Francis Ledwidge (1887-1917)
Francis Ledwidge was an Irish poet from County Meath. His poetry is infused by the natural beauty of the countryside in which he grew up.
Ledwidge was born in Janeville near Slane. He was one of nine children and his family were poor. His father died when he was just four years old. His mother worked as a farm labourer, supporting her large family on only eight shillings a week. From a young age, Ledwidge was fond of poetry and wrote ‘silly’ verses for his own amusement.
Despite their poverty, his mother tried to give her children the best start in life she could. Ledwidge attended the local school until he was thirteen, when he left to start work as a trainee houseboy at Slane Castle. Being a bit of joker, he soon got himself into trouble. The mistress of the castle, Lady Conyngham, would write instructions for the day’s menus on a piece of slate for the cook. One day Ledwidge rubbed out her instructions and substituted a rougher bill of fare, including pig’s feet, potatoes and cabbage. The cook was not amused and Ledwidge was fired.
Ledwidge was forced to find work where he could. He took on a variety of different jobs including farm labouring, road mending and mining. He became a staunch trade union activist. He was fired from a mining job for attempting to organise a strike for better working conditions in 1910 and was eventually appointed the secretary of the Slane branch of the Meath Labour Union in 1913.
From the age of fourteen, he published his poetry in the local newspaper, the Drogheda Independent. He was helped in this endeavour by the sister of one of his friends, Ellie Vaughey. She would deliver his poems to the newspaper for him. He quickly fell in love with Ellie, his ‘orchard maid’ and wrote numerous poems about her beauty.
His poetry soon gained the attention of a local aristocrat and writer, Lord Dunsany, who supported the poet with money and literary advice for several years. Dunsany introduced Ledwidge to other writers, including Katharine Tynan, and helped him to get his poems published in the literary magazine Saturday Review.
Ledwidge was a keen patriot and nationalist. In 1914, he founded the Slane Branch of the Irish Volunteers with his brother Joseph, which campaigned for Home Rule in opposition to the unionist Ulster Volunteers. With the outbreak of the First World War, the Irish Volunteers split into two factions: those who felt that they should suspend the fight and assist the allies fighting in Europe; and those who felt that it was more important to continue to focus on winning Home Rule. Ledwidge was originally of the latter faction but then suddenly changed his mind and joined Lord Dunsany’s regiment, part of the 10th (Irish) Division. Dunsany himself advised Ledwidge against enlisting but he enlisted anyway. Some speculated that his change of heart was prompted by the fact that Ellie had found a new love, John O’Neill, whom she later married. She died in childbirth only a year later.
Army life suited Ledwidge well and he was soon promoted to the rank of lance corporal. He fought at Gallipoli and in Serbia, where he was wounded. While recovering in hospital in Manchester, news reached him of the Easter Rising and the execution of his fellow poet and friend Thomas MacDonagh by the British forces. Disillusioned, Ledwidge tried to escape from the army as soon as possible. He went home and overstayed his leave. He was court-martialled and demoted. In January 1917, he was posted to the Western Front. He was killed on 31 July 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres.
A Soldier’s Grave
Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death,
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.
And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave it sweet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest.