A portrait of the poet as a young journalist – An Irishman’s Diary on rediscovered writings of Francis Ledwidge
Francis Ledwidge (1887–1917)
In 1902, Francis Ledwidge, an apprentice shop boy in Daly’s of Rathfarnham in south Dublin, where he also had lodgings, slipped out of bed, dressed himself and stole noiselessly downstairs with his few possessions.
He was only a few days in the job, where he had succeeded an older brother, Michael, but he disliked the work immensely, missing his home village of Slane in Co Meath, and the Boyne Valley he loved so well. Unhappily sitting up awake at night, he wrote a poem, Behind the Closed Eye, where he felt he could hear the sweet blackbird “drawing me back to the homely moor . . . I’ll go and close the mountain’s door, on the city’s strife and din.”
The 15-year-old walked the almost 40 miles home to his mother’s cottage in Slane overnight, a journey retraced since by poet Dermot Bolger and by Navan playwright Richie Ball, who had the new M2 motorway to contend with en route.
Much has been made of the Slane poet’s love of nature and the Meath landscapes he grew up in, and his ability to celebrate these in his work, but he wasn’t always so complimentary of his home county, according to some recently rediscovered writings.
The 130th anniversary of Ledwidge’s birthday tomorrow (August 19th), will see the launch of a compilation of his Drogheda Independent columns, written in series form between 1913 and 1914, recreated and reproduced from the only known original book form.
The unpublished and unfinished work by Ledwidge is printed from the original newsprint paper staves, which were salvaged from a skip outside the newspaper’s offices in 1978 by printer Eamonn Matthews.
Entitled Legends and Stories of the Boyneside, it follows the river from its source, almost to the sea, but events intervened.
Announcing the series, the Drogheda Independent wrote: “We commence publication today of series of papers under the above title from the pen of Mr Francis E Ledwidge, a young writer who gives promise of eminence in the career of literature . . . Someone has said that Irish history in its most interesting stages has developed itself mainly along the Boyne’s banks. Everyone acquainted with the facts knows how true that statement is, and as our contributor has gleaned most of these happenings and intends to string them together in a series of eloquent essays, we opine that his labour of love will prove of exceptional interest to his fellow Meathians.”
What his fellow “Meathians” thought of some of his ramblings we do not know.
In parts a personal log, a recounting of legends, and a history lesson, his first impressions of the town of Trim were not the best.
“Entering it from the Navan side, one is immediately struck by the absolute barrenness and woe-begone appearance of the whole scene. The Boyne is at its worst here, running along the dirty back of a high wall, and stretching into wild open fields where I could even not see cattle.”
Thankfully, he was more impressed with the new Catholic church, a “magnificent edifice and a credit to the parish”.
Navan, getting mixed reviews, was “the ugliest and the very best provincial town that I ever stood in. There is nothing stagnant about it except the water in the street puddles. It is a town where business is ever on the move, alive to every modern improvement in architecture, and the first to grasp any movement towards the advancement of the country’s good.”
He starts off positively of Slane, a “pleasing little village”, but then says “there is no place in Slane for the youth”.
“There is no place for the patriot. There is no branch of the Gaelic League there, no debating society, no sense of nationality. The sins of the fathers have descended to the children and there is no hope for them, no hope.”
The essay on Slane was published on February 21st, 1914, ending “to be continued”. Readers waited for the next instalment, which never came.
On October 24th, 1914, Ledwidge enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in Richmond Barracks in Dublin. He never got to complete his promise to “take the Boyne as my ribbon, and travel by it from Roch Ramor to the sea”.