THE many pilgrims who make their way to the designated grave of the poet W. B. Yeats in Drumcliffe Church of Ireland graveyard, in County Sligo, are unlikely to have visited his actual last resting-place, recent diplomatic correspondence discovered in a French château has shown.
Amid celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of his birth — including a visit by the Prince of Wales in May — it has been revealed that Yeats, who died in a hotel at the Riviera town of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in 1939, and was buried locally, was subsequently exhumed, and his bones were deposited in an ossuary.
He had left instructions that, when a year had passed after his interment, his remains were to be exhumed and repatriated for burial at St Columba’s cemetery, under the shadow of his favourite mountain, Ben Bulben.
The Second World War interrupted this plan, and it was not until 1948 that his widow, George, could carry out his wishes. The then local curate, Abbé Biancheri, said that in 1946 Yeats had been disinterred, and his bones had been mixed with others in the ossuary.
Anxious to avoid a scandal that could embarrass both the Irish and the French authorities “if it were known that this great foreign poet, who had spent so many years of his life in France, had been thrown into a communal grave”, the French Ambassador to Ireland, Stanislas Ostrorog, conspired with the French Foreign Ministry to keep the matter secret.
The local pathologist, Dr C. G. Rebouillat, was instructed to put a skeleton together from the bones in the ossuary, and these were placed in a new coffin. On the certificate of exhumation, Rebouillat wrote that recognition was established with certainty and precision. The bones were placed in the coffin, which was then soldered and sealed in his presence. Draped in the Irish tricolour, it was brought to Nice, and placed on board the Irish corvette LÉ Macha.
The documentation was discovered in a trunk that had belonged to the Europe director of the French foreign ministry, Jacques Camille Paris, whose widow had taken the effects to the family château in southern France. They were found there by Paris’s son Daniel, who in turn gave them to the Irish Embassy last month. Facsimile copies will be sent to the Irish National Library before the end of the year.