Francis Ledwidge: an Irish nationalist in a British army uniform

Poet was one of those civilised citizens of vision who would have contributed to the birth and growth of the new Ireland had they not died before their time

Irish poet and soldier Francis Ledwidge (1891-1917). He  died on the battlefield of Messines in Belgium. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Irish poet and soldier Francis Ledwidge (1891-1917). He died on the battlefield of Messines in Belgium. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

In his own words he “joined the British army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation, and I would not say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions”.

He is quite probably the only writer in the literature of these islands to use the feminine pronoun to describe the British army.

During his short life Francis Ledwidge was chronically homesick for his native Meath and “wild for wandering to the far-off places”, an Irish nationalist in a British army uniform, a pastoral poet in the trenches and a war poet in the fields of home, a lover and a fighter, forsaken in life and held most dear in death, a survivor and a casualty, the quintessential home bird who never made it home, a man of action capable of being stopped in his tracks by bird song.

A large part of our abiding interest in Ledwidge’s life and his writing is that, to paraphrase Seamus Heaney, he solves nothing.

He continues to be “our dead enigma” in whom “all the strains criss-cross in useless equilibrium”.

He belongs in the company of Thomas Kettle and Willie Redmond – self-made, civilised citizens of vision who would have contributed to the birth and growth of the new Ireland had they not died before their time.

“If I survive the war,” he wrote to Katharine Tynan months before his death in 1917, “I have great hopes of writing something that will live.” It is a heart-breaking sentence.

“War”. “Hopes”. “Writing”. “Live” – the words on the page occur in almost perfect reverse order to how they occurred to the poet in life. On the evidence of his Lament for Thomas MacDonagh, which drew itself from him in April 1916, there were good things to come.

Some 100 years on, to quote from Gerald Dawe’s introduction to the forthcoming volume A Bittern Cry, “Ledwidge is a representative figure, illuminating the past certainly, but in his courage, contradictions and personality, he reveals a truer, more human vision of ourselves. . .”

When he lifted the latch on his lodgings in Rathfarnham in the spring of 1903 to walk the long straight road home to Slane, he was turning his back on security, setting his heart on poetry and walking into history.