it the grave next to the Irish poet was occupied by an Englishman described at the time as "another large 'Anglais'" called Alfred Hollis, whose bones were also removed to the same ossuary.

The Hollis family have maintained for years that he also wore a truss and that the bones taken to Ireland are that of their kinsman. Yeats expert Anthony Jordan concurs that there was a "very real possibility" that the bones buried in Sligo belong to one or several other people with possibly a skull or bones belonging to Yeats mixed in.

The return of Yeats remains was undertaken by the LE Macha, which had sailed out of Dun Laoghaire in September 1948 and "took a pasting" on its way to Gibraltar, where the officers were royally entertained by the British governor.

They then proceeded to Nice where the coffin was collected. They then undertook the return journey, landing at Galway where the coffin was off-loaded for the official funeral in Sligo.

However, the canny French officials had sealed the casket before it was put aboard the Macha, and it has never been opened since.

Of course, such scientific methods as DNA identification did not exist at the time and the Irish government or the Yeats family had absolutely no reason to question the authenticity of the remains they were getting.

The discovery of documents written by the diplomat Mr Cailloux, stored in a French chateau unopened for the last 62 years, has re-ignited the question of who or what exactly lies in Drumcliffe church.

Although the controversy has flared several times over the last number of decades since the Hollis family made their concerns public, it was last raised seriously in an authoritative biography of WB Yeats, published in 2005 and written by Brenda Maddox.

At the time there was furious reaction by fans and disciples of the poet, particularly in Ireland.

Ms Maddox had long called for DNA tests to be carried out to settle the controversy once and for all.

That, of course, would be exactly the wrong thing to do.

Like Yeats's enigmatic epitaph, it is really irrelevant whose bones are buried in Drumcliffe, whether it is the poet or part of the poet or indeed none of the poet.

Such riddles are what make life and death so interesting, and provide summer schools and academics with plenty to talk about.

Let WB lie in peace and Drumcliffe churchyard remain the place of pilgrimage for lovers of his poetry, for the word is his real legacy, not his resting place.

Sunday Independent

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