In one sense, we are here to commemorate a tragedy from a century ago. The death of a lyric poet who lived by his labouring hands, cycling home from work as a farm hand or road labourer to write at a kitchen table, limbs weary but his mind enraptured by the possibilities of language.
Francis Ledwidge never saw his 30th birthday. He saw just one volume of his poems: it reached him while freezing on starvation rations in Serbia. A committed Irish nationalist, he never saw the independent Irish State he felt he was fighting for – represented here by the Irish ambassador to Belgium; by Mairead McGuinness, Vice President of the European Parliament and by the colour party of the Irish Army ex-servicemen holding aloft the tricolour and UN flag.
Yet I feel we are also celebrating how his words miraculously live on to ring out across this graveyard; across this Flemish countryside which resembled hell when he saw it; across Ireland and worldwide where his poems remain as fresh for readers as when scribbled in trenches on scraps of paper, often soaked in mud when posted home.
A hundred people are here from Meath: not just to remember a poet, but to honour a neighbour. Irish funerals are communal events. No neighbours could be present when Ledwidge was hastily buried in a crater caused by the shell which killed him. No neighbours were present in 1919 when his limbs were reburied in this cemetery. Today is like his Meath funeral, neighbours finally paying their respects, because neighbours remain neighbours even a century later.
Fittingly, another Frank Ledwidge is here – the poet’s grand-grandnephew, with his son, James. I especially thank the many Flemish people here to learn about Ledwidge’s enduring importance as a poet; as a symbol of Ireland’s forgotten war dead; as an emblem of Irish reconciliation.
Ledwidge was born in Slane in 1887 in a labourer’s cottage, which local people – many present here – have restored as a museum. After Ledwidge’s father – an agricultural labourer – died when Francis was four, his mother Anne slaved to keep her children together by working for local farmers. Francis left school at 13 to work in those fields, then became a seasonal road worker.
He briefly worked as a copper miner, being sacked for organising a strike for safer conditions.
His background left him isolated from literary circles. But in 1912 he posted poems to a famous local writer, Lord Dunsany, who – recognising his lyric brilliance – took his young neighbour under his wing. Ledwidge surely imagined a better future than road-mending. He never imagined it involving building roads near where dying men screamed in No Man’s Land.
Ledwidge threw himself into nationalist and labour causes in Meath. When the Great War started, John Redmond controversially urged Irish Volunteers to join the British army, claiming that fighting for small nations like Belgium would guarantee Home Rule. Ledwidge resigned in protest when the Slane Irish Volunteers supported Redmond. But he was a lone voice, jeered as a pro-German coward at a Navan Board of Guardians’ meeting.
Days after being that sole dissenting voice in Navan; haunted by a former girlfriend’s rejection; without steady work despite being a published poet, Ledwidge did what locals supporting Redmond shied away from. He decided that Europe’s war was Ireland’s war and therefore his war. He later wrote: “I joined the British army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I could not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions.”
Ledwidge’s war was protracted and disillusioning. He wrote in impossible conditions. Yet little horror permeated his poems. Thrust into the nightmare slaughter of Gallipoli for two months, he wrote: “No man thought he would ever return.”
His book appeared and London critics praised its “stream of pure crystal”, but all Ledwidge wanted was writing paper. He gave a homeless Serbian girl his greatcoat, forgetting his reading glasses were in the pocket. His unit were given up for dead before they reached Salonika. Ledwidge collapsed.
In hospital he heard of the Easter Rising. Its leaders – including poets who were friends – changed the political landscape: their execution a hammer blow against British rule. Reaching Dublin, Ledwidge argued with an officer that he had been fighting for Ireland just like the rebels. His insubordination saw him court-martialled and ordered to join the fighting in France: a cheap hunk of meat to be sacrificed. In July 1917 his company entered Belgium. In a lull in one bombardment, suddenly hearing a robin sing, he wrote:
“This is the song a robin sang
This morning on a broken tree,
It was about the little fields
That call across the world to me.”
When the Third Battle of Ypres commenced, Ledwidge’s unit laboured in mud to build a road. Tea was issued in teeming rain, when that shell killed him. He has haunted Irish poetry ever since, condemned – like other war poets – to be forever young. But like thousands of Irishmen, he was condemned to another limbo. The posthumous reputation of poets like Wilfred Owen had no legacy of divided loyalties. The stories of Canadian and Australian survivors weren’t blotted from their nations’ collective memory.
Ledwidge represents those untold Irish stories. He could never have imagined the events now being organised to salute him or the Irish State issuing a postage stamp in his honour, proof that his sacrifice and that of numerous other Irishmen are finally incorporated into the narrative of Irish history.
He was unknown in Flanders before Piet Chielens – from the In Flanders Fields Museum, which organised today’s tribute – erected a monument to mark where he died. This created enduring links between Meath and Flanders. Ieper stonemasons built a replica monument at Ledwidge’s cottage, and Slane people planted an apple tree from Meath beside his monument in Flanders.
Ledwidge never got to live by his poems, although he lived for them. He lived by his hands, a farm labourer, road-worker and soldier with a duel identity: an Irish patriot in a British uniform.
He died hoping for independence for an Ireland slow to acknowledge this fact. His death was a waste, like all the deaths from 60 nations in Ieper. Young men who, turning their thoughts to secret places in their hearts, to which they would never return.
Because Francis never came back to us, we come to him today from villages he loved and Flemish villages he died among.
When posting his last poems on paper imbued with mud, Francis surely wondered if they would reach home and be heard. Rest in peace, Francis: not only did they reach us, but a century on, we still carry them for you in our hearts.
Dermot Bolger is editor of The Selected Poems of Francis Ledwidge, introduced by Seamus Heaney, published by New Island Books
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