Francis Ledwidge: a deeply complex Irishman

His death 100 years ago was a loss to Irish literature and to post-independence Ireland

 

The Meath solider poet Francis Ledwidge, who died at the third Battle of Ypres on July 31st 1917, is best known for a single poem, his Lament for Thomas McDonagh. But Ledwidge deserves honour and commemoration for far more than that resounding elegy in memory of his friend and signatory to the 1916 Proclamation.

In both character and nature, he was a deeply complex Irishman – or as Seamus Heaney put it, a man of “agonised conscience ….who embodied the conflicting elements in the Irish inheritance”. An avowed nationalist who put on a Tommy’s uniform because of his conviction that Britain “stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I would not have her say she defended us while we did nothing at home”.

That sense of moral obligation that led him to a British Army recruiting office and from the Boyne to the Balkans, Gallipoli and Passchendaele was only one of his many admirable characteristics. It was an act that took the “honesty and rare courage” attributed to him.

Ledwidge never fulfilled his desire to return and walk “the old frequented ways”. His death 100 years ago was not only a loss to Irish literature but to post-independence Ireland. Had he survived and returned he would surely have played a valuable role in civic life or become a voice for his fellow Irishmen who fought in the war, the forgotten thousands whose stories, until only recently, were redacted from national discourse and whose fate he foresaw in his poem “Soliloquy”:

“A little grave that has no name,

Whence honour turns away in shame.”

His attachment to the landscape and people of his native county sustained him in the trenches of the first World War and provided the wellspring for many of his poems. However, the poet Gerald Dawe’s description of Ledwidge as a man who “took Europe as his provenance while believing passionately in Irish independence” bears relevance and resonance today. Those seeking to reconcile issues of cultural identity between separate traditions that are at the root of age-old conflicts on this island could look to his example.

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