Irish at Heart: Conversations with the Dead
By Natalie Keller
When I visited France in 2015, I sought out all traces of my favorite artist, Vincent van Gogh. The obvious place to start was the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which boasts the world’s greatest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works and an entire room dedicated to the man himself.
I was enthralled walking through Van Gogh’s exhibit, studying each painting for what felt like hours at a time. Tears welled in my eyes as I gazed at each brushstroke and considered the madness, passion, pain, and genius he poured into each one. There’s always been something about Van Gogh that moves me — indeed, that moves all creative people who feel our voices might never be heard, our labors of love never appreciated. Van Gogh died before he could witness his success, convinced no one would remember his name, let alone the paintings he left to gather dust. Instead, they gained immortality.
As a writer, I have the same hope for my words and stories: that they will live beyond me, reach the hearts of people I’ve never met, and shape the world that comes. When I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of strangers in that room, I knew Van Gogh had achieved this sacred dream.
However, the place where I felt most connected to Van Gogh wasn’t the Musée d’Orsay at all — but somewhere entirely different, secluded, and off the beaten path: eighty miles north of Paris in the small town of Auvers-sur-Oise.
Van Gogh is buried in a quiet corner of the town cemetery, in front of a vine-covered stone wall. I was the sole visitor that afternoon, and I will always remember the contrast between the loud, bustling crowds of the Musée d’Orsay and the serenity of his grave, with birds chirping overhead and the nearby wheat field swishing in the wind.
In truth, I learned more about Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise that day than any museum or art history book could teach me. I stood in the room where he took his final breath, saw the church that inspired his painting, “The Church at Auvers,” and wandered the meadows where he painted “Green Wheat Fields.”
I wished I could rewind time 125 years to find him sitting there at his canvas on a warm summer day and tell him that his colors would someday change the world. But in my own way, I was already communing with him.
This experience sparked a lifelong interest in the graves of famous artists and writers. I appreciate how graves transform larger-than-life titans into real human beings who had the same amount of time we all have: a lifetime.
Since then, I have tracked down famous graves all over the world belonging to William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer, and our beloved Irish poet, W.B. Yeats.
Yeats is buried in the shadow of Ben Bulben, a flat-topped mountain he immortalized in his poem, “Under Ben Bulben.” In the final verse, Yeats designates his future grave and writes his own epitaph, which is now engraved on his tombstone:
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!
Just as Van Gogh’s grave is surrounded by the scenery he painted; Yeats is buried in the landscape of his poetry. County Sligo is known now as “Yeats Country,” and as I gazed upon its mythic backdrop of mountains and lakes, it was easy to see why. As a child, Yeats spent his summers with relatives in Sligo, and the area had a profound influence on the writer he later became.
Yeats was fascinated by the Irish myths surrounding Sligo, and infused his poetry with legends, folktales, and larger-than-life stories. The day I visited Sligo was foggy and misty, and the line between the real world and the mythical one seemed to blur, until it seemed entirely plausible that a faerie might, as Yeats yearns,
Come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the disheveled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.
Reaching Through the Veil
Wandering through cemeteries might not sound like everyone’s idea of a picnic, but I find them to be peaceful and powerful spaces where we may, for a moment, reach through the veil between life and death and better understand those who have left us. Gravesites, tombstone engravings, and epitaphs can teach us much about an individual: their art, their poetry, their values and ideas.
It is one thing to read W.B. Yeats’s poems and another entirely to trace his footsteps in the real world, just as there is a difference between the Musée d’Orsay and the wheat fields where Van Gogh sat painting his canvas. Exploring these places assures me that their souls are not entirely gone.
In Sligo, I imagined Yeats strolling alongside me, just out of sight, singing to himself about the faeries. And in Auvers-sur-Oise, it felt like Van Gogh’s spirit was still living and moving all around me — still unfurling in the wind, in bright golden spirals.
“The Land of Heart’s Desire” by W.B. Yeats
“Under Ben Bulben” by W.B. Yeats
*Natalie Keller is a former resident of Galway, Ireland and works in the world of libraries. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in various online platforms, and she is currently editing a novel, much of which is set in the Emerald Isle. She loves to hear from readers at email@example.com.