Bones of a controversy

Angelique Chrisafis in Dublin
Saturday February 5, 2005
The Guardian

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Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliffe churchyard Yeats is laid

... or maybe not. WB Yeats's tombstone may carry the
most famous of all self-penned inscriptions, but
that's no guarantee it is true. For whether the grave
in County Sligo actually contains the remains of the
great poet is again being seriously called into
question by scholars. What started as a joke back in
1948 when Louis MacNiece quipped that the coffin
lowered into the dark peaty soil might well contain "a
Frenchman with a club foot" for all anyone knew, has
developed into one of the great literary mysteries.

The confusion came about because although Yeats was
clear about where he wanted to "cast a cold eye/ On
life, on Death", he was actually buried in Roquebrune
in the south of France close to where he died in 1939.
The war put paid to plans to bring the body home, and
it was not until 1948 that the Irish government, in
another poignant rub of fate, sent Sean MacBride, the
son of Yeats's great unrequited love Maud Gonne, to
oversee the exhumation.

But his and other graves on a short lease had been dug
up and lumped in with bodies disturbed by the
fighting. His bones were eventually identified by the
truss he wore. Unfortunately it transpired that the
plot next to the poet's, also exhumed, was occupied by
another large "Anglais" with a truss - Alfred Hollis -
whose family are still convinced that the bones taken
to Ireland were his.

Yeats expert Anthony Jordan has now published a paper
that asserts the "very real possibility" that the
bones in Drumcliffe are not the poet's. Ray Bateson,
the author of a new book The End - An Illustrated
Guide to the Graves of Irish Writers, said this week
he had been contacted by Yeats fans furious that he
had even mentioned the controversy in print. Brenda
Maddox, Yeats's biographer, has long argued that a DNA
test would solve the riddle.

Until then, we must take it on truss that horsemen
pass Yeats and not Alfred Hollis in Drumcliffe

· Another poet-casualty of war is Padraic Fiacc. His
collection Odour Of Blood, written in Belfast in the
dark days of 1973, broke what Seamus Heaney called the
"eternal rubric of whatever you say, saying nothing",
and addressed the savagery head-on. His reputation
never recovered. Now 80, and living in a Belfast
nursing home, there are at last signs of a critical
rehabilitation. Gerald Dawe is the latest big-hitter
to call for a reassessment of his work and there are
plans to reissue two of his collections.

· Even Fiacc has not been written off as often as the
short story. In Ireland, however, they are not yet
ready to accept its demise. As a part of its year as
European City of Culture, Cork, the home of Frank
O'Connor, perhaps the greatest short story writer of
them all, has put up a £35,000 prize in his memory.
Needless to say, the city showed him no such largesse
in his lifetime.

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