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DESCRIPTIONEssay about the life and poetry of Francis Ledwidge
Dr. S.M.H. King
School of Irish Studies
12th. January 2001
Write an introduction to a novel, volume of short stories, poetry collection or play by
an Irish writer of your choice.
As the subject of this essay I have chosen one of the most
recently published collections of the poetry of Francis Ledwidge,
viz. “Francis Ledwidge, The Poems Complete”, edited, with an
introduction and notes, by Liam O’Meara and published by The
Goldsmith Press, Newbridge, Co. Kildare in 1997.
In “Francis Ledwidge, The Poems Complete”, Liam O’Meara presents the most
complete collection of Ledwidge’s poems yet compiled, containing sixty-six more poems
than “The complete Poems of Francis Ledwidge” compiled by Alice Curtayne, and one
hundred more than “Francis Ledwidge Complete Poems” compiled by Lord Dunsany.
The poems are arranged in chronological order, with dates for each, together with notes
describing the circumstances and location in which each poem was written.
Any study of the poems of Francis Ledwidge must of necessity make reference to
his biography since the events, circumstances and passions of his life both influenced and
were influenced by his poetry. To this end we owe much to Alice Curtayne and, more
recently, to Liam O’Mara and the Inchicore Ledwidge Society.
Born in Janeville, near the village of Slane, County Meath, on the 19th August
1887, the second youngest of nine children, Ledwidge was only four years old when his
father died so requiring his mother to take seasonal farm work to support the family. He
first received guidance in writing poetry from his elder brother Patrick who, after a long
illness, died of tuberculosis (Flynn). The time during Patrick’s illness was very difficult
for the family, having also narrowly escaped eviction for rent arrears. Ledwidge later
recalled, “Oh, those four years, it was as though God forgot us” (Curtayne 18).
As a child, Ledwidge found pleasure in ways that may have appeared dull to many
other children. In an autobiographical letter written a month before he died, to Professor
Lewis Chase of the University of Rochester, New York, Ledwidge states:
I avoided the evening play of neighbouring children to find some secret
place in a wood by the Boyne and there imagine fairy dances and hunts,
beasts and fire… I heard voices in the wind and rain, and strange
whisperings in the waters. (Quoted in “Francis Ledwidge”)
The young Ledwidge brought his poetic talent to the notice of School Master,
Thomas Madden when, in response to the Master’s refusal to grant the customary half-day
on Shrove Tuesday, he scribbled on the blackboard a verse:
Our master is too old for sweets,
Too old for children’s play,
Like Aesop’s dog what he can’t eat
No other people may.
The verse achieved its aim, the children being granted their holiday (Meehan). In later
years, whenever Ledwidge’s poems appeared in the local paper, Madden would read the
poem aloud and proclaim, “I taught that boy” (The Helpless Child of Circumstance).
With the end of his school days came recognition of the greater responsibilities of
life, as he explains in his letter to Prof. Chase:
Meanwhile the years were coming over me with their wisdom, and I began
to realise that men cannot live by dreams. I had no more to learn in
National School at fourteen, so I strapped up my books and laid them away
with the cobwebs and the dust. (“Francis Ledwidge”)
In 1903 his mother apprenticed him to a grocer in Rathfarnham, sending him of with
“many tears and blessings, and nothing of anything else”; he was dreadfully homesick:
I could not bear brick horizons, and all my dreams were calling me home.
It was there I wrote Behind the Closed Eye, and scarcely was the last line
written when I stole out through a back door, and set my face for home
“Behind the Closed Eye” is one of Ledwidge’s best known and definitive poems,
telling as it does of his love for the Boyne valley and the beauties of nature that lay within:
I walk the old frequented ways
That wind around the tangled braes,
I live again the sunny days
Ere I the city knew.
It also introduces what became a common element in many of his poems, the blackbird. In
his introduction to Ledwidge’s first book,“Songs of the Fields”, Lord Dunsany, giving
him a soubriquet said, “…let us know him by his own individual song: he is the poet of the
And wondrous impudently sweet,
Half of him passion, half conceit,
The blackbird calls adown the street…
Liam O’Meara considers the key to reading Ledwidge’s poems is to read them
slowly, since he favoured slow rhythms; inspired by Gaelic poetry, he also used internal
rhyme and counted syllables. Its strength is the music and compassion that it embodies
which is often lacking in more modern poetry (O’Meara 11).
Ledwidge worked in various positions: as a farm labourer, a hall-boy for
Marchioness Conyngham (Meehan 56), in a copper mine-from which he was sacked for
organising a strike, as a foreman on the roads for Meath County Council and then
temporarily with the Meath Labour Union. He recognised the importance of study, his
brother Joseph Ledwidge relates:
When he left school he seemed to realise the poor standard of education he
had received and devoted all his spare time to study on winter nights,
borrowing a book here and there. He knew the difference between real
poetry and the other kind, and it was the recognised poets he enjoyed
As regards the real quality of his education, Miss Mary Kelleher later stated:
Simple as his verses are, their form is perfect and every word exactly fits
the context. They are the work of a man of fine sensibility and of the truest
culture. He had not a good education, as the term is commonly understood,
but he had the finest education of all, that which comes of familiarity from
earliest childhood with good literature, a good mother, and beautiful natural
surroundings. (“Proceedings of the Irish Literary Society.”)
In 1909, his poems began to be published in The Drogheda Independent and The
Irish Weekly Independent. In AE’s house Ledwidge was introduced to Lord Dunsany,
described by AE as “the most prolific and amusing of Irish writers…” (Curtayne 43), also
present, were Seumus O’Sullivan, editor of The Dublin Magazine and the Count and
Countess Markievicz (O’Meara 107). Referring to his writing at this time Ledwidge
Of myself I am a fast writer and very prolific. I have long silences, often
for weeks, then the mood comes over me and I must write and write, no
matter where I be or what the circumstances are. (“Francis Ledwidge”).
Matty McGoona, his best friend, to whom he wrote a number of poems including
one of his last, “To One Who Comes Now and Then”, gave Ledwidge “indispensable
stimulus and intellectual interchange” (Curtayne 39).
When you come in, it seems a brighter fire
Crackles upon the hearth invitingly,
The household routine which was wont to tire
Grows full of novelty.
You sit upon our home-upholstered chair
And talk of matters wonderful and strange,…
That he referred to his poems as songs was indicated in a letter to Matty McGoona, “…all
these things I have sung about” (O’Meara). His first book, “Songs of the Fields”, is
inscribed: “To my mother, the first singer I knew”.
Ledwidge had two romances in his life, Ellie Vaughey, a farmer’s daughter, and
Lizzie Healy the sister of a friend. He loved Ellie very much and was heart broken when
she, influenced by her family, ended the relationship: “I have had many disappointments in
life, and many sorrows, but in my saddest moments song came to me and I sang.”
“I am sad below the depth of words.” (“A Song”)
“I’m wild for wandering to the far–off places
Since one forsook me whom I held most dear” (“After my last song”).
Ledwidge’s beloved Ellie married another but died in childbirth; in elegiac mood, he wrote
the beautiful poem, “To One Dead”:
A blackbird singing
On a moss-upholstered stone
Shadows wildly blown,
A song in the wood,
A ship on the sea.
The song was for you
And the ship was for me.
A blackbird singing
I hear in my troubled mind,
I see in a distant wind.
But sorrow and silence
Are the wood’s threnody,
The silence for you
And the sorrow for me.
In January 1914 Ledwidge met Lizzie Healy, the relationship being conducted as
much through letters and poems as in person. Ledwidge was to write over twenty love
letters and a dozen poems to Lizzie (O’Meara, quoted in “New book on Meath Poet”).
“I’d make my heart a harp to play for you
Love songs within the two dim dusks of day,” (“To Lizzie”, or, “To Eilis of the Fair Hair”)
“Your name is in the whisper of the woods
Like beauty calling for a poets song” (“To a Distant One”, originally titled “To Someone”)
Ledwidge realised that he would require the assistance of an established writer if
his poems were to reach a wider audience. Early in 1912, he sent Lord Dunsany a
copybook containing both published and unpublished poems,
I was astonished by the brilliance of that eye that looked at the fields of
Meath… I wrote to him greeting him as a true poet, which indeed he was,
and his gratitude for that was intense, though quite undeserved; for, as I
have said elsewhere, the lark owes nothing to us for knowing he is a lark
The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature describes Ledwidge’s earlier poetry as
strongly redolent of Keats, and after that increasingly Georgian in its way of extrapolating
melancholy thoughts and feelings from the pastoral scenery (Welch); this ties with
Dunsany’s initial assessment:
“I gave him a copy of Keats’ poems and almost at once I thought I detected an
improvement in his poems,… I think that his spirit was strengthened by meeting Keats”
(Rooney). Alice Curtayne however, feels that Dunsany was not the right man to perfect
Ledwidge’s poetry (Curtayne 112), and Eavan Boland feels that there are too many
“sugary” phrases-evoking the very worst of Georgian poetry (Boland 142). In a review to
“Songs of the Fields” in 1915, Katherine Tynan stated, “He is still in process of evolution.
He has not quite digested his reading.” However two years later, of his second book
“Songs of Peace”, she said, “Here is a great poet as essential as Mr Yeats, endowed with a
limpid and beautiful vocabulary, an exquisite sensitiveness, a great sense of beauty and an
exquisite art.” (Tynan) The Dictionary of Irish Literature suggests that he began to write
in the Irish mode: after Douglas Hyde’s Love Songs of Connacht and Thomas McDonagh,
with many influences of AE and Yeats (Hogan 690).
In an address to the National Literary Society, 16th February 1914, Lord Dunsany
extolled the merits of this new poet, “He knew nothing about technique, and far less about
grammar, but he had the great ideas and conception of the poet…” (“A New Irish Poet”).
Responding to Dunsany’s address, Lily Fogarty acclaimed,
“Royal Meath has come to the fore again… Of old it gave Ireland legions of heroes and
Kings; now it has nursed on its storied plains one who will earn more lasting glory, more
undying laurels”. Urging an early edition of Ledwidge’s poems she said, “the poet’s
countrymen wish to inhale the deep fragrance of those frail petals of inspiration”
(Fogarty); quite a contrast to the mere “warm encomiums” that he received on giving a
recital at the Society’s “Original Night” the year before (Curtayne 47). Dunsany’s
Patronage enhanced Ledwidge’s position with Dublin’s Literati, including Thomas
McDonagh, Katherine Tynan and Seamus O’Kelly, editor of the official organ of Sinn
“Dunsany did open the doors of perception and self-awareness wider than the young poet
may have managed on his own.” (Seamus Heaney in Bolger 16)
Ledwidge, now unemployed, was disappointed in not being awarded a post in The
Drogheda Independent, even though he had achieved a certificate in shorthand. Lord
Dunsany paid him an allowance to tide him over until he found work and during this time
he was elected to the Navan Rural District Council and Board of Guardians. An ardent
Nationalist, he had also joined the newly formed Irish Volunteers, becoming secretary of
the Slane Corps.
August 1914 was an historic time in Slane; on the 4th England had declared war on
Germany and on the 15th, 2500 Irish Volunteers mustered in the demesne to be addressed
by, among others, Lord Dunsany, who “appealed for unity in the present crisis” (Curtayne
75); the proceedings ended with the singing of God save Ireland and God Save the King.
Dunsany reported for duty immediately, assuming the rank of Captain in the Royal
Inniskilling Fusiliers. Ledwidge though, felt that his role was with the Irish Volunteers
defending the shores of Ireland, possibly in cooperation with the Ulster Volunteers.
“We have fought so much for the Nation
In the tents we helped to divide;
‘Twas yours and ‘twas mine but ‘tis ours yet
And it’s time to be fencing it now.” (“The Call to Ireland”)
All this changed however, with Redmond’s epoch making speech, entreating the
Volunteers to participate in the War, “as far as the firing line extends” (O’Meara 42). This
split the movement, the Slane Corps mostly supporting Redmond. Fellow members of the
Navan Board of Guardians derided Ledwidge for his Sinn Fein views. Incensed, isolated
and alone he made a fateful decision:
“…I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to
our civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at
home but pass resolutions.” (Letter to Prof. Chase, Curtayne 83)
“…We but war when war
Serves Liberty and justice, Love and peace.” (“The Irish in Gallipoli”)
In a letter to his publisher, April 9th, 1915 he states, “I have taken up arms for the fields
and rivers along the Boyne, for the birds and the blue sky over them.” (O’Meara 46)
He enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Dunsany’s Regiment; “I see Lord
Dunsany everyday and in the evening meet in his quarters and discuss poetry, the thing
that matters (Curtayne 85).” In the army he met Robert Christie, a Belfast man who
became a close friend. Home on furlough he heard of the death of a local farm boy; he
penned “A Little Boy in the Morning” which, “conveys a depth of sorrow in lines of airy
lightness” (Curtayne 92):
He will not come, and still I wait.
He whistles at another gate
Where angels listen…
The world is calling, I must go.
How shall I know he did not pass
Bare footed in the shining grass?
Onboard the S.S. Novian, en-route to Gallipoli, and racked with homesickness,
Ledwidge wrote “Crooknaharna” (The Helpless Child of Circumstance):
“On the heights of Crooknaharna,
(Oh the lure of Crooknaharna)…
Black with grief is Crooknaharna
Twenty hundred miles away.
The Irish Division took heavy casualties in the battle for Chocolate Hill, which
overlooked the beaches at Suvla bay. Ledwidge wrote, “it was a horrible and a great day.
I would not have missed it for worlds.” (Jeffery 42)
In a letter to Bob Christie, on hearing of the Easter Rising, he states, “Yes, poor
Ireland is always in trouble. Though I am no Sinn Feiner and you are a Carsonite,… Poor
McDonagh and Pearse were two of my best friends, and now they are dead, shot by
England…” (O’Meara 50) His remorse led him to write one of his finest poems, “Thomas
He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain…
A year later, in France, he wrote “O’Connell Street”:
“A noble failure is not vain,
but has a victory its own…”
His attitude to the war, like many others, had changed, telling his brother that he
would never enlist again, “not if the Germans were coming over the garden wall”
(O’Meara 54). In Ypres, July 1917 Ledwidge, on seeing how a wooden cross erected over
the grave of a German Officer had been inscribed by British soldiers with the words, “To
A German Officer who died like a true gentleman”, wrote the poem “To A German
On the 31st of July 1917 while out with working party repairing a railway line near
Ypres, having just taken a tea break, a shell exploded. The padre, Fr. Devas wrote in his
diary, “Ledwidge killed–blown to bits” (O’Meara 58). Writing to Ledwidge’s mother Fr.
Devas said, “…I like to think that God took him before the world had been able to spoil
him with its praise, and he has found far greater joy and beauty than ever he would have
found on earth.” (The Helpless Child of Circumstance)
“A keen edged sword, a soldier’s heart,
Is greater than a poet’s art.
And greater than a poet’s name,
A little grave that has no name,” (“Soliloquy”)
In his book, My Ireland, Lord Dunsany says of Ledwidge, “It may be that he will
come to a great reputation yet, as though a prophecy of his own were fulfilled:
At dawn a bird will waken me
Unto my place among the Kings.” (Flynn 232)
Seamus Heaney has said that as a poet Ledwidge’s sense of purpose and gifts were only
beginning to come into mature focus, and as a political phenomenon, he represents
conflicting elements in the Irish inheritance which continue to be repressed or unresolved
(Bolger 19). Jane Leonard states, “Southern Irish veterans and war bereaved were deeply
scarred by their State’s reluctance to acknowledge participation in both world wars”
In holding up the intricate reality and beauty of Ireland to the light, the poetry of Ledwidge
becomes more relevant now than ever before.
For the price of a Field we have wrangled
While the weather rusted the plough,
‘Twas yours and ‘twas mine but ‘tis ours yet
And it’s time to be fencing it now.
IN MEMORIAM-FRANCIS LEDWIDGE
You would come back, you said, when life was over,
When your last song was sung;
Come back to lie beneath the waving clover
In the green land you loved when you were young;
After long wandering, you would come home,
You said-but now you will not come,
You will not come again. Your song is done.
The white waves leap upon the Irish shore,
The fields are bright beneath the August sun;
But you will come no more.
The blackbird pipes his music from the hill
The voice that hailed him is forever still. D.B.
Irish Book Lover Vol. IX Oct-Nov 1917: p. 37.
“A new Irish poet.” The Irish Book Lover Vol. V Mar 1914: 137-8.
Boland, Eavan. Object Lessons The life of the Woman and the Poet of Our Time.
Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1995.
Bolger, Dermot, ed. Francis Ledwidge Selected Poems with an Introduction by Seamus
Heaney. Dublin: New Island Books, 1992.
Curtayne, Alice. Francis Ledwidge A life of the poet. London: Martin Brian & O’Keefe
Curtayne, Alice, ed. The Complete Poems of Francis Ledwidge. London: Martin Brian &
O’Keefe Ltd., 1974.
Leonard, Jane. “The Twinge of Memory: Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday in
Dublin since 1919.” In Unionism in Modern Ireland. English, Richard, and
Graham Walker. eds. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996.
Flynn, James. “Sweet singers gone.” The Capuchin Annual 1958: 209-238.
Fogarty, Lily. “A new poet. An impression on hearing Lord Dunsany’s address to the
National Literary Society, 16th Febuary, 1914.” The Irish Review Vol. IV Mar
Hogan, Robert, ed. et al. Dictionary of Irish Literature Revised and expanded edition A-L.
London: Aldwych Press, 1996.
Jeffery, Keith. Ireland and the Great War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
“Francis Ledwidge.” The Irish Book Lover Vol. XII Oct-Nov 1920: 27-28
Ledwidge, Francis. Songs of the Fields. London: Herbert Jenkins, New York: Duffield and
Ledwidge, Francis. Songs of Peace. London: Herbert Jenkins, 1917.
Ledwidge, Francis, et al. Last Songs. London: Herbert Jenkins, 1917.
Ledwidge, Francis, et al. Complete Poems. London: Herbert Jenkins, 1919.
“New book on Meath poet. Ledwidge love life explored.” The Weekender Sat. 11th Mar.
Meehan, Donnchadh A. “Francis Ledwidge.” Irish Bookman 1.2 (1946) 53-68.
O’Meara, Liam, ed. Francis Ledwidge The Poems Complete. Newbridge: Goldsmith Press,
O’Meara, Liam. A Lantern on the wave. A study of the life of the poet, Francis Ledwidge.
Dublin: Riposte Books, 1999.
“Proceedings of the Irish Literary Society.” The Irish Book Lover Vol. XIII Feb-Mar
Powell, Anne, ed. A Deep Cry. First World War Poets killed in France and Flanders,
Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1993.
Rooney, Philip. “Blackbird on the Boyne.” The Capuchin Annual 1961: 59-70.
The Helpless Child of Circumstance. Pres. Terry Garvey. Prod. John Quinn. RTE,
Tynan, Katharine. “Reviews. Poetry. Songs of the Fields.” Studies Vol. IV No. 16 Dec
Tynan, Katharine. “Recent Irish Poetry”. Studies Vol. VI No. 22 June 1917.
“The Peasant Poet of Meath.” Irish Book Lover Vol. IX Oct-Nov 1917: 29-31.
Welch, Robert, ed. The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press,
My interest in Francis Ledwidge first began with a chance visit to the Ledwidge cottage
and museum in Janeville Co. Meath. In the garden is a moss covered stone with the words of “To
One Dead”: A blackbird singing On a moss upholstered stone… These words captured my
imagination and led to a latent interest in this Irish Poet. Deciding to study Ledwidge for this
essay, my first approach was to search the Internet for information. I came across the Ledwidge
web site and other web sites which included his poetry. I also used the QUB On-line library
Catologue to list what books there were relating to him. This enabled me to establish the titles and
dates of his poetry collections and of his biography by Alice Curtayne. Noticing that the most
recent and complete collection, was “The Poems Complete” by Liam O’Meara, I decided to base
the essay on it. Finding on the “writer of the month” web site details of how to obtain his most
recent book, “A lantern on a Wave”. I rang the number and spoke to Mr O’Meara himself; on
telling him of my research he very kindly sent me the book and some additional biographical
information. I attach his covering letter, which is very interesting.
The next stage of my research was in the SELB Library, Irish Studies section. Here the
librarian, Ms Mary McVeigh, was very helpful in finding books and Articles on Ledwidge. Using
the Index for Articles in Irish Periodicals I obtained 25 Articles, which I was able to photo-copy.
In this research I found an early poem, entitled “In Memoriam-Francis Ledwidge”, in the Irish
Book Lover, Oct-Dec 1917.
Another source of useful information was a recording of an RTE Documentary on
Ledwidge, broadcast in 1987, loaned to me by a class colleague. Listening to this in the car, during
the Christmas holidays, I found my self driving to Slane, drawn by some compulsion to get closer
to the life of Ledwidge.
Back at work I was able to search the OCLC First Search Database for items on Ledwidge:
it came up with 54 items ranging from MA Theses to a recording of Lord Dunsany speaking of
Ledwidge and his poetry, kept in the Library of Congress. I decided, however that I had already
sufficient information for the essay, though I will keep the printout for future reference. In my
conservation with Liam O’Meara I learned that, with all the new poems discovered by both him
and Alice Curtayne, Ledwidge’s poetry is now overdue a proper academic analysis.
I have enjoyed doing this essay and will miss Ledwidge, for a day or two anyway and I
have promised to send Mr O’Meara a copy. It has been difficult to keep the number of words
down owing to so much reference material and lots of poem extracts but I trust you will enjoy
11th January, 2001.