It is being labelled one of the finds of the century, and the credit for the newly discovered film of the 1948 funeral in Sligo of WB Yeats is due to a Castlebar man, now deceased.
Last week, the story broke of how a previously unseen colour film of the funeral of the Nobel Laureate had emerged after 70 years of existing in storage in boxes and attics in various homes across the country. The film had been recorded by a well-known Castlebar man, Jimmie Garvey, and his boxes of memorabilia had been passed on to his descendant, Alan Aston, now living in Mountbellew.
Having cared for the boxes for many years, Alan decided to have the old-style film reel digitised and, to his utter surprise and delight, they included the filmed record of the burial of the poet in Drumcliffe cemetery, ‘under bare Ben Bulben’s head’.
The man who made the film was the youngest brother of the legendary Stephen Garvey, orchestra leader and musical supremo. As a youngster, Jimmie had been an athlete, excelling in swimming, cycling, boxing and football. Musical to his fingertips, he had been soloist in the choir of the Church of the Holy Rosary and had joined his brother’s orchestra at a young age.
In his teens, he had emigrated to America, where he trained in the hotel and catering industry and, more importantly, continued his musical studies. He returned from the US in 1934 and resumed his position as lead saxophonist with the Stephen Garvey Orchestra, set up a successful catering business, played leading roles in the operettas produced by his brother, and initiated the annual, nationally acclaimed Castlebar Pantomime, which became a lucrative fundraiser for the St Vincent de Paul Society.
He also became a much-in-demand sports commentator at events all over the west, while developing a keen interest in amateur filmmaking. He and his wife, Agnes, set up home at Blackfort Hill, a house later acquired by farm machinery supplier, Johnnie Bourke. His sudden death in 1955 – leaving Agnes and their children, Mary and Stephen – came as a profound shock across the region.
Alan Aston’s discovery of the Yeats film comes not only as a major boost to the country’s archival heritage, but also evokes warm memories of a highly accomplished and multitalented Castlebar family. The repatriation and final burial of WB Yeats was one of those great events in Irish history that, were it not for the foresight and artistic skill of Jimmie Garvey, would be forever lost to posterity.
Yeats had died and was buried in France in 1939, but it had been his last wish that, in the fullness of time, he would be brought back to the Sligo he called home. His remains were exhumed in 1946, but it was two years later that arrangements were finalised for the return to Ireland.
The remains were carried on the Irish Naval Service corvette, the Macha, from France to Galway Harbour, where they were received with full military honours. From there, they were brought by road to Sligo Town Hall for a formal civic ceremony, and then the tricolour-draped coffin was taken to its final resting place, under a leaden September sky, in Drumcliffe.
Among the large crowd present, and clearly identifiable in the Garvey film, were his widow, George Hyde-Lees; his children, Ann and Michael; his brother, artist Jack B Yeats. Minister for External Affairs, Seán MacBride, led the Government representation, and also in attendance was Éamon de Valera.
Ironically, the man most involved in the repatriation of the remains and the reception ceremonies was Seán MacBride, son of Major John MacBride, the great nemesis of Yeats and rival for the love of Maud Gonne.