Anthony J Jordan writes: When WB Yeats died in France in 1939, his wife, George, bought a ten-year grave in the local cemetery at Roquebrune, with a view to repatriating his body later. The war intervened and delayed this. In 1946 Yeats’s last lover, Edith Shackleton Heald, visited the graveyard and was horrified to find that the grave had been disturbed. When, in 1948, the matter of repatriation was rumoured, Heald opposed it due to the circumstances she had discovered. Nevertheless, friends of Yeats were adamant that his wish to be buried under Ben Bulben would be honoured. Among these was Maud Gonne MacBride, who wrote to President Douglas Hyde, Éamon de Valera and FR Higgins of the Abbey Theatre. The latter assured her that “We are making every endeavour to have the remains back to Ireland.”
Among those George contacted were Count Ostroróg, the French minister plenipotentiary and later ambassador to Dublin, and as it turned out the most important man of all, with whom she had several discussions, Sean MacBride, minister for external affairs in the new Irish coalition government. MacBride wrote “Count Stanislaus Ostrorog was a charming man, most helpful to me always.” Ann Saddlemyer writes: “Within months the transfer had become a formal intergovernmental affair.” Both MacBride and the Yeats family made it clear that the actual exhumation was totally the remit of the French authorities.
A French diplomat named Bernard Cailloux was assigned to investigate the possibility of repatriating Yeats’s remains. He investigated the situation and reported that the remains were exhumed from the communal grave in January 1946 and interred pell-mell with the bones of others in the ossuaire (ossuary) de cimetière. On an initial view it seemed impossible to restore them to the natural order to which they belonged. But Mr Rebouillat, the forensic doctor in Roquebrune, would be able to restore a skeleton presenting all the characteristics of the deceased, including a corset he wore because of a hernia.
Cailloux wrote to Jacques Camille Paris, Europe director at the Quai d’Orsay (ministry for foreign affairs): “I was most anxious to resolve the issue, for if the family and the Irish legation were obviously guilty of negligence, the French authorities could also be taken to task if it were known that this great foreign poet, who has spent many years of his life in France had been thrown into a communal grave.”
A few weeks later Ostrorog met MacBride in Dublin: “MacBride expressed to me personally in the warmest terms his thanks for the care with which this affair had been resolved … We understood each other without it being spelled out. MacBride’s mother was formerly extremely close to the poet. There was obviously an interest that no incident would happen that could give rise to a press campaign.”
Dr Rebouillat’s bill for 5,000 francs was paid by the foreign ministry general fund. When the Irish government later volunteered to reimburse, a French diplomat wrote that the French government ought to “derive the moral benefit of having footed the bill”.
The LE Macha sailed on August 25th, calling to Gibraltar before arriving in Nice. On September 6th the formal and warm courtesies were extended by the French, who had given 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 the coffin was taken on board and tied down on deck.
As the plane carrying Sean Murphy, Ireland’s ambassador to France, flew in to Nice, it crashed on landing, but no injuries occurred. Murphy later wrote to French foreign minister Robert Schuman on February 21st, 1949 to express the Irish government’s gratitude.
I have the honour to inform your Excellency that the Irish government has requested me to convey its deepest gratitude to you for the help and all the facilities provided by the French authorities who willingly gave so much assistance last Sept during the exhumation and transfer of the mortal remains of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats from Roquebrune cemetery to Nice.
Yeats was one of the most illustrious men of letters that Ireland has had and the Irish government is very appreciative of the display of respect given to his remains, an honour which is befitting of the traditional friendship that has existed between our two countries for many years. The Irish Government feels that the deep respect and honour given to Yeats, an Irish poet whose last days were spent in France and whose remains lay in French soil for several years, have closely united our two countries who share cultural affinities
The homage shown as his remains left his much loved France to be brought back to his native country will not be forgotten for as long as Yeats lives on in the memory of Irish people.
My Government is convinced that the honours bestowed on this occasion were bestowed not only on Yeats but also on Ireland and on the Irish people. Consequently the Irish Government wishes to thank firstly the French Government, all the public figures, local government officers and the French army and naval officers who at the cemetery and again in Nice organised and participated in ceremonies in memory of Yeats. I would especially like to convey the Irish Government’s deepest gratitude to Monsieur Paris, European Director, Monsieur Benoist from the Department of foreign affairs, the state representative of the Alps- Maritimes department, the commander of the port of Nice and to the commander of the guard of honour for their valuable contribution.
The Irish Government also wishes to express its gratitude to the French for its generosity in covering the costs of transporting the poet’s body from Roquebrune to Nice.
I take this opportunity to convey the assurances of my highest consideration to your Excellency.
The Macha took the remains to Galway, from where they travelled to Sligo by road. The operation was overseen by Sean MacBride, who also represented his mother at the graveside in Drumcliffe. The intention had been to have a State funeral, but in deference to the poet’s family, the only State ceremonial was the provision of a military guard of honour for the body on its arrival at Sligo. The family had invited Frank O’Connor to give the eulogy but his brother, Jack B Yeats, insisted that there be no address or oration at the graveside. Sean MacBride represented the government, himself and his mother, who among the large gathering at the graveside had probably known Yeats the longest.
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliffe churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient Cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
As a mark of gratitude George sent Sean MacBride one of her husband’s manuscripts, making it clear that it was for him personally, “for keeps”. On October 28th, at a ceremony on the Macha, Michael Yeats presented a portrait of his father to Lieutenant-General McKenna, chief of staff, and the officers of the ship. Present were George, Jack, Anne, and Sean MacBride in his official capacity.
Alfred Hollis, an Englishman who died around the same time as Yeats, and who was initially buried next to him, wore a steel corset for spinal tuberculosis. In his certificate of exhumation from March 20th, 1948 Rebouillat based his reconstruction of Yeats’s skeleton on “the presence of a thoracic corset”. Yeats’s son Michael said he wore a leather truss for a hernia. Hollis’s family claimed it was he, not Yeats, who was sent for burial in Sligo.
In her 1988 biography of Gluck, Diana Southami recounted how in 1946, Edith Shackleton Heald, Yeats’s last lover, had crouched on the floor of their hotel in Monte Carlo, sobbing after visiting the site of his burial, saying, I would know his bones anywhere. The publication of the biography added to the controversy over whose body had been repatriated. Gluck recounted the painstaking research she had conducted and concluded that “these remains would be almost impossible to find, and if found, identity would be open to doubt”. This forced the two children of the poet, Anne and Michael, to become involved. This they did by issuing a letter to The Irish Times on October 6th, 1988. It said that Mrs Yeats made it clear from the outset that it was her intention to repatriate her husband’s remains and had bought a ten-year plot. Documents in their possession verified this. On hearing that the body had been moved she was assured there would be no problem with bringing it back to Ireland. The exhumation took place under the most rigorous French laws. They expressed regret that some forty years later they had to issue this statement. They had no doubt that the remains buried in Drumcliffe churchyard were those of their father.
In my own 2000 biography of WB Yeats, I referred, in passing, to this controversy, saying: “External pressures on the family and their own desire to have the remains re-interred at Sligo, necessitated that a somewhat uncertain exhumation went ahead.” A lecture on the book I gave in Sligo led to a headline on the front page of the Irish Independent, “Grave doubts surface over who lies in Yeats’s tomb”. This was taken up by British and American media and reported as if it was my new theory. In the same vein a local newspaper in Sligo asked, “Who is Anthony Jordan and why is he trying to destroy our tourist industry?” In fact the sparse detail I had included in my book came from an inspection of the very sceptical contemporary reports of the exhumation, then on display in the local museum in Sligo itself.
Images: National Library of Ireland, discoverireland.ie