WB Yeats: Fresh doubt that Sligo grave contains poet's remains

WB Yeats (circa 1920s) Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption WB Yeats died in France at the age of 74 and left funeral instructions that his family were to wait a year before bringing his body back to Ireland

Recently discovered documents have cast fresh doubt on the authenticity of the final resting place of one of Ireland's most famous poets, WB Yeats.

Yeats died in France in 1939 and he had asked to be buried in a temporary grave before being repatriated to Ireland.

But after the outbreak of World War Two repatriation was delayed until 1948.

The Irish Times has reported that newly discovered French documents suggest Yeats's remains were mixed up with the bones of others before the exhumation.


The newspaper said the details are contained in personal correspondence between French diplomats who were involved in the repatriation, which was handed over to the Irish Embassy in Paris last month.

The poet's official grave is in Drumcliffe Parish Church cemetery in County Sligo and the site has become both a shrine and a tourist attraction.

The headstone is inscribed with the poet's famous self-penned epitaph: "Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman, pass by."

Image copyright © Suzanne Mischyshyn/CC Geograph
Image caption The grave of WB Yeats has become a literary landmark in County Sligo

Yeats, who had strong family links to County Sligo, had asked to be reinterred in Drumcliff when press interest in his death had subsided.

The poet instructed his wife: "In a year's time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo."

But his widow faced legal and technical problems sorting out the repatriation during WW2 and at some point during this period it is believed the poet's remains were moved from his original grave in Roquebrune, southern France.

Identification difficulties

After negotiations and assistance from the French governments, skeletal remains were exhumed from Roquebrune in 1948 and brought to Sligo by the Irish Naval Service.

Image caption Britain's Prince Charles visited the Sligo grave earlier this year as part of a series of events marking the 150th anniversary of the poet's birth

Doubts about the authenticity of the bones have been in the public domain for many years, but the recently discovered diplomatic correspondence sheds new light on the difficulty of the identification process during the exhumation.

The Irish Times reported that the documents were found in the personal papers of the former French foreign ministry official, Jacques Camille Paris, who later became the first Secretary General of the Council of Europe.

The newspaper said the diplomat's son, Daniel Paris, "turned the documents over to the Irish Embassy in Paris in a discreet ceremony last month".

The poet's closest surviving relative, his granddaughter Caitriona Yeats, would not comment on the report but she pointed to a letter written by his children, Anne and Michael Yeats in 1988, in response to earlier controversy over the remains.

In that letter, the Yeats family said they were "satisfied beyond doubt that our father's body is indeed buried in Drumcliff Cemetery".

Image caption WB Yeats photographed in 1937, two years before his death in southern France