Francis Ledwidge

Francis Ledwidge
Ledwidge in uniform
Ledwidge in uniform
Born (1887-08-19)19 August 1887
Janeville, Slane, County Meath
Died 31 July 1917(1917-07-31) (aged 29)
Pilckem Ridge, near Boezinge, Passchendaele salient, Belgium
Occupation Labourer, Miner, Soldier
Nationality Irish
Period 1890s–1917
Genre Poetry

Francis Edward Ledwidge (19 August 1887 – 31 July 1917) was an Irish war poet and soldier from County Meath.[1] Sometimes known as the "poet of the blackbirds", he was killed in action at the Battle of Passchendaele during World War I.

Early life

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,[2] 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.[2]

Early poetry and nationalism

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.[3] 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,[3] 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.[4] 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.[3] 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.[1]

Home Rule

Francis Ledwidge c. 1914

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.

Military service

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.[5]

Poetry and war

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.

Bust of Ledwidge in Richmond Barracks.

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.

Death and aftermath

Memorial to Francis Ledwidge on the spot where he died

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."[6]

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."[6]

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).[7]

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.

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'".

Publications and reception

The Original staves of Legends and Stories of the Boyne Side

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.

Ledwidge's submissions to the Drogheda Independent were done with the aim of publishing a book: Legends and Stories of the Boyne Side, but this never happened during Francis' lifetime and the book was "shelved". This shelved book was unknowingly dumped in the 1970s except for one known copy which was saved from the jumbo bin. Legends and Stories of the Boyne-side, together with short stories, a rare war record, and the complete autobiographical letter to Lewis Chase was already published by Riposte Books in association with the Inchicore Ledwidge Society. Legends of the Boyne and Selected Prose, researched and edited by Liam O’ Meara was launched by Senator David Norris at Liberty Hall in 2006 (full report on launch in the Meath Chronicle, Dec.9th 2006). 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:

Ledwidge Cottage Museum, Slane, County Meath where Francis lived and grew up as a young poet.

"[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."

Some of Ledwidge's poetry was put to music by the British Composer and songwriter Michael Head, most notably in the very well received song cycle published in 1920, "Over the rim of the moon". This includes the well-known song, "The Ships of Arcady".[8]

Later collections (editor's name listed first):

  • Alice Curtayne: The complete poems of Francis Ledwidge (1974) who also wrote a comprehensive biography of the poet, including some previously unpublished work
  • Liam O'Meara: Francis Ledwidge the Poems Complete (1997), Goldsmith Press. ISB 9781870491475, including 66 uncollected poems
  • Liam O'Meara: The Best of Francis Ledwidge, ISBN 9781901596106 edited with notes:introduction by Ulick O’Connor:
  • Liam O'Meara: Legends of the Boyne and Selected Prose Ripose Publications/Inchicore Ledwidge Society: ISBN 9781901596120
  • Liam O'Meara: The Dead Men's Dreams, Ledwidge poems inspired by 1916 Rising: Kilmainham Tales, ISBN 9781908056139
  • Liam O'Meara (author): To One Dead a play based on the life & writings of Francis Ledwidge: ISBN 9781901596199
  • Liam O'Meara (author): Francis Ledwidge Poet Activist & Soldier, Riposte Books/Inchicore Ledwidge Society, ISBN 9781901596137
  • Hubert Dunn: The Minstrel Boy, (2006) some more poems released in a commemorative volume
  • Dermot Bolger: In 1992 long-time Ledwidge admirer, Dublin poet Dermot Bolger, published a Selected Poems of Francis Ledwidge. This was re-issued by New Island Books in 2007 under the title A Ledwidge Treasury, with an introduction by Seamus Heaney and an afterword by Dermot Bolger. In 2017 a new hardback edition of this selection of the best of Ledwidge's work, using the original title of Selected Poems was reissued by New Island Books to mark the centenary of Ledwidge's death. In 2007 Bolger's play about the life of Ledwidge, Walking the Road, (New Island Books, 2007) was staged in Dublin and in the Town Hall Theatre, Ieper, close where Ledwidge died. It was commissioned to mark the 90th anniversary of his death and later broadcast by RTÉ Radio. In 1998 Bolger and the poet's nephew, Joseph Ledwidge, were invited by the 'In Flanders Fields Museum' to unveil a monument on the spot where Ledwidge was killed. On 31 July 2017 Bolger delivered the oration at Ledwidge's grave at the ceremony which marked the 100th anniversary of his death.
  • Miriam O'Gara Kilmurry, Eire's WWI War Poet: F. E. Ledwidge Publisher: Amazon (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; Lrg edition February 23, 2016). ISBN 978-1523482979.

In 2012, Miriam O'Gara-Kilmurry M.A., author of Eire's WWI War Poet: F. E. Ledwidge, was awarded a Masters in Literature from The Open University for a thesis on Francis Ledwidge titled, "A defence of Francis Ledwidge as a War Poet through an exploration of War Imagery, Nationalism and Canonical Revisions." While researching her thesis she observed that until 2011, Ledwidge had no 'WWI War Poet' presence online, and noted too that no searches containing the specific words 'Irish WWI War Poets' turned up any results. Ledwidge's poems written from front-lines received little if no attention as examples of unique nationalist 'hybrid' war poems. This had been the case for almost a century and other evidence and arguments in support of him being deserving of the title had no public profile at this time. On the 'Eve of All Ireland Poetry Day', 2 October 2013, Miriam was invited by the National Library of Ireland to deliver a lecture titled, "Francis Ledwidge: WWI Irish Nationalist War Poet". Here she invited the library, media and politicians to consider a dialogue on this and related subjects. The arrival of 2014 and Centenary WWI Commemorations saw some movement, with online sites finally beginning to reference Ledwidge as a War Poet. In 2016, her thesis remains a trailblazing defence of Ledwidge as a World War I War Poet through an exploration of War Imagery, Nationalism and Canonical Revisions. 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)).

—  Miriam O'Gara Kilmurry, Eire's WWI War Poet: F.E. Ledwidge[9]

...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[9]


His politics are described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as nationalist as well as left-wing.[3] 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"[10] as the Easter Rising's Irish Republicans who fought and died for the Irish Republic in and around O'Connell Street in 1916.



Memorial to Francis Ledwidge on the spot where he died

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

Documentary film

Memorial plaque on Slane bridge
  • 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.[11]