On the day we were visiting Donegal, I could not help but demand from my less than enthusiastic family members that we stop at Drumcliff on the way and visit W.B.Yeats’ grave. Along the drive, we had as a constant companion on the left the flat-topped mountain famously known as Ben Bulben. Its rocks were formed under seas 320 million years ago and its limestone and mudstone layers were gouged by glaciers during the last ice-age as they retreated northward across this landscape. Although born in Dublin, Yeats’ family moved to Sligo and the county became the background to his youth. Seventy three years later he died in Menton France in 1939 and his wife ‘George’ claimed that he’d said, ‘If I die, bury me up there [at Roquebrune] and then in a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo’.” In September 1948 he was buried at St Columba’s Church at Drumcliff.
St Patrick came to Ireland in the 5th century CE and is given credit for bringing Christianity to Ireland. St Colmcille is given credit for founding a monastery at Drumcliff in 575 so it is a site that contains much Irish history well before Sligo developed as a town over 400 years later. St Colmcille (St Columba) is not only remembered for his monastery here at Drumcliffe, he is also remembered for being the chief cause of the first copyright decision in human history. He apparently secretly copied the manuscript of a ‘psalter’ at St Finian’s monastery and claimed ownership of the copy. The resulting conflict was complex but it ended in the ‘Battle of the Book’ in 560 CE that resulted in the death of around 3000 participants. There is not much left of St Columba’s monastery here in Drumcliff but the remnants are impressive; the round tower in the image on the left is one of these. It lost a lot of its substance when struck by lightning in 1396. The most important relic from the monastery is its famous high cross that still stands proud, but weathered, just over the cemetery’s stone fence that borders the road through Drumcliff. Some details are provided below from the sign at Drumcliff. The B&W photo in Appendix 1 shows another plain high cross at the corner of the cemetery.
Sign at Drumcliff: St Colmcille founded a monastery here. The Round Tower on the opposite side of the road and this cross still survive from the early monastery. The Round Tower was built between 900 and 1200. The cross, possibly of 11th century date, shows Adam and Eve, Cain slaying Abel, Daniel in the lion’s den and Christ in Glory on the east face, the presentation in the temple and the crucifixion on the west.
The Church that sits today across from the cemetery at Drumcliff is the St Columba’s Church of Ireland. Compared to its surroundings it is a very new church, built in the early 19th century but with some of the ancient stones of the monastery as part of its fabric. Although nearly two hundred years old, the church seems to realise that most of its visitors have come to visit the grave of W.B. Yeats. Even the handles on the front door of the church have been changed to reflect one of Yeats’ many interests, the swans of Sligo. Aficionados of Yeats might argue whether the swan door handles reflect his love of the birds in his poem ‘The Wild Swans of Coole’ or his vaguely erotic retelling of the Greek myth where Zeus took the form of a Swan to have his way with the Greek Princess Leda, who went on to become the mother of Helen of Troy.
There are two memorials to Yeats in the Drumcliff church yard. One of them is his gravestone. Generally as humans we don’t get to write our own epitaph as we move inexorably towards the end of our life. Poets perhaps are different as a consequence of their intense thinking about the nature of human fate in a harsh universe so it shouldn’t surprise us that Yeats had already written his thoughts on the finality of death in ‘Under Ben Bulben’ in 1933.
There is another memorial to Yeats built in the Drumcliff Church’s carpark. It is a large piece by the Irish sculptor Jackie McKenna depicting a man, somewhat reminiscent of Mahatma Gandhi, contemplating one of Yeats’ early poems, ‘Aedh Wishes for Cloths of Heaven’. A human being thinking deeply about the poet’s carefully crafted words seems a fitting acknowledgement for how Yeats lived his unconventional life. The work was installed with money raised by the local Development Association in 2002 and is perfectly designed for a space where visitors come to remember Yeats and presumably contemplate their own mortality in this ancient environment.
This monument is a rare combination of physical art combined with great poetry and so it is even more shocking to discover that some bonehead in December 2018 has desecrated it. A visitor under the cover of the necessary night wrenched the musing bronze figure out of its context and has presumably sold it on for its worth in bronze scrap metal. Clearly this individual hadn’t read the words on Yeats’ headstone.
A wonderful late 19th century photo of Drumcliff with a horseman passing by…very slowly.