The life of Irish World War I poet Francis Ledwidge

Rachel Carey

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Francis Ledwidge
Francis Ledwidge (Photo Credit www.francisledwidge.com)

On the 24th April 1916, Francis Ledwidge was lying in a hospital bed in Manchester wounded from fighting in the First World War; at the same time his good friends Thomas MacDonagh and Padraig Pearse were fighting at the GPO in Dublin during the 1916 Rising.

Ledwidge was born on 19th August 1887 in Janesville, a small village just outside Slane, Co. Meath. The eighth of nine children, Ledwidge’s childhood was filled with tragedy. His father died in 1890, just four years after Ledwidge was born. At the age of 14 he was forced to leave school and take up work due to his brother contracting tuberculosis. Ledwidge later described this as a time when “it was if as though God forgot us”.

Between 1902 and 1910 Ledwidge wrote many poems, some of which were published in the Drogheda Independent. This led Ledwidge to come to the attention of poet and aristocrat Lord Dunsany who admired Ledwidge’s work and soon became his patron, organising for his poems to be published in literary magazines such as ‘The Saturday Review’.

Francis Ledwidge by Alice Curtayne
Francis Ledwidge by Alice Curtayne (Photo Credit Rachel Carey)

Poetry was not Ledwidge’s only passion; he was also a keen political activist. In 1913, Ledwidge joined the Irish Volunteers and was a founding member of the Slane division. Following a speech from the leader of the Home Rule PartyJohn Redmond, in 1914, the Irish Volunteers split into two groups. Those who supported Redmond and wanted to fight in the First World War became known as the National Volunteers and those supported Eoin MacNeill and who did not want to fight in the war remained known as the Irish Volunteers.

Ledwidge was part of the latter group. But five days later, for no explained reason, Ledwidge joined the Royal Inniskillen Fusiliers at Richmond Barracks in Dublin. Popular explanations for this decision were his sense of obligation to his patron Lord Dunsany, who had also joined, or the loss of his love Ellie Vaughey, who had become attached to another man whom she would later go on to marry.

Ledwidge’s training with the Irish Volunteers and his work in the fields of Slane had set him up well for army life. In 1915, Ledwidge’s division, the mixed 10th division, were the first of three divisions of Volunteers sent to fight in Gallipoli. Ledwidge described this time as hell and his division was soon moved to Macedonia and then eventually to the Greco-Serbian border.

Francis Ledwidge cottage
Francis Ledwidge cottage (Photo Credit www.francisledwidge.com)

Although involved in intense battles throughout the war Ledwidge continued to write poetry. It was in Serbia where he received the news that his first book Songs of the Fields’was to published. Although fighting at the time, he did not want the book to mention that he had joined the army, stating that he wished to keep Ledwidge the poet and Ledwidge the soldier separate.

In 1916, while retreating from Bulgarian forces, Ledwidge collapsed, due to what would turn out to be a combination of rheumatic fever, jaundice and an inflamed gall bladder. After moving to six different hospitals, he was eventually moved to hospital in Manchester. It was here that he heard the news of the 1916 Rising and the executions of his good friends Thomas MacDonagh and Padraig Pearse, whom he had known from writing circles in Dublin. In a letter to an army friend, he said: “Poor MacDonagh and Pearse were two of my best friends, and now they are dead, shot by England.” Ledwidge then went on to write the poem Lament for Thomas MacDonagh which is now regarded to be one of his greatest works.

Video Credit Rachel Carey and Diarmuid Burke

 

Following the events of the Rising, Ledwidge became disillusioned with life and longed to get out of the British army. It is thought that this disillusionment was not only to do with the events of Easter 1916, but also due to the death of his former love Ellie Vaughey.

Following some time spent at home in Slane, Ledwidge was due to return to Erbington Barracks in Derry on 18th May 1916 but stalled on his way there. He had requested an extension of leave from the army which was denied. It was during this time that Ledwidge was court-martialled for being drunk in uniform and lost his Lance Corporal stripe.

Ledwidge was passed fit to fight towards the end of 1916 and on 26th December 1916 he was sent to France. Despite the devastation he witnessed while at war, his love for home and its nature remained strong. This was reflected in his poetry, which became more intensely about home the longer he was away.

In July 1917 Ledwidge’s unit, the Fifth Battalion of the Royal Inniskillen Fusiliers, crossed the Franco-Belgian border to the Ypres Salient. On  31st July 1917, Ledwidge was killed. He, along with five other men, were killed as they were taking a break from repairing an old railway at Le Carrefour des Roses and a shell exploded beside them. So near was Ledwidge to the explosion, he could only be identified by his identity disc.

Francis Ledwidge Plaque
Ledwidge Plaque (Photo Credit flickr Open Plaques)

The men were buried where they fell at Le Carrefour des Roses and later reinterred in nearby Artillery Wood Military Cemetery. Ledwidge was just one of the 49,000 Irish men who died during World War I.

Known as the ‘Poet of the Blackbird’, many of Ledwidge’s poems were published after his death. His work was well received in the years after his death and this continues to be celebrated today. His childhood home, a small cottage in Janesville, Co. Meath, has been turned into a museum dedicated to his life and work, with original letters, poems and memorabilia on display.

Ledwidge also drew acclaim from fellow poets both during his life and after his death. Seamus Heaney was an admirer of Ledwidge and wrote his own poem for the tragic poet entitled In memoriam Francis Ledwidge.

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney Paiting (Photo Credit flickr Caroline)

Heaney, in his introduction to The Ledwidge Treasury, wrote “Ledwidge very deliberately chose not to bury his head in local sand and, as consequence, faced the choices and moral challenges of his time with solitude, honesty and rare courage”. This quote not only sums up the man Ledwidge chose to be, but also how this choice affected him throughout his life.

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Rachel Carey