|Born||19 August 1887|
Janeville, Slane, County Meath
|Died||31 July 1917 (aged 29)|
Pilckem Ridge, near Boezinge, Passchendaele salient, Belgium
|Occupation||Labourer, miner, writer and poet|
Francis Edward Ledwidge (19 August 1887 – 31 July 1917) was an Irish poet from County Meath, sometimes known as the "poet of the blackbirds". He was later also known as a First World War war poet. He was killed in action in 1917.
Born to a poor family in Slane, County Louth, Ledwidge started writing at an early age, and was first published in a local newspaper at the age of 14. Finding work as a labourer and miner, he was also a trade union activist, and, a keen patriot and nationalist, associated with Sinn Féin. He became friendly with a local landowner, the writer Lord Dunsany, who gave him a workspace in the library of Dunsany Castle, and introduced him to literary figures including William Butler Yeats and Katherine Tynan, with whom he had a long-term correspondence. He was elected to a local authority post and helped organise the local branch of the Irish Volunteers, while Dunsany edited and helped him secure publication for a first volume of his poetry. Having sided with the faction of the Irish Volunteers which opposed participation in the war, he enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in October 1914, and continued to write poetry on assignment, sending work to Lord Dunsany and to family and other friends. He was killed in action in July 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele.
Dunsany arranged for the publication of more of his poems, and a collected edition in 1919. Further poems, from the archives at Dunsany Castle and some material held by family, were later published by Ledwdige's biographer, Alice Curtayne, and by one of the Ledwidge memorial societies. Ledwidge was selected as one of twelve prominent war poets for the exhibition Anthem for Doomed Youth at the Imperial War Museum in London in 2002, and memorialised at an event in Inchicore, Dublin, in 2017, with his work set to music by Anúna. A museum of his life and work was opeend in his birthplace cottage in 1982. Some of his manuscripts are held in the National Library of Ireland and more in the archives of Dunsany Castle.
Ledwidge was born at Janeville, Slane, in Ireland, the eighth of nine children in a poverty-stricken family. His parents, Patrick Ledwidge and wife Anne Lynch (1853–1926), believed in giving their children the best education they could afford; however, when Francis was only five, his father Patrick died, which forced his wife and the children out to work at an early age. Francis left the local national school aged thirteen, and while he continued to educate himself, he worked at what work he could find, as farm hand, road mender and supervisor of roads, as copper miner (sacked for organising a strike for better mining conditions, three years before the general 1913 strike, and was a trade union activist since 1906) and shop assistant. Appointed secretary of the Slane branch of the Meath Labour Union (1913–14) he had aspirations of permanent white-collar work. He was known for his connections with Sinn Féin.
Strongly built, with striking brown eyes and a sensuous face, Ledwidge was a keen poet, writing where ever he could – sometimes even on gates or fence posts. From the age of fourteen his works were published in his local newspaper, the Drogheda Independent reflecting his passion for the Boyne Valley. While working as a road labourer he won the patronage of the Anglo-Irish landlord and fantasy novelist Lord Dunsany after writing to him in 1912, enclosing copybooks of his early work. Dunsany, a man of letters already well known in Dublin and London literary and dramatic circles, and whose own start in publishing had been with a few poems, promoted him in Dublin and introduced him to W.B. Yeats, with whom he became acquainted.
Dunsany supported Ledwidge with money and literary advice for some years, providing him with access to and a workspace in Dunsany Castle's library, where he met the Irish writer Katharine Tynan, corresponding with her regularly. Dunsany later prepared his first collection of poetry Songs of the Fields, which successfully appealed to the expectations of the Irish Literary Revival and its social taste for rural poetry. Despite Ledwidge's growing association with the aristocratic Lord Dunsany, he retained a keen interest in the conditions of working men. He was one of the founder members in 1906 of the Slane branch of the Meath Labour Union. He familiarised himself with the writings of James Connolly and, despite the Vatican's condemnations of Marxism, Ledwidge found no contradiction between Roman Catholicism and socialism. In 1913 he was temporary secretary of the union, the following year elected to the Navan district rural council and board of guardians.
Ledwidge was a keen patriot and nationalist. His efforts to found a branch of the Gaelic League in Slane were thwarted by members of the local council. The area organiser encouraged him to continue his struggle, but Francis gave up. He did manage to act as a founding member with his brother Joseph of the Slane Branch of the Irish Volunteers (1914), a paramilitary force created in response to the founding of the Ulster Volunteers, who had sworn to resist Home Rule for Ireland even if it meant civil war. The Irish Volunteers were set up to fight the Unionists if necessary and to ensure that Home Rule would come to pass.
On the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, and on account of Ireland's involvement in the war, the Irish Volunteers split into two factions, the National Volunteers who supported John Redmond's appeal to join Irish regiments in support of the Allied cause and those who did not. Francis was originally of the latter party. Nevertheless, having defended this position strongly at a local council meeting, he enlisted (24 October 1914) in Lord Dunsany's regiment, joining 5th battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, part of the 10th (Irish) Division. This was against Lord Dunsany's wishes and he had offered Ledwidge a stipend to support him if he stayed out of the war. Some have speculated that he went to war because his sweetheart Ellie Vaughey had found a new lover, John O'Neill, whom she later married, but Ledwidge himself wrote, quite forcefully, that he could not stand aside while others sought to defend Ireland's freedom.
Ledwidge seems to have fitted into Army life well, and rapidly achieved promotion to lance corporal. In 1915, he saw action in the Landing at Suvla Bay during the Gallipoli Campaign, where he suffered severe rheumatism. Having survived huge losses sustained by his company, Ledwidge became ill after a back injury gained during the Battle of Kosturino in Serbia (December 1915), a locale which inspired a number of poems.
Ledwidge was dismayed by the news of the Easter Rising, and was court-martialled and demoted for overstaying his furlough and being drunk in uniform (May 1916). He gained and lost stripes over a period in Derry (he was a corporal when the introduction to his first book was written), and then, returned to the front, received back his lance corporal's stripe one last time in January 1917 when posted to the Western Front, joining 1st Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, part of 29th Division.
Ledwidge continued to write when feasible throughout the war years, though he lost much work, for example, in atrocious weather in Serbia. He sent much of his output to Lord Dunsany, himself moving on war assignments, as well as to readers among family, friends and literary contacts.
The poems Ledwidge wrote on active service reveal his pride at being a soldier, as he believed, in the service of Ireland. He often wondered whether he would find a soldier's death. On 31 July 1917, a group from Ledwidge's battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were road-laying in preparation for an assault during the Third Battle of Ypres, near the village of Boezinge, northwest of Ypres.
According to Alice Curtayne, "Ledwidge and his comrades had been toiling since the early morning at road-making. The army's first need was men; their second, guns; their third roads. These latter consisted mainly of heavy beech planks bolted together, which could be rapidly laid down. No advance could be supported in that sodden land without a sufficiency of these communications tracks, six or seven feet wide. Supplies were conveyed by pack mules over the wooden paths. Survivors concur in placing the road work done by B Company that day one mile north-east of Hell Fire Corner, so called because it was very exposed to German shelling. There was a violent rainstorm in the afternoon, shrouding the region in a gray monochrome. Sullenly, the enemy's long-range guns continued to fling their shells far behind the lines. Road-work could not be suspended, however, as the tracks were in use as fast as they were laid down. Tea was issued to the men and, drenched to the skin,they stopped to swallow it. A shell exploded beside Ledwidge and he was instantly killed."
A Roman Catholic military chaplain, Father Devas, was the first on the scene. That night, Father Devas wrote in his diary, "Crowds at Holy Communion. Arranged for service but washed out by rain and fatigues. Walk in rain with dogs. Ledwidge killed, blown to bits; at Confession yesterday and Mass and Holy Communion this morning. R.I.P."
Francis Ledwidge was first buried at Carrefour de Rose, and later re-interred in the nearby Artillery Wood Military Cemetery, at Boezinge, (where the Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, who was killed in action on the same day, also lies buried).
According to a local folktale the ghostly apparition of Ledwidge appeared in Navan at the same time he died on the Western front. His ghost greeted a friend before fading away.
A stone tablet commemorates Ledwidge in the Island of Ireland Peace Park, Messines, Belgium. His work as "peasant poet" and "soldier poet", once a standard part of the Irish school curriculum, faded from view for many decades of the 20th century. Its intensity, coupled with a revived interest in his period, has restored it to life.
The Ledwidge Cottage Museum, in Ledwidge's childhood home at Janeville, Slane, was opened by a local committee in June 1982, and is now run by a dedicated non-profit company, Francis Ledwidge Museum and War Memorial Centre CLG; it contains displays on his life and work. It charges a small fee for admission.
The centenary of his birth was marked with events and a booklet by a committee in 1987.
On the 81st anniversary of his death in 1998 a simple non-militaristic monument was unveiled by the poet's nephew, Joe Ledwidge, and the writer, Dermot Bolger, on the exact spot where he was killed - the location having been unearthed by Piet Chielens, the director of the In Flanders Fields Museum. The monument consists of a portrait of Ledwdige on glass over yellow Ieper brick, with the text of his poem, Soliloquy, printed in English and in Dutch.
In 2002, Ledwidge was selected as one of twelve representative World War I soldier poets by the Imperial War Museum, and personal and written material included in their Anthem for Doomed Youth exhibition, which ran into 2003. His family and Dunsany Castle's archives lent original materials, and he and images of these were featured on the museum's website, and in a chapter in the exhibition book of the same title.
In a 2016 episode of the BBC Radio 3 series "Minds at War" Belfast academic Gerald Dawe contributed a commentary entitled "Francis Ledwidge's poem 'O'Connell Street'".
The national commemoration for Ledwidge was held at the birthplace cottage in Slane on the 24 June 2017, with the State represented by Minister for European Affairs, Helen McEntee, joined by four members of Ledwidge's family, an Irish Army Brigadier General, a Garda Assistant Commissioner, various politicians, the Belgian ambassador, the UK defence attache, and many locals. There were also events at Ieper in Belgium, where the Irish poet Dermot Bolger gave an oration at his grave, and in the former Richmond Barracks in Inchicore Dublin, where there was a musical memorial event featuring the musical group Anúna, including some of Ledwidge's poetry set to music.
Much of Ledwidge's work was published in newspapers and journals in Ireland and the UK. The only work published in book form during Ledwidge's lifetime was the original Songs of the Fields (1915), which was very well received. The critic Edward Marsh printed three of the poems in the Georgian Poetry series, and remained a correspondent for the remainder of Ledwidge's life. A second volume, Songs of Peace was in preparation when Ledwidge died; patron and friend Lord Dunsany wrote the introduction while both were in Derry in September 1916.
Following the war, Dunsany arranged for more of Ledwidge's work to be published, first in a third and final new volume, Last Songs, and then later in an anthology in 1919; he commented on the work with words such as:
"[I was] astonished by the brilliance of that eye and that had looked at the fields of Meath and seen there all the simple birds and flowers, with a vividness which made those pages like a magnifying glass, through which one looked at familiar things for the first time."
Ledwidge's submissions to the Drogheda Independent in 1913 were done with the aim of publishing a book: Legends and Stories of the Boyne Side. The book was unfinished, having reached the entry for Slane, but some material was drafted, typeset, and some copies of this partial work printed, but it was then "shelved", and the early print material was dumped in the 1970s, except for one set, which was recovered, and published as Legends and Stories of the Boyne Side. A further edition, expanded to include some short stories, a war record, and the full text of an autobiographical letter to Lewis Chase, was released in 2006: Legends of the Boyne and Selected Prose. Researched and edited by Liam O'Meara, it was launched by Senator David Norris at Liberty Hall in 2006.
Ledwidge also wrote of working on a play, but no drama was published or performed.
Some of Ledwidge's poetry was set to music by the British composer and songwriter Michael Head, most notably in the song cycle published in 1920, "Over the rim of the moon". This includes the song, "The Ships of Arcady".
Compact discs and audiobooks of readings of his work, sometimes to music, have also been released.
A substantial biography was written by Alice Curtayne, and published in 1972. In 2020, a short book, Soldier's Heart: Francis Ledwidge at war ISBN 978-1-913425-29-6, a biographical account of his military service years, was published by his grand-nephew, Frank Ledwidge.
Liam O'Meara, chairman of the Inchicore Ledwidge Society, published To One Dead, a play based on the life & writings of Francis Ledwidge (ISBN 9781901596199) and Francis Ledwidge Poet Activist & Soldier (Riposte Books/Inchicore Ledwidge Society, ISBN 9781901596137).
In 2012, Miriam O'Gara-Kilmurry was awarded a Masters in Literature from the Open University, with a thesis on Ledwidge titled, "A defence of Francis Ledwidge as a War Poet through an exploration of War Imagery, Nationalism and Canonical Revisions." She asserted that until 2011, Ledwidge had no 'WWI War Poet' presence online, and that no searches containing the specific words 'Irish WWI war poets' turned up any results, and that Ledwidge's poems written from the front-lines received little if no attention as examples of unique nationalist 'hybrid' war poems. On the eve of All-Ireland Poetry Day', 2 October 2013, O'Gara-Kilmurry was invited by the National Library of Ireland to deliver a lecture on "Francis Ledwidge: WWI Irish Nationalist War Poet." In 2016, the thesis was published as a book, Eire's WWI War Poet: F. E. Ledwidge. According to O'Gara-Kilmurry:
Ledwidge qualifies as a 'war poet' on the grounds that he actually fought in theatres of war. Secondly, he wrote on war themes peculiar to soldiers fighting on front-lines, and finally, he belonged to a category of poets singled out by the celebrated literary sponsor of his day, Edward Howard Marsh, Private Secretary to Winston Churchill. Central to the literal argument is our theory that Francis Ledwidge meets criteria set out for War Poets and identified by Marsh's friend and fellow academic Robert H. Ross, who in 1965 published a study attempting to explore the Georgians (Robert H. Ross, Georgian Summer (London: Faber and Faber, 1965))." ... "My final thought as I leave you, is that there is nothing worse than indifference. Ignoring the War Poetry of F. E. is another way of declaring war on Ledwidge and should not be allowed to continue into the 21 Century."— Miriam O'Gara Kilmurry, Eire's WWI War Poet: F.E. Ledwidge
His politics are described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as nationalist as well as left-wing. However far from simply being an Irish Nationalist, his poems "O’Connell Street" and "Lament for the Poets of 1916" clearly describe his sense of loss and an expression of holding the same "dreams" as the Easter Rising's Irish Republicans who fought and died for the Irish Republic in and around O'Connell Street in 1916.
Oh what a pleasant world 'twould be,
How easy we'd step thro' it,
If all the fools who meant no harm,
Could manage not to do it!
– From a personal letter.
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.
– Lament for Thomas MacDonagh
Ledwidge was the subject of an RTÉ documentary entitled Behind the Closed Eye, first broadcast on 18 January 1973. It won awards for Best Story and Best Implementation Documentary at the Golden Prague International Television Festival.
The museum is the cottage birthplace of World War I poet, Francis Ledwidge. ... purchased and restored by the Francis Ledwidge Museum Committee in 1981. Dr Benedict Kiely opened it ... in June 1982.