When I agreed to write about the poet Francis Ledwidge (right), I completely underestimated the impact that this exploration of his life, poetry and influence would have on me. Above all, it has made me all the more aware of the complexities associated with Irishness, social class, place, war, love, legacies and the human condition.
I was immediately drawn to the prospect of exploring Francis Ledwidge’s life because I felt our paths had already crossed through a shared connection with Slane, County Meath, where Francis Ledwidge was born August 28, 1887. My late mother, who was born in 1921, also grew up in Meath, just 9 miles from Slane, near Duleek, and I lived in Drogheda, 9 miles up the River Boyne from Slane, in the 1970s during my formative years.
Both Mother and I were regular visitors to Slane, visiting cousins and enraptured by the beauty of the countryside, as well as enthralled by the immense history associated with the area – including the megalithic tombs at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, The Hill of Slane, the Boyne Battlefield, Slane Castle and Beau Parc House.
It is only now after reading The Ledwidge Treasury: Selected Poems (2007) that I am coming to understand why my knowledge of Francis Ledwidge was very patchy indeed. The Ledwidge Treasury has a powerful Introduction by Seamus Heaney, drawing heavily on what he describes as Alice Curtayne’s (1972) ‘excellent biography’ of Ledwidge, and a breathtaking Afterword, by Dermot Bolger, who has been a devotee of Ledwidge.
The heart of the matter lies in the fact that Ledwidge, as Seamus Heaney said:
‘…represents conflicting elements in the Irish inheritance which continue to be repressed or unresolved.’ Among these are the fact that, although he was a supporter of the Irish Nationalist cause and the aspirations of those involved in the 1916 Easter Rising, he joined the British army – The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers – and was involved in campaigns on three fronts – Gallipoli, the Balkans and finally in Ypres, where he was killed by an exploding shell on July 31, 1917.
Dermot Bolger stresses the point that even today Ledwidge’s reasons for joining the British army rankle many Irish people. He goes on:
‘It is tortuously debated or whispered about in some quarters in the same shocked disapproving tones as if we had discovered that our favourite maiden aunt had contracted syphilis during her flower-arranging classes. … To accept that he enlisted – along with many of the more than two hundred thousand other Irishmen whose motives were written out of the rescripted narrative of Irish history after independence – not out of any love of England but from a sense of duty to Ireland, was a heresy against a consensus opinion which downplayed and distrusted Irish involvement in the Great War.’
For many years, the single poem that brought Francis Ledwidge into Irish classrooms and, as Dermot Bolger says, ‘managed to link Ledwidge tangentially to the Easter Rising,’ is his lament for a fellow poet and one of the seven signatories of the proclamation for the republic, Thomas McDonagh, who was executed by soldiers in the same uniform as Ledwidge himself. Barely two weeks after the Easter Rising, Ledwidge publicly recited the poem, which he had written while in barracks in Dublin, around the time that the last of the executions of the 1916 Leaders, including that of James Connolly, were occurring:
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 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’d hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.
Francis Ledwidge was the second youngest of nine children born into a labouring Catholic family. His father died suddenly when Francis was just four years old, and his mother went out to work every day in the fields around Slane to keep her family at home. (Below, which is now the Francis Ledwidge Museum.)
Tragedy again struck the family a few years later when Francis’ eldest brother, Patrick, who was now the breadwinner of the family died slowly of tuberculosis. The family was only spared from eviction, shortly before Patrick’s death, when a physician notified arriving bailiffs that Patrick was too ill to be moved. When he died, the family lacked the money even for a coffin.
As Dermot Bolger notes of Ledwidge, ‘there is something monumentally staggering about the audacity of someone from his class, from his occupation as a farmland and road-worker, even aspiring to be a poet. Edwardian poetry was a gentleman’s club, with well-connected ladies occasionally tolerated.’
Ledwidge’s first poem is said to have been written in 1902, when he was desperately homesick, having gone to work in a grocer’s shop in Rathfarnham in Dublin. So homesick was he that he stole out of the house in Dublin in the dead of night and walked home to Slane – almost 30 miles. He continued writing, while working locally as a road worker and in a copper mine, and had some of his poems published – without payment – in the Drogheda Independent.
A major turning point came in 1912 when he sent a hand-written notebook full of poems to Lord Dunsany, a well-known writer, who lived in a castle in a nearby village. Dunsany, who was just nine years older than Ledwidge, but who was worlds apart in terms of social standing, recognised his talent and essentially became his patron. This caused suspicion on both sides of the social divide, and there were many who blamed Lord Dunsany for Ledwidge’s decision to enlist in the British army. Dunsany introduced Ledwidge to his own Irish contemporaries in the craft of writing, people such as Thomas McDonagh, Padraic Colum, James Stephens, AE (George Russell) and Oliver St. John Gogarty.
Although Ledwidge was moving in social circles that considered to be well above his, the whole issue of his class background may have played a role in bringing an end to a romance that he had developed with a young woman, Ellie Vaughey, whose brothers farmed half the Hill of Slane. Some say that hearing that Vaughey was going to marry another man was one of the catalysts for Ledwidge’s decision to enlist in the British army in 1914. However, Ledwidge himself was later to say: ‘I joined the British army because she [Britain] stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I could not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions.’
The extent to which Francis Ledwidge’s poetry is dominated by references to nature and a yearning for the countryside around Slane is very notable. For example, the poem Home, which was one of his very last, was written in a lull in the bombardment:
Home (Right: the plaque on Ledwidge's home.)
And through these things a wood-way dim,
And waters dim. And slow sheep seen
On uphill paths that wind away
Through summer sounds and harvest green.
There is a song a robin sang
This morning on a broken tree,
It was about the little fields
That call across the world to me.
The cottage just outside Slane, where Francis Ledwidge grew up, was opened as a museum in 1981 through the efforts of the local community. It is poignant to learn that relatives of Ledwidge’s love, Ellie Vaughey, have been heavily involved in establishing and fostering the museum. Much to Ledwidge’s grief, Ellie died in childbirth less than a year into what is described as a failed marriage. The museum has an excellent website: http://www.francisledwidge.com.
Having spoken to Rosemary Yore, Ellie Vaughey’s grandniece, who is involved with the museum today, I am more determined than ever to visit Francis Ledwidge’s ‘place’ and savour the history and beauty in and around Slane, which has such haunting dimensions. JT