Francis Ledwidge (19 August 1887 – 31 July 1917)
Early Life/School Years
Born on 19th August 1887, Francis was the eighth of nine children born to Patrick and Anne Ledwidge. He was the first child born in the family's new home, a Labourer's Cottage (which is now home to the Ledwidge Cottage Museum) just outside the village of Slane, situated in the heart of the Boyne Valley, some thirty miles North of Dublin. Christened Francis Edward but known as Frank to his family and friends the fledgling poet would know hardship at an early age. His father died when he was just four years old and only three months after the birth of his youngest brother Joseph. The burden fell on his mother Anne to provide for the family by undertaking backbreaking "outdoor relief" work in the fields for a meagre eight shillings a week.
Further tragedy was to befall the Ledwidge family when the eldest son Patrick returned from his book keeping job in Dublin with tuberculosis and a four year death sentence. Francis later said of that time:
"Oh those four years. It was as though God forgot us."
Despite the initial hardship the literary talents of Francis flourished from an early age. Described as an "erratic genius" by his schoolmaster Mr. Thomas Madden Francis joined a literary society for juveniles and was introduced to classic stories like The Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote and the poetic works of Shakespeare, Keats and Longfellow. From as soon as he could write Francis indulged in the creation of rhyme and verse:
"While I was still at school many silly verses left my pen, written either for my own amusement, or the amusement of my companions. Indeed I left many an exercise unfinished hurrying over some thought that shaped itself into rhyme."
His first poem of note came when Francis was aged fifteen. Upon finishing school the young poet went to work as a grocer's apprentice in Rathfarnham Co. Dublin. He hated his time there and was extremely homesick. His poem "Behind the Closed Eye" reflected the memories of the idyllic world he had left behind. After just a week of working in the grocers Francis stole away in the middle of the night and walked the thirty five miles home to Slane.
In the following years, Francis undertook a variety of jobs in the Slane area including groom, farmhand, roadworker and miner. He continued to write poetry and had many of his poems published in the local newspaper the 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 "Spring Love".
During this time Ledwidge acquired a patron in the form of a local aristocrat, Lord Dunsany. Dunsany wrote of the young poet:
"I was astonished by the brilliance of that eye that had looked at the fields of Meath and seen 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 ensured that the poetry of Ledwidge would find a wider audience as his poems began to be published in the literary magazine Saturday Review. Dunsany also facilitated the introduction of the young poet to the Irish literary circle which included AE, Thomas MacDonagh, Katherine Tynan and James Stephens amongst others.
The poet was also a keen political activist. While employed in Beauparc copper mines Frank organised a strike for tolerable working conditions. He was a founder member of the Slane branch of the Meath Labour Union and held the position of the General Secretary of the Meath Labour Union Approved Society for a year. He was elected to the Navan Board of Guardians and also the Navan Rural District Council. Both Frank and his younger brother Joe were founder members of the Slane corps of the Irish Volunteers. Founded in November 1913 in response to the establishment of the Ulster Volunteers by Edward Carson to resist Home Rule, the mandate of the Irish Volunteers was:
"To secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland."
At the same the European political landscape was changing. On August 4th, 1914 England declared war on Germany and so began the Great War. On September 20th, John Redmond, leader of the Home Rule Parliamentary Party made his infamous 'recruitment speech' at Woodenbridge Co. Wicklow. This speech split the Irish Volunteers into two factions. One faction supported John Redmond and was named the "National Volunteers", the other supported Eoin McNeill and the original twenty co-founders and retained the name the "Irish Volunteers". At a meeting of the Slane corps the whole hall declared for Redmond except for six men, one of whom was Francis Ledwidge. At the next meeting of the Rural District Council all except Ledwidge were united in their enthusiasm for Redmond. His fellow councillors sneered at Ledwidge and labelled him as a "pro-German."
Yet inexplicably five days later Frank enlisted in the Royal Inniskillen Fusiliers at Richmond Barracks in Dublin. It is impossible to say exactly why Ledwidge enlisted in the army. One popular myth is that Ledwidge enlisted under the influence of his patron Lord Dunsany. However this is untrue as Dunsany was so annoyed to discover that the poet had joined the army that he almost refused to have any more to do with him. One strong reason for the poet's enlistment is the loss of his love, Ellie Vaughey. Ellie could often be seen with a new escort, John O'Neill.
The poet wrote of this:
"I'm wild for wandering to far-off places,
Since one forsook me whom I held most dear," [After My Last Song]
Ellie went on to marry John O'Neill and settle in Manchester, yet sadly she died shortly after childbirth just a year later. Francis had foreseen Ellie's fate the night before her death in a vivid dream of white birds flying over the Atlantic Ocean. He wrote the poem "Caoin" to describe this foreboding doom. Ledwidge wrote many elegies to Ellie including the poignant "To One Dead".
Frank's first introduction to the war was at Gallipoli. He wrote no poetry during the eight weeks he spent on the campaign but was lucky enough to be included among the 118,000 men who were evacuated from the peninsula. Serbia was the next scene of warfare for Ledwidge and despite the harsh cold and wet weather which afflicted Frank with rheumatism and gave him an attack of "Barney Fitzsimons' back" the poet was in good spirits as he heard news of the publication of his first book Songs of the Fields. He was so delighted with the volume that he described it as "better to him than food and warmth."
The poet's spirits would change dramatically. The allies were defeated in Serbia and so the army was forced to retreat. Before the retreating soldiers reached camp Ledwidge collapsed. His back was so badly inflamed that he could not stand up. Eventually Ledwidge reached the Western General Hospital in Manchester, and there he received news of the 1916 Rising in Dublin and the execution by the British of his good friend and fellow poet Thomas MacDonagh. Ledwidge's poem "Lament for Thomas MacDonagh" is widely regarded as one of his greatest works.
The Rising changed everything. Ledwidge was completely disillusioned and felt he had to get out of the British army as soon as possible. Upon his return to Slane both family and friends found Frank to be a different man. After persistent questioning from his brother, Frank declared:
"If someone were to tell me now that the Germans were coming over our back wall,
I wouldn't lift a finger to stop them. They could come!"
Upon his return for duty to Richmond Barracks Ledwidge was court-martialled for a sharp exchange of words with an officer and lost his lance corporal stripe. This event hardly bothered him as he wrote:
"My mind is not my mind, therefore
I take no heed of what men say,
I lived ten thousand years before
God cursed the town of Nineveh." [After Court Martial, Abriged]
In July 1917 having survived the Battle of Arras, Ledwidge's unit was ordered north into Belgium in preparation for the third Battle of Ypres. Despite the horror of war his love for nature and his home remained unabated. One day during a lull in the bombardment he heard a robin singing which inspired the poem "Home"."This 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." [Abriged]
On July 20th he wrote a letter to his friend and fellow poet Katherine Tynan in which he spoke of his longing for home.
"I want to see again my wonderful mother, and to walk by the Boyne to Crewbawn and up through the brown and grey rocks of Crocknaharna. You have no idea of how I suffer with this longing for the swish of the reeds at Slane and the voices I used to hear coming over the low hills of Currabwee. Say a prayer that I may get this leave, and give us a condition my punctual return and sojourn till the war is over."
Unfortunately this prayer would go unanswered as all leave was cancelled until after the battle. On July 31st the 1st Battalion of the Royal Inniskillen Fusiliers of which Frank was a member were repairing the road to Pilkem near the village of Boezinghe northwest of Ieper (Ypres). In the afternoon of that day a shell exploded beside them, killing one officer and five enlisted men, among them Ledwidge. The men were buried were they fell at Carrefour de Rose (Rose Crossroads) and reinterred later in nearby Artillery Wood Military Cemetery.
Lance Corporal Francis Edward Ledwidge is buried in plot 2, Row B, Grave 5.
"And here where that sweet poet sleeps,
I hear the songs he left unsung,
When winds are fluttering the flowers,
And summer-bells are rung" [At A Poet's Grave]