No surprise in Sligo about new documentation over WB Yeats’s burial

‘Nothing will change for Drumcliffe’ according to former Yeats Society chief executive

Sligo’s Yeats community is standing by its belief that WB Yeats was buried at Drumcliffe graveyard, in the light of newly revealed correspondence suggesting otherwise. Photograph: Getty Images

Sligo’s Yeats community was unperturbed at the weekend at the contents of newly-revealed correspondence casting doubts over the authenticity of WB Yeats’s burial in Drumcliffe graveyard.

Stella Mew, former chief executive of the Yeats Society, said that "nothing will change" for Drumcliffe.

Acting rector Dean Arfon Williams said that only DNA can prove conclusively whether the poet is or isn’t buried in the graveyard under Ben Bulben.

“Unless Yeats’s family applies to the courts for an exhumation order and gets DNA testing carried out, that is unlikely to happen – so we should just leave the poor man alone,” he said.


Summer school

The 150th centenary of Yeats’s birth is to be remembered by the Yeats Society at its 56th international summer school from July 26th, while the Yeatsian-themed Tread Softly arts festival also opens on July 28th.

The society's president, Martin Enright, said he had read the details of the correspondence between French diplomats published in The Irish Times on Saturday, but was "not surprised".

“If there’s a skull, or even a leg bone in the Drumcliffe grave belonging to Yeats, that’s fine by me,” he said.

There had been question marks over Yeats's body after it was brought by ship to Sligo from France in 1948, Mr Enright said.

"I met an officer from the Naval Service ship LÉ Macha 25 years ago, who spoke about it then, and there is still a plaque to the poet at Roquebrune where he was originally buried," he said.

“The point is that Drumcliffe has become hallowed ground, it is where his great-grandfather John was a rector, and it is where he always wanted to be buried,” Mr Enright said.

Michael Carty, co-founder of the Tread Softly festival, said that it was “just another twist” in the continuing fascination with the life and work of the late poet, and it was clear from many references in his poetry that “the county was his touchstone”.

"The association is there, whether it was the priest in Kilvarnet, or the lake isle of Inishfree or the Sally Gardens or the Slish wood on the southern shores of Lough Gill, " Mr Carty said.

It was for this reason, he said, that the arts community in Sligo and the local authority had developed the Tread Softly festival, which is now in its fourth year.

Ms Mew said that she felt for Yeats’s granddaughter Caitriona, and believed the renewed controversy could be “very painful for her”.

Ms Mew said that Yeats’s widow George had been faced with a terrible dilemma at Roquebrune in France, where the poet was initially buried after he died there in January, 1939.

Body exhumed

“She took a 10-year lease on the grave in Roquebrune, and went back in good faith to have his body exhumed, as it was his wish to be buried in Sligo,” she said.

“A collapsed site in the graveyard was bulldozed, and there was a shocking lack of respect shown to both the living and the dead,” Ms Mew said. “George Yeats did exactly as her husband asked, and she is buried alongside him.”

Labour Party senator Susan O'Keeffe, who is chair of the Yeats 2015 celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the poet's birthday, said his wish to be buried in Drumcliffe "does seem to have been clear" and Sligo was his "spirtual home".

She said: “Reading the correspondence between the French diplomats and the pressure they would have been under from Yeats’s widow, George, it must have been an unbelievable drama at the time.

“However, I do feel for his family, as this renewed controversy must be difficult, and it doesn’t change the truth of his love for the place.”

Lissadell House owner Eddie Walsh said that he was sceptical about the suggestion that the bones were not Yeats's.

“The point is that this is where he wanted to be buried,”he said. “ He wanted at some point to end up here.”

Artist Bettina Seitz, one of eight local artists involved in the "Of this Place" exhibition as part of Yeats 2015, said she did not think it made any difference at this stage.

“I immersed myself in Yeats this year. He really inspired me , this year more than ever. This does not matter,”she said.

*Article was amended on July 22nd, 2015

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland