‘Too late now to retrieve a fallen dream..’

Week III

Francis Ledwidge, ‘And I shall steal behind / And lay my hands upon her eyes’.

Francis Ledwidge, ‘And I shall steal behind / And lay my hands upon her eyes’.

Apart from Irish nationalists believing that Home Rule would follow the war if they fought for Britain; or the Ulsterman's belief that after their sacrifice, Britain 'would see them right,' there were other reasons too, that drove young men into the British army at this perilous time in history. Men joined for heroic reasons. There were propaganda warnings that Irish women would be raped, land and farms confiscated, churches burnt and looted if Germany invaded Ireland as it had Belgium.

Many joined because they were poor. Army pay was relatively good, there was accommodation, a certain status, and a pension whether you returned or failed to do so!

And men joined for their own personal reasons. Francis Ledwidge, one of Ireland's finest modern poets, professed that he joined the army, 'because he didn't want to let Britain stand between Ireland and an enemy common to civilisation.' In fact he probably joined because his heart was broken by the rejection of his first love.

Born August 19 1887 Francis was the eighth of nine children of Patrick and Anne Ledwidge. He was the first child born in the family's new home, at Janeville just outside the village of Slane situated in the Boyne Valley, some 30 miles north of Dublin. Christened Francis Edward but known as Frank to his family and friends the fledgling poet would know hardship from an early age. His father died when he was just four years old. Only three months after the birth of his youngest brother Joseph, the burden fell on his mother Anne to provide for the family. She undertook back breaking work for the farmers in the fields for a meagre eight shillings a week.

Despite this initial hardship Francis' literary talents flourished from an early age. His school teacher described him as 'an erratic genius'. After school he took a number of jobs including groom, farmhand, roadworker and miner.

Ledwidge continued to write poetry and had poems published in the local Drogheda Independent. Many of these poems were taken to the newspaper office by Ellie Vaughey, the younger sister of his friend Paddy. Their relationship soon developed into love and Ledwidge wrote numerous poems which spoke of Ellie's beauty: I wait the calling of the orchard maid, /Only I feel that she will come in blue, /With yellow on her hair, and two curls strayed /Out of her comb's loose stocks, and I shall steal /Behind and lay my hands upon her eyes....

A true poet

His talents were recognised by Lord Edward Dunsany, a successful writer, poet and dramatist and a major figure in the literary renaissance at that time. Dunsany wrote of the young poet; 'I was astonished by the brilliance of that eye that looked at the fields of Meath and saw 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 introduced Ledwidge to the Irish literary circle of the time. He was the wunderkind among such giants as George Russell (AE ), James Stephens, WB Yeats, and the poet and patriot Thomas MacDonagh, with whom he became friends. At 25 years of age Francis grew in confidence, his poetry was more widely published. He became involved in local politics. But he was devastated when Ellie's family, prosperous farmers, pressurised her to dump the young poet as he came from humble stock. Ellie reluctantly did so. She went on to marry John O'Neill, and to settle in Manchester.

Thomas MacDonagh

At the outbreak of war Francis followed Dunsany into the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, despite Dunsany's pleading that he should not enlist. Dunsaney went as far as to give Francis money to keep him out of the army to continue writing. But Francis refused.

Surprisingly the army suited him. He rapidly achieved promotion to lance corporal. In July 1915 he landed at Gallipoli and saw action for the first time at Sedd-el-Bahr alongside Australian and French troops. Having spent one particular day avoiding Turkish snipers he wrote home: 'A horrible and a great day [which he would ] not have missed for world..'

Safely evacuated from the peninsula his regiment was sent to Manchester for rest. Ledwidge must have been aware that Ellie lived there. But he was dismayed to hear that she had died in childbirth. Furthermore the news of the Easter Rising, and the execution of his friend Thomas MacDonagh, brought him renewed sadness.

He was involved in an altercation with a senior officer, and charged with insubordination, being drunk, and over-staying his leave. He was court-martialled, and demoted.

But Ledwidge would forever after be associated with his powerful Lament for Thomas MacDonagh, and its arresting opening lines:

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...

In July 1917, Ledwidge's unit was ordered to the Ypres salient, and committed to the Third Battle of Ypres, during which there were 135,000 British and Dominion deaths in three months. On July 31 Ledwidge was kept in reserve where with an officer and five men, they were engaged in road making. Suddenly they were caught by a long range German artillery shell. Chaplain Fr Devas was among the first to arrive at the scene. That night he wrote in his diary: 'Ledwidge killed, blown to bits.'*

Shortly before the poet had written: 'It is too late now to retrieve /A fallen dream, too late to grieve /A name unmade, but not too late / To thank the Gods for what is great; /A keen-edged sword, a soldier's heart, /Is greater than a poet's art. /And greater than a poet's fame / A little grave that has no name...' (Soliloquy )

Next week: The missing: 'Have you news of my boy Jack?'

NOTES: Francis Ledwidge, 30 years of age, is buried close to where he was killed in Artillery Wood cemetery, Boezinge, poignantly near the grave of Ellis Humphry Evans, a leading contemporary Welsh poet who, the same age as Ledwidge, was killed the same day.

Seamus Heaney later commented that 'According the WB Yeats's famous phrase, it is out of the quarrel with ourselves that poetry comes, and it was only when this particular quarrel flared and could not be placated or resolved that Ledwidge's full force, as a personality, a poet and a morally senstitive creature , became engaged.' Introduction To The Ledwidge Treasury of Selected Poems, 2007.

I am taking this week's Diary from the notes at the Francis Ledwidge Museum, at Slane, and an essay in the Dictionary of Irish Biography by Donal Lowry.


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