by Arthur Russell
|Poet Francis Ledwidge in uniform|
How easy we’d step through it
If all the fools who meant no harm
Could manage not to do it”.
The author of these wry words of observation of a very human phenomenon, was Francis Ledwidge, Ireland’s “war poet” who fought and ultimately sacrificed his life in the muddy trenches of the First World War. Generations of Irish schoolchildren were made aware of the so called “Poet of the Blackbird” through his poem “June” which drew vivid word pictures of the countryside in mid-Summer as the school year was coming to an end and glorious freedom filled Summer days beckoned.
Broom out the floor now, lay the fender by,
And plant this bee-sucked bough of woodbine there,
And let the window down. The butterfly
Floats in upon the sunbeam, and the fair
Tanned face of June, the nomad gipsy, laughs
Above her widespread wares, the while she tells
The farmers' fortunes in the fields, and quaffs
The water from the spider-peopled wells.
The hedges are all drowned in green grass seas,
And bobbing poppies flare like Elmo's light,
While siren-like the pollen-stained bees
Drone in the clover depths. And up the height
The cuckoo's voice is hoarse and broke with joy.
And on the lowland crops the crows make raid,
Nor fear the clappers of the farmer's boy,
Who sleeps, like drunken Noah, in the shade
And loop this red rose in that hazel ring
That snares your little ear, for June is short
And we must joy in it and dance and sing,
And from her bounty draw her rosy worth.
Ay! soon the swallows will be flying south,
The wind wheel north to gather in the snow,
Even the roses spilt on youth's red mouth
Will soon blow down the road all roses go.
Francis Ledwidge was born in August 1887 near the village of Slane in County Meath, Ireland. He was the second youngest of nine children born to Patrick and Anne Ledwidge, who were determined to give their family the best education they could afford.
Francis was just five years old when his father died, a circumstance which forced Anne to work as a field hand to help fend for her family. It also meant that the children, as they grew, had to find work wherever they could to supplement the family’s income. Francis attended the local school but had to leave when he was thirteen years of age to work in a variety of manual jobs, as a farm labourer, road worker, miner in the local copper mine.
He became a Trade Union activist with the Meath Labour Union and was actually sacked from the copper mine for organizing a strike there in 1906. All the while, he continued his learning and reading to fuel his growing love for literature and writing.
As he got older, he developed a deep interest in Irish Nationalist politics and joined the Irish Volunteers who supported the winning of a degree of self-determination for Ireland under the auspices of the Home Rule Bill which was under discussion in the British House of Commons at the time. He and his brother Joseph were organisers for the Irish Volunteers in Slane. The Volunteers were dedicated to pursue and defend Home Rule, by arms if this became necessary.
From his early teens, the young man found his talent for writing poetry, and some of his earliest work was published in the local newspaper, The Drogheda Independent. The inspiration of much of his early writing was his native Boyne Valley and its pastoral countryside.
He sent samples of his work to Lord Dunsany, a significant man of letters, and author in his own right. He liked the young man’s work well enough to adopt him as his protégé and invited him to Dunsany castle where he allowed him the run of the castle’s substantial library and writing facilities.
'I was astonished by the brilliance of that eye that looked at the fields of Meath and seen there all the simple birds and flowers, with a vividness that made those pages like a magnifying glass, through which one looked at familiar things seen thus for the first time. I wrote to him greeting him as a true poet, which indeed he was.....'
Dunsany also gave Ledwidge the benefit of his own considerable literary advice as well as access to a circle of writers from Dublin who often visited Dunsany. This brought Ledwidge into contact with the likes of William Butler Yeats, George Russell, Katherine Tynan, Thomas MacDonagh, James Stephens and others.
Most practically, Dunsany helped the young poet financially and helped him put together his first collection of poems for publication. The title of this was ‘Songs of the Fields’, the only book of his work published in the poet’s lifetime. The poetry was very much to the taste of the time and was Ledwidges’s first contribution to the Irish Literary Revival, which was then underway.
The Soldier Poet
1914 was to be a watershed year for Francis. By then he had fallen in love with a local young lady called Ellie Vaughey who had rejected him in favour of a rival suitor.
At the same time, Europe was edging towards war and this had implications for a young man interested in his country’s politics and future. Ledwidge was an ardent Irish Nationalist with a serious question to answer - was Ireland’s cause served by fighting for small nations such as Belgium, which had been invaded by Germany? or was it better served by staying at home to fight the fight many felt was coming “under an Irish sky”?
For whatever reason, and against the wishes of patron Lord Dunsany, who offered him a stipend to keep him at home, Ledwidge joined the Volunteers who opted to go to war at the behest of the Irish Party’s leader in the House of Commons, John Redmond. In October 1914, he joined Dunsany’s Battalion in the Irish Inniskilling Fusiliers.
Ledwidge himself insisted that he could not stand idly by while others went to fight for what he essentially considered to be Ireland’s cause, following the passing of the Bill for Irish Home Rule in the last days before war was declared on Germany. Also a firm promise had been made by the British Government that the Bill would be implemented once Germany was defeated – something which was confidently expected to be victoriously accomplished with all the soldiers back home by the Christmas of 1914.
Far from being finished, the war continued into the following year, when Ledwidge’s company was sent to participate in the shambolic Gallipoli campaign in April 1915. Ledwidge was wounded and was sent to an army hospital to recover. While he was recovering in Cairo, he heard of the death in childbirth of his beloved Ellie who had married the year before and gone to live with her husband in Manchester. He wrote several poems to her, including “To One Dead” after hearing of her death.
A blackbird singing
On a moss-upholstered stone,
Shadows wildly blown,
A song in the wood,
A ship on the sea.
The song was for you
and the ship was for me.
A blackbird singing
I hear in my troubled mind,
I see in a distant wind.
But sorrow and silence,
Are the wood's threnody,
The silence for you
And the sorrow for me.
Easter Rebellion in Dublin
During several months service in Serbia, Ledwidge suffered terribly from the cold of the Balkan winter and the privations of the soldier’s life. He wrote that the only thing that kept him going during these difficult months was his writing, and the encouraging news of the publication of “Songs of the Field” back in Ireland.
“I will never hold out all the winter here, as I suffer terribly from rheumatism. The nights when not raining, are freezing; and one wonders which is worse for the pain”.
By December 1916, it was obvious the Balkan campaign was going badly and the army was withdrawn. After a brutal six day march to Salonika, Ledwidge collapsed and had to be sent to a military hospital in Salonika, then to Cairo, and finally to Manchester for urgent medical treatment.
It was here he got news of the outbreak and subsequent defeat of the Irish Nationalist Easter Rising in Dublin. A few weeks later, he was back in Slane when the execution by firing squad of his friend and poet colleague, Thomas MacDonagh along with another poet, Joseph Mary Plunkett; took place in Arbour Hill.
The death of MacDonagh caused him to write one of his most quoted poems “Lament for Thomas MacDonagh”. (The first four lines are now inscribed on Ledwidge’s memorial)
He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain
Nor shall he know when the loud March blows
Thro' slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.
But when the Dark Cow leaves the moor
And pastures poor with greedy weeds
Perhaps he'll hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.
Note – the Dark Cow is an allegorical name for Ireland. The “pleasant meads” represent still to be won National independence.
The realization that it was soldiers wearing the same uniform as himself stationed in Richmond Barracks, where he himself had enlisted and trained less than 2 years before, that had executed his friends gave Ledwidge, the Irish patriot, much cause for distress. This expressed itself in several acts of indiscipline after he returned to duty during the Summer of 1916. For these he was court-martialed and punished, and though he was severely tempted to do so he did not desert.
Despite having faith in his life's course severely tested, he still saw Ireland being best served by continuing to help to win the ongoing war.
At this time he wrote a poem about his experience.
After Court Martial
My mind is not my mind, therefore
I take no heed of what men say,
I lived ten thousand years before
God cursed the town of Nineveh.
The Present is a dream I see
Of horror and loud sufferings,
At dawn a bird will waken me
Unto my place among the kings.
And though men called me a vile name,
And all my dream companions gone,
Tis I the soldier bears the shame,
Not I the king of Babylon.
Nor did Ledwidge’s Irish nationalism or the fact that he was fighting a ruthless enemy cloud his eyes to the inherent goodness that dwells in the hearts of all men – even those who are mortal enemies. This comes through in the poem “To a German Officer” which he sent to his patron, Lord Dunsany, but which remained lost among Dunsany’s papers and was never published until well after his death.
I cannot think that God could take
A man who fought on Mammon’s side
Nor yet in brimstone cavern break
A noble soul’s ancestral pride
There is a No Man’s Land,
I hold Kept by a truce of Heaven and Hell
And in their dug-out made of gold
The brave of there forever dwell
And greater peace than swords have fought
Flashing in emprises divine
Shuts up their memories in one thought
That hears the quiet waves of the Rhine
Ledwidge was obviously a good soldier, and despite his disciplinary offences was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal and took part in the Battle of Arras in late 1916. In early 1917, his unit was ordered to the Belgian sector to prepare for what was to be the third Battle of Ypres.
On July 20th he wrote a letter to his friend and fellow poet Katherine Tynan in which he spoke of his longing for home as well as his love for nature and his rural home.
|Ledwidge's home in Slane - now a museum to his memory|
He was not to get his wish. All leave was cancelled as the Allies prepared for battle. On July 31st 1917, Ledwidge and five comrades were repairing a road at Pilkem near the village of Boezinge northwest of Ypres, when a random enemy shell was fired and exploded among them, killing them all. All six were buried where they were killed at a place called Carrefour de Rose (Rose Crossroads). Ledwidge’s body was subsequently reinterred in the nearby Artillery Wood Military Cemetery in plot 2, Row B, Grave 5.
|Ledwidge Memorial where the poet was killed|
The In Flanders Fields Museum Ypres relocated the original memorial which had been erected where he was buried to the exact spot where the poet was killed. This was unveiled in 1998 by the Irish poet/author Dermot Bolger and Joseph Ledwidge. The top panel of the memorial shows the first verse of his poem "Lament for Thomas McDonagh".
The poem - At A Poet's Grave, written by the poet in 1916, could well be applied to himself
When I leave down this pipe my friend
And sleep with flowers I loved, apart,
My songs shall rise in wilding things
Whose roots are in my heart.
And here where that sweet poet sleeps
I hear the songs he left unsung,
When winds are fluttering the flowers
And summer-bells are rung.
Millions died in the muddy trenches of World War I. As decades pass, the deaths of the so-called war poets in the conflict have acquired a special poignancy. Names like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Francis Ledwidge seem eternally to be equated with lost talent and wasted unrealized potential. So much of what is good in life is lost in war.
Francis Ledwidge – The Complete Poems (Goldsmith Press 1997)
Francis Ledwidge Selected Poems (Introduced by Seamus Heaney, Edited by Dermot Bolger 1992).
Songs of the Fields (Francis Ledwidge 1915)
Songs of Peace (Francis Ledwidge 1917)
Last Songs (Francis Ledwidge 1918)
Further Information : francisledwidge.com
Arthur Russell, author of this post; is a native of Co Meath, Ireland. He is author of the Historic fiction book ‘Morgallion’ which was published in April 2012. ‘Morgallion’ tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn and his exploits during the invasion of Ireland by Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert of Scotland, in 1314.
For more information visit the website www.morgallion.com