W.B Yeats was laid to rest in 1948 under the shadow of Ben Bulben Mountain in Drumcliffe, County Sligo. An unassuming grave holds his remains in the Cemetery of St. Columba’s Church. There is no cost to view the grave or to enter the church but donations are always welcomed.
Yeats wrote on of the most famous epitaphs of all time:
Cast a cold Eye
On life, on death
Horseman pass by!
This Church and cemetery is a place of quiet beauty, the stunning mountains that surround the Churchyard and the outstanding natural beauty that is Sligo will haunt you forever. Yeats grave faces an unparalleled view of the mountains in their many colours, washed by sunshine and cloud. The peace settles into your bones and you can hear Yeats poetry in your ears. Words cannot convey the silence, peace and beauty of this place.
The Church itself is connected to the Yeats family through his great-grandfather who was rector here in Drumcliffe. Yeats died in the South of France on 28 January, 1939 and was buried at Roquebrune Cemetery. In 1948 his body was exhumed and brought back to Drumcliff. 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.”
It has been an ongoing saga for many years with respect to Yeats bones that were supposedly sent to Ireland from France. However it turns out that it was a bit of a conspiracy and that the bones resting in Yeats place are indeed of a few french folks and Yeats bones have been lost over the years. You can read more about the controversy here.
As Yeats requested in his last poem – he was buried within sight of Ben Bulben.
Under Ben Bulben
Swear by what the Sages spoke
Round the Mareotic Lake
That the Witch of Atlas knew,
Spoke and set the cocks a-crow.
Swear by those horsemen, by those women,
Complexion and form prove superhuman,
That pale, long visaged company
That airs an immortality
Completeness of their passions won;
Now they ride the wintry dawn
Where Ben Bulben sets the scene.
Here’s the gist of what they mean.
Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.
Whether man dies in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.
Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscle strong,
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.
You that Mitchel’s prayer have heard
`Send war in our time, O Lord!’
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace,
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate
Know his work or choose his mate.
Poet and sculptor do the work
Nor let the modish painter shirk
What his great forefathers did,
Bring the soul of man to God,
Make him fill the cradles right.
Measurement began our might:
Forms a stark Egyptian thought,
Forms that gentler Phidias wrought.
Michael Angelo left a proof
On the Sistine Chapel roof,
Where but half-awakened Adam
Can disturb globe-trotting Madam
Till her bowels are in heat,
Proof that there’s a purpose set
Before the secret working mind:
Profane perfection of mankind.
Quatorocento put in paint,
On backgrounds for a God or Saint,
Gardens where a soul’s at ease;
Where everything that meets the eye
Flowers and grass and cloudless sky
Resemble forms that are, or seem
When sleepers wake and yet still dream,
And when it’s vanished still declare,
With only bed and bedstead there,
That Heavens had opened.
Gyres run on;
When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude
Prepared a rest for the people of God,
Palmer’s phrase, but after that
Confusion fell upon our thought.
Irish poets learn your trade
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into the clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff 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!
The area has been made more tourist friendly with the addition of a conveniences like a tea room and washroom facilities. There is also a small store where you can purchase Yeat’s books and memorabilia.
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