Terry O'Connor

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Bones Ancient and Modern


One of the more amusing stories to have emerged in recent days is apparent confirmation that the bones interred beneath W.B. Yeats’ memorial in Co. Sligo are probably not his. There have been rumours to this effect for years, but only now has a bundle of papers and correspondence been made public that shows just what happened to the mortal remains of Ireland’s most celebrated poet but one.


William Butler Yeats died in 1939 at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, at Menton in the South of France. Clearly the hotel did not offer the ‘ideal living’ of its name. Yeats was by then an elderly man, whose health had generally been somewhat erratic. He was buried at a nearby church in Roquebrune-San-Martin, having said that he wanted to be dug up after a year or so and ‘planted’ in Sligo. The Second World War then intervened, so Yeats rested in peace in Vichy France, a regime that one suspects might have met with his approval. After the War, the Irish authorities began to plan for the translocation of Yeats’ bones. The main man behind this was the egregious Seán MacBride, Minister for External Affairs but more significantly the son of Maud Gonne, one of Yeats’ assorted lovers. The French authorities may have had better things to do, such as rebuilding a war-torn country, but none the less a coffin was returned to Ireland and reburied with due ceremony in September 1948.


What had been long suspected and is now confirmed is that Yeats and a few others had been disinterred during the War and their bones placed together in an ossuary, as was the local custom. Faced with an Irish request to return their national poet, what could the French do? “He is in there somewhere, but we have no idea which bones are his” would hardly have been a helpful reply. A best-guess solution assembled a skeleton that may or may not have included some of Yeats, and that was shipped off for reburial. It is a nice thought that when Prince Charles and Camilla, the 2nd Mrs Wales, visited the grave recently, yer man may not have been at home.


Does it really matter? If Post-War Ireland needed a memorial to their leading poet and statesman, why was it so important to include his physical remains? Given Ireland’s attachment at that time to a peculiarly conservative brand of Catholicism, it is tempting to see the cult of holy relics playing its part, ironically so given that Yeats was a Protestant who frequently clashed with the Catholic Church. There was a nice parallel recently when a late medieval human skeleton was paraded around the East Midlands of England to be reinterred in Leicester in the belief that these were the very bones of Richard III, last Plantagenet King of England. Leicester in general, and its cathedral in particular, played the holy relics game as assiduously as any Pre-Reformation monastic house. So much for the Enlightenment.


And what about the absence of holy bones? A few years back, the Catholic Church beatified John Henry Newman, Anglican apostate and Catholic thinker of the late 19th century. Newman’s remains were to be reinterred in a manner appropriate to his new status in the eyes of the Church. An exhumation was undertaken in 2008, which uncovered a partially-decayed coffin containing a few funerary knick-knacks, but no cardinal. Not a bone, not a tooth, not a whisker. The obvious conclusion was that, for some reason, Newman’s body had been removed from the coffin before it was finally buried, but the church was having none of that. Instead, there ensued all manner of contrived explanations of how the particular local soil conditions had completely decayed the body. Really? Without destroying all of the silk lining of the coffin? It was all codswallop. Newman was removed to be buried elsewhere, probably in the grave of his predeceased gentleman friend Ambrose St John, as Newman had expressly requested (“… with all my heart … and I give this as my last, my imperative will”). However, the rituals on which the Church was about to embark required physical remains, Newman’s bones. In their absence, it was clearly essential that the bones could not be thought to exist somewhere else: they had to be argued to have disappeared without trace.


I find it all baffling and amusing in equal measure. Coming from a family that cremates and scatters its dead, and working in a profession that encounters human bones regularly and in quantity, perhaps that is not so surprising. It is remarkable, though, that a box of old bones, the surviving material remains of a person of significance, can acquire that significance in themselves, such that their physical presence is essential if a memorial is to have weight, and their absence can be a stimulus to the most nonsensical argument. After all, there can be few monuments to the dead more affecting than the Menin Gate and Tyne Cot memorials that bear the names of First World War casualties of whom no remains have been found. It is their absence, not individually but by the tens of thousands, that gives lasting significance. If the memory of a person or persons is to be kept alive, does that remembrance require the presence of their physical remains? One would hope not. And if not, then why do some human bones acquire such deep and particular significance, as if those physical remains themselves contain, by some strange transubstantiation, the very life and works of the person concerned? Perhaps Shakespeare has an inkling of this:

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”.

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