Politician son of the poet
Wednesday 10 January 2007
Michael Butler Yeats, politician: born Thame, Oxfordshire 22 August 1921; married Gráinne Ni hEigeartaigh (one son, three daughters); died Dublin 3 January 2007.
As a boy growing up in the 1920s and 1930s Michael Yeats had a formidable and famous father who was, in Roy Foster's elegant phrase, "benevolently removed". W.B. Yeats was often away from home pursuing sexual ecstasy and new poetic inspiration, so the minutiae of fatherhood tended to escape him.
In 1924 Yeats père was living in London at the Savile Club, writing A Vision, when his very practical - though somewhat bibulous - young English wife George (born Georgie Hyde-Lees) wrote to him from Dublin, where, as usual, she was minding the great poet's two children. George suggested that Willie buy his son a mechanical toy for his third birthday. So WBY went to Hamleys and, after deliberations which can only have been delightful to observe, selected a mechanical duck that waved its wings and chimed when pulled along on a string.
According to another biographer, Brenda Maddox, Yeats found in his sixties that his children made him feel old rather than young. To him they were "little bundles of noise and infection" and, if they were ill when he was at home in Dublin, he moved out of the house in Rathfarnham to stay in the Kildare Street Club - in order to save George from having to look after him as well.
The aura which Yeats created around himself was not lost on his two children. Both Anne (born in 1919) and Michael were aware that their father was a great man, their uncle a famous painter and their aunts Lily and Lolly features of the Irish cultural landscape. Roy Foster's biography of W.B. Yeats has a relevant family anecdote from the 1930s - told by the poet himself. Yeats was peripatetic in his search for health and rejuvenation and the family were with him in Rapallo when
Michael stepped on to the road incautiously - upon which Anne struck him rather hard on the face and said: "Michael, don't you understand that if you are killed there will be nobody to continue the family."
Michael Butler (or, as he was momentarily, William Michael) Yeats was born in 1921 at Thame in Oxfordshire. He was sickly at first, but grew to be six feet tall by the time he was 14. He went to school for a time in Switzerland for his health but as a teenager he attended St Columba's, perhaps the leading Protestant boarding school in Ireland. There he excelled at history and maths and grew fascinated by politics. By the age of 17 he was confident enough to challenge his father in discussions about the state of Europe, then paralysed by the Czech crisis of 1938.
When the poet died, aged 73, in 1939 Michael went to the Riviera with his godfather the Abbey Theatre director Lennox Robinson ("in a state of shock and probably something else as well") to plead for the swift return of the body for a big funeral in Ireland. But George had already had her husband buried in Roquebrune and it was not until nearly 10 years later, in 1948, that the coffin, containing what was alleged to be the poet's body, was met by the family in Sligo and buried in the shadow of Ben Bulben.
In his father's will Michael was awarded the European royalties on his father's work and Anne the American. Considering the huge gap in temperament between father and son and W.B.'s cavalier treatment of his mother, Michael's stewardship of the Yeats legacy, over a period of nearly 70 years, was remarkable. Roy Foster praises their
discerning care of the . . . material in their possession. And the courtesy and generosity with which they [Michael and Anne] have always met scholarly enquiries.
Over many years Michael Yeats donated a large part of his father's papers to the National Library in Dublin - despite tempting offers of seven-figure sums.
Looking after his father's estate, along with his mother and sister, was, however, only a part of Michael Yeats's life. After school he went to Trinity College Dublin, where he gained first class honours in History. He then qualified as a lawyer but did not practise. His heart was in politics; he joined Fianna Fáil - "Dev's party" - and after the usual apprenticeship in losing elections he became a Senator in the Dáil for 20 years from 1961 and an MEP for six in the 1970s. He also spent six years as a Director General of the EEC Council of Ministers in Brussels in the 1980s. He was proud of Ireland's economic renaissance and felt that it had given the country true independence at last.
Michael Yeats was married to the distinguished Irish singer and harpist Gráinne Yeats, who survives him.
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