Son of a poet who forged his own political path

Michael Yeats: Michael Yeats, who has died aged 85, was a former Fianna Fáil senator and MEP

Michael Yeats:Michael Yeats, who has died aged 85, was a former Fianna Fáil senator and MEP. Having served as cathaoirleach of the Seanad, he went on to become the first Irish vice-president of the European Parliament. He was the only son of the poet and playwright, WB Yeats, who also served as a senator.

"I was not on the same political side as my father," he said. "He was never a party man but he voted one way always."

A patron of the Yeats International Summer School, his exemplary stewardship of his father's literary estate was marked by wisdom and generosity. Most recently, he donated significant items from his personal archive to be displayed at the Yeats exhibition in the National Library.

A "De Valera republican" since his teens, he stood for election to Dáil Éireann in 1948, but failed to be elected. Unsuccessful again in 1951, he was appointed to Seanad Éireann by taoiseach Éamon de Valera. He lost his seat in 1954 and took a position as publicity officer at the party headquarters. Elected to the Seanad in 1961, he remained a member for 20 years.


He was an appointed member of the European Parliament for six years in the 1970s, but in 1979 failed to be elected in the first direct election to the parliament. In 1980 he became director of the secretariat of the EEC council, remaining in Brussels for six years.

A loyal member of Fianna Fáil all his life, he respected Éamon de Valera, admired Seán Lemass and felt that Charles Haughey, financial scandals notwithstanding, deserved to "go down in history as a brilliantly successful minister". While he initially opposed the Fianna Fáil/Gaullist alliance in the European Parliament, he fully supported the grouping once it came into being.

He did not subscribe to the "shouting and screaming kind of politics", but publicly expressed his outrage in 1983 when the Knock Family Research Centre used one of his father's poems in the course of the anti-abortion amendment campaign. He considered it the worst kind of shock tactic and believed the entire amendment enterprise was ill-conceived.

He took a more positive view of other developments. Writing in 1999 of Ireland's position in the world, he suggested it had changed for the better, largely because of Irish membership of the EU: "With our new-found economic strength and prosperity, we have become, for the first time, a truly independent nation."

Born in 1921, he was educated at Baymount School, Dollymount, and St Columba's College, Rathfarnham, where his best friend was the future prime minister of Northern Ireland, Brian Faulkner. In 1939 he entered Trinity College Dublin, where he secured a first-class degree in history and politics. He later did a bachelor of law at the King's Inns, but never practised at the bar.

He and his sister Anne were chiefly reared by their English mother, George Hyde-Lees, who was 27 years younger than their father.

"Father was really more like our grandfather; it was Mother who kept the house together," Anne said in 1997. "She tried to give us as normal an upbringing as possible. She probably knew some famous men's children and didn't want us to turn out the same way."

Brother and sister had fond memories of winter holidays in Rappallo, Italy, where Ezra Pound, best man at their parents' wedding, lived. "We used to admire the way he swam underwater in the sea," Michael recalled. "I think he did it to amuse us."

However, he was less than amused by his father's poem, A Prayer For My Son.

"I suppose after his famous one about Anne, he felt after I came along that he'd better write one about me too. But it is not a good poem. All that stuff about little Michael in bed. I was in boarding school with tough rugby-playing boys. They got hold of the poem and used to follow me about shouting 'Bid a strong ghost' [ the opening words of the poem]."

His father died when he was 17. The one occasion he felt the two talked openly was before the poet's death in 1939, when they discussed politics in central Europe.

Neither of the siblings inherited the love of the supernatural that their father shared with Maud Gonne and, subsequently, with their mother. "I'm prepared to believe in a ghost if I ever see one, but so far I haven't," Michael said. "I think astrology is nonsense."

The National Library has been a major beneficiary of the generosity and public spiritedness of Michael and Anne Yeats.

In 1958 and 1964, their mother had presented a large collection of original manuscripts to the National Library. In 1985 Michael Yeats followed this by donating a collection of 1,000 of his father's papers; in 2000 he donated the "automatic writing" collection; and later he donated the poet's personal library after turning down a seven-figure offer from a potential purchaser.

His sister made similar generous donations of the work of Jack B Yeats to TCD and the National Gallery of Ireland. He always insisted that scholars should have unrestricted access to his father's papers, often waiving copyright fees. This policy led to the abandonment of a biography of the poet in the 1970s, as the prospective biographer wanted exclusive access.

FSL Lyons was later commissioned to write the biography and following his death the task was entrusted to Roy Foster. "I don't want to see a word you've written until it's in print," Michael Yeats told the author. "I want to reserve the right to dislike it but not to censor it." He fully approved of the finished article.

A former governor of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, he was also chairman of Cuala Press. In 1978, he was conferred with an honorary doctorate of law by Florida State University.

His wife Gráinne (Ní hÉigeartaigh), son Pádraig and daughters Caitríona, Síle and Siobhán survive him.

Michael Yeats, born August 21st, 1921; died January 3rd, 2007