Story of mission to return remains of WB Yeats revealed by military archive
Rediscovered material includes 30 minutes of silent, grainy film and photographs
A long forgotten record of the return to Ireland of the remains of WB Yeats has emerged from the Military Archives and is available online to coincide with the 150th anniversary on Saturday of the poet’s birth.
The body of the poet, who died in January 1939 and was buried at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in south-eastern France, was brought by sea from Nice to Galway in September 1948 for reinterring in Drumcliffe Churchyard in Co Sligo. It was transported by the LE Macha, the first overseas deployment of a ship of the Naval Service.
The operation was overseen by the then minister for external affairs, Sean McBride, son of Maud Gonne-McBride, the subject of unrequited, but poetically inspiring, amour from the poet.
The rediscovered record of the repatriation includes just over 30 minutes of film - silent, grainy and mostly black and white footage of the Macha’s mission; more than 80 black and white photographs; the ship’s log; and five informal letters to the first head of the Naval Service, Captain HJ Jerome, from an officer on board the Macha, Commander Thomas McKenna, who in due course succeeded Capt Jerome to lead the service.
To this has been added a recording of the only surviving member of the crew, former Petty Officer Patrick Campbell, who is now aged 90 but has a clear recollection of the mission.
“When we docked in Nice there was great excitement because it was the first Irish ship [there flying the] tricolour. We did get a good reception,” Mr Campbell told a researcher at the Archive after his daughter, Antonette, contacted the Defence Forces earlier this year saying her father had a story to tell.
Stimulated by Campbell’s recollections, a search of the Archive yielded the film footage and stills and, most illuminating, the letters to Capt Jerome. This was a private correspondence written by Cdr McKenna as the Macha, captained by Lt-Cdr A Thompson, made her way from Dun Laoghaire to Gibraltar, and then on to Nice and back home to Ireland, via Gibraltar again. Because of their personal nature, the letters are replete with revealing details in contrast to the more po-faced style of an official record.
Petty Officer Patrick Campbell
Cdr McKenna’s first letter, written while in Gibraltar on August 30th, 1948, describes the journey from Ireland and how the Macha “got a pasting” from the weather 150 miles south of the Tuskar Rock resulting in “a number of casualties from sea-sickness”.
But the crew got over this unpromising start and set about painting the ship which Cdr McKenna said was “like a new pin” by the time they docked. There were no complaints from the engine room, Macha was making 11 knots a day and the sunny weather had the crew “brown as berries”, he wrote.
The specially assigned photographer was “snapping them at all hours of the day,” he reported, but still managed not to see “two big whales which passed close to the ship and sounded their huge tails up in the air”.
Further letters describe a whirl of official engagements in Gibraltar where the Macha officers and crew were entertained by Sir Kenneth Anderson, the Governor General; various British army and Royal Navy luminaries (including from, by odd coincidence, the destroyer HMS Childers, named without apparent Irish connection); and Archbishop Richard Joseph Fitzgerald, late of Midleton in Cork, who had a determined fondness for Irish whiskey.
Despite noting, after all the socialising , “thank God tomorrow we sail!” Cdr McKenne wrote: “I must say our Flag has certainly caused a stir here and nobody could have been nicer than our hosts in doing everything for us. . . The men behaved like veterans and are definitely a credit to the country. I felt very proud of them.”
In his recorded interview, Campbell recalled meeting the Rock’s famed Barbary macaques.
“The first thing [I SAW]that was kind of strange was there was monkeys running about up on the rocks, running all over,” he said. “Mind you, they’d come down beside you. Wouldn’t mind you at all.”
In Nice, further formal and warm courtesies were extended by the French who gave a military band guard of honour to Yeats’s coffin as it was taken to the Macha from the cemetery at Roquebrune.
At the quayside, trumpets were sounded, arms presented and the French and Irish national anthems were played as Yeats’s coffin was taken on board and tied down to the deck by Petty Officer Johnny Cashin.
“Macha hoisted a French tricolour whilst the French anthem was being played which I think went down very well,” Cdr McKenna wrote, “Then our minister made a short speech and brought the chief participants on board to say goodbye to us. Whilst still alongside and until we were well out to sea, we mounted a Petty Officer resting on arms reversed on guard by the coffin.”
Before leaving for the return voyage to Ireland, Cdr McKenna and Capt Thompson were entertained by Ireland’s minister to France, Séan Murphy. There was a tour to Monte Carlo – “we had a look at the gaming room; one look was sufficient” – followed by dinner in a French café.
“After eating for what seemed hours,” wrote Cdr McKenna, “we were just about able to make Macha under our own steam.”
The full film of the Macha’s voyage and return to Ireland with Yeats’ body, plus Cdr McKenna’s letters and Pty Ofc Campbell’s interview may be accessed here: http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/archives-spotlight/online-exhibitions/w-b-yeats-and-the-irish-naval-service