Monday, March 30, 2015

Who dem bones?

W B Yeats by Augustus John
Click on any image for a larger version

I thought I had debunked the main potential scandal surrounding the island in Lough Gill in Sligo which is identified with W B Yeats's well known (& worn) poem The Lake Isle of Inisfree.

It was Inisfree before it was Rat Island and as far as the official record is concerned it has always been Innisfree.

But, following this year's Family History Day at DCLA I am reminded of another controversy that is far from solved. Anthony J Jordan reminded us that there is still doubt about whose bones are actually in the grave attributed to Yeats in the Drumcliff graveyard and that one raises this question locally at one's peril. [Update 17/7/2015: Lara Marlowe's piece in the Irish Times of 17/7/2015 seems, however, to lay this to rest once and for all.]

I'm sure there are many such cases around the world, but that one reminded me of one closer to home. In Yeats's case the bones had been moved from the original grave leading to the possibility of wrong identification when the Irish State finally decided to repatriate them from France in accordance with the poet's wishes.

The case I'm thinking of is not one of wrong identification but of the impossibility of identification following the removal of all the remains from St. Peter's church graveyard in Aungier St. to St. Luke's in the Coombe in 1980 (most) and 2003 (remainder).
The burials from the churchyard of St Peter’s, Aungier St (founded 1685) were exhumed by order of the RCB of the Church of Ireland, prior to private sale of that site. The work was carried out by Fanagans Funeral Directors in 1980, under an exhumation licence. The resulting work has been found to have been crudely carried out, by modern and archaeological standards. ‘Three hundred and six polythene bags of human bones, along with 31 timber crates, total representing c. 1,200 individuals, were taken to the crypts of St Luke’s church, and stored there. In addition, 19 lead coffins were placed here’ (Doyle 2001, 4). A block wall was constructed to safeguard the bones. This wall has since been breached, and the bones scattered over the south west area of the crypts.

The site of St Peter’s graveyard, Aungier St, was re- excavated in 2003. On present evidence, and prior to the strat graphic analysis, the date of the burials which remained in the graveyard of St Peter’s cannot be determined, due to the level of disturbance caused by the mechanical exhumation in 1980. More data may be forthcoming from the Consultant Osteoarchaeologist’s analysis of the remains.

The burials from St Peter’s which were placed in the crypts of St Luke’s are jumbled, and uncontexted, and it would not be possible to assemble the bones to individuals. In addition to the crude removal, and storage in groups in bags, the remains have been subsequently vandalised, and now constitute a vast charnel heap.

St. Luke's Conservation plan (2005) p66

I haven't yet checked out some of the famous people who might have been buried in St. Peter's and whose individual honouring is now moot.

There is one person I know was buried there, General Charles Vallancey. I am aware of him through his confrontations with Major Benjamin Fisher, who built the Martello Towers. Whether the General's bones were jumbled in the general confusion or whether he was in a lead coffin and is possibly still identifiable I don't know.

Coincidentally, I tweeted about him only recently in his capacity as a self promoting but delusional expert in the Irish language, and funnily enough that tweet was retweeted just this morning.

This morning's coincidental retweet

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