In the churchyard of St. Columba’s Church, a few miles north of Sligo town, one of Ireland’s most celebrated poets lies under a remarkably plain gravestone bearing his name, birth and death dates, and the last three lines of one of his poems.
William Butler Yeats laid out the plans for his final resting place the best way he knew how—through poetry. The final verse of “Under Ben Bulben” details the way the famous Irish poet wished to spend the rest of eternity:
“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!”
Yeats got his wish, sort of. He died in 1939 at age 73, in Menton, France. According to his wife Georgie, his plan was to be buried in France and then (in his own words) “in a year’s time, when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.”
But the reinterment was not a smooth process, nor was it completed in a year. (Possibly due to the outbreak of World War II only a few months later.) After the end of the war, French authorities exhumed the body and, unfortunately, mixed it with other remains in an ossuary. Because of this, a French forensic doctor only managed to piece a skeleton back together “presenting all the characteristics of the deceased.”
What was left of him was finally reinterred in his beloved Sligo in 1948, nine years after his death. As mentioned in the poem, the cemetery at St. Columba’s overlooks the Benbulben rock formation.
Know Before You Go
The churchyard is a few kilometers north of Sligo right off N15. There is no cost to view the grave or enter the church, but donations are always welcome. There is a lovely view of Benbulben and the surrounding area, known affectionately as Yeats Country. Next to the churchyard, there is a tea room, a small store, and bathrooms.
Yeats' grave is fairly easy to spot amongst the headstone. Head left of the church. The tombstone, a modern large grey slab, will be facing you on the southern side of the churchyard.