WB Yeats laid to rest in Drumcliffe

Fri, Sep 18, 2009, 01:00

BACK PAGES - September 18th, 1948: WB Yeats died on the Cote d’Azur in January 1939, but it was almost a decade later before his body was brought back to Ireland for burial, mainly because of the second World War. His remains had to be recovered from an ossuary in the French cemetery as they had been removed from the original, temporary grave at Roquebrune. They were brought from Nice to Galway on board the Irish Naval corvette Macha and buried in Drumcliffe in Co Sligo, as described in this report by an anonymous journalist in today’s newspaper in 1948.

T HERE WAS a veil of mist over the bare head of Ben Bulben yesterday afternoon when the remains of William Butler Yeats were buried in Irish soil. Soft grey rain swept in from the sea, soaking the Irish tricolour that lay upon the plain wooden coffin, as the body of the poet was laid at last in the churchyard of Drumcliffe.

Members of the Government and local bodies and representatives of every branch of art and literature in Ireland crowded into the little graveyard with the local people to witness the fulfilment of the poet’s last wishes. The scene at Drumcliffe was set by Yeats himself. In his last poem, published in The Irish Times, he wrote:

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head

In Drumcliffe Churchyard Yeats is laid . . .

Driving out from Sligo, the crowds that came to pay honour to the dead poet saw the little graveyard, marked the old Celtic Cross, just as he had written, in the little church, still lit by oil lamps. They could see a tablet erected “To the memory of the Rev John Yeats, MA, TCD, son of Benjamin Yeats and Mary Butler, his wife, and Rector of this Parish from 1811 to his death, in 1846.”

All that was missing was the headstone, but soon that will be in place, also bearing the epitaph that Yeats wrote for himself.

The coffin was brought by motor hearse from Galway, and was met at the borough of Sligo by the mayor and corporation of the city. While the procession halted the Mayor M Rooney, 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 – William Butler Yeats.”

Then, preceded by a Sligo band, the hearse moved on towards the town hall through streets lined with townspeople. The blinds of the shops were drawn in accordance with the mayor’s request for general closing between midday and 4pm.

At 2.15 the procession moved off towards Drumcliffe, where the little churchyard was crowded with people. The rain was closing in, and the shape of Ben Bulben was already hidden as 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. It was, perhaps, a more typically Irish scene than if the day had been fine and the sun blazing from the heavens. That would be fitting enough for a burial in Roquebrune. For the poet’s homecoming to his native country and his native county, it was an Irish day: a soft grey sky, a gentle western rain seeping down on the tall trees of the graveyard, and far away across the rough fields, a mist shrouding the bald poll of the mountain that Yeats always recalled so well.

The Committal Service was taken by the Bishop of Kilmore , and as the words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” were said a handful of soil was thrown on the coffin.

Gravediggers came forward with their shovels and heavy Sligo soil thudded down upon the coffin. Slowly the grave was filled.