Graves of Irish Writers

Book Notice by Celine Naughton

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the birth of Dean Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), which will 41vhz9xkpvl-_sy344_bo1_204_203_200_no doubt bring fans flocking to his grave in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. The author of Gulliver’s Travels left instructions that he was to be buried ‘in the great aisle on the south side under the pillar next to the monument of Primate Narcissus Marsh, three days after my decease, as privately as possible, and at twelve o’clock at midnight.’

Swift wrote his own epitaph, which is translated from Latin as:

Here is laid the body of Jonathan Swift, DD, Dean of this Cathedral Church. Where fierce indignation can no longer rend the heart, go traveller and imitate, if you can, this earnest and dedicated champion of liberty.

After his death, Swift was laid out in an open coffin for the people of Dublin to pay their respects. However, after a lock of his hair was cut off, the public viewing was ended.

His is just one of the stories in The End: An Illustrated Guide to the Graves of Irish Writers, in which author Ray Bateson uncovers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of over 400 writers going back more than 200 years.

All the luminaries you would expect are featured, including Swift, Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Goldsmith, Synge, Somerville and Ross, Stoker, Behan and Keane, but there’s also an eclectic mix of other novelists, playwrights, poets and scribes.

People like Francis Stuart (1902-2000), who was born in Queensland, Australia, of Ulster parents. Married three times, first to Maud Gonne’s daughter Iseult, he was a controversial figure who wrote poems, novels and plays; having moved to Germany in 1939 he became part of the Nazi war effort, writing scripts for Lord Haw Haw.
He is buried in Fanore Cemetery, Co. Clare, on the road from Lisdoonvarna. Bateson reports that Stuart’s favourite cat Manna died in the same week and was laid out with him and accompanied him to the grave.

Lord Killanin (1914-1999), born Michael Morris to an Irish father and an Australian mother, may be best remembered as President of the International Olympic Committee, but he also wrote a number of books including, with Michael V. Duignan, The Shell Guide to Ireland. He is buried in Bohermore Cemetery, Galway.

The Shell Guide was the travel bible our family took with us on all our travels throughout Ireland,” writes Bateson. “We wouldn’t have gone on holidays without him.”

The grave of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) in Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo is one of the most popular spots on the Wild Atlantic Way tourist trail, but are the remains interred therein really those of the famous poet? In 1948, Yeats’s remains were brought back from France to Galway Bay, and from there to Drumcliffe, where he was reinterred… or was he? Bateson speculates:

There is no doubt about the contents of the grave of another of the country’s most celebrated writers, that of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900). At the time of his death, one of Oscar’s closest friends, Robert Ross, was advised the body be buried in quicklime so that only the bones would remain, making it easier for the skeleton to be removed. He was buried initially at Bagneux Cemetery in Paris, and in 1909 the remains were transferred to their present position in Père Lachaise Cemetery, ‘but when they opened the coffin, it was discovered that instead the quicklime had preserved the body,’ reveals Bateson. ‘The face was readily identifiable and the hair and beard appeared to have grown long. Perhaps if Oscar had been more religious he may have been declared a saint.’

Oscar’s mother, Lady Jane Wilde (aka ‘Speranza,’ 1826-1896) sought permission for Oscar, who was in Reading Gaol at the time, having been convicted of homosexual offences, to visit her on her deathbed, but this was refused.

‘On the night she died, Oscar claimed to have heard the banshee’s cry and to have seen her in his cell,’ writes Bateson.

According to biographer Richard Ellman, Lady Jane – who had hosted several successful salons in Dublin and London – did not wish to be buried beside some common tradesman, ‘preferring to be thrown into the sea or buried near a rock on some wild coast.’ She was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London. However, no headstone was erected and no fees were paid so that after seven years, her body was moved to an unmarked grave in the poor ground.

Her husband, Sir William Wilde, had a number of illegitimate children before he married Speranza.

In November 1871, his two daughters Mary and Emily attended a ball at Drumaconnor in County Monaghan.  As the event was finishing, the host asked Emily to dance. Her swirling skirt brushed against the open fire in the hearth and caught fire. Her sister raced to her assistance, and her dress too caught fire. The host pushed them outside and rolled them in the snow, but it was too late and they both died.

His social position precluded Sir William from attending the funeral. He later went to Monaghan and his groans could be heard even outside the house.

The girls were buried in the local Church of Ireland graveyard and their tombstone inscribed: ‘In memory of two loving and beloved sisters, Emily Wilde aged 24, and Mary Wilde aged 22, who lost their lives by accident in this parish, Nov 1871. They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their deaths they were not divided.’

For 20 years after, a woman dressed in black would arrive from Dublin and hire a car to drive her to the graveyard. The sexton was unable to say whether it was the girl’s mother, or Lady Jane Wilde.

Bateson continues: ‘I visited the grave on a beautiful mild spring day and as I sat at the graveside, it was hard not to be moved by the tragic events of a cold snowy winter day over 130 years before.’

For anyone planning a visit to the graves of their favourite writers, the book gives directions to the graves featured, and includes photographs and cemetery maps.

Ray Bateson is the author of a number of books including The End: An Illustrated Guide to the Graves of Irish Writers; They Died by Pearse’s Side; The Rising Dead: RIC and DMP; and Memorials of the Easter Rising. For further information see

By Celine Naughton, 2017