Donal Lowry, ‘Francis Ledwidge’, in Dictionary of Irish Biography [new edn.] (Cambridge UP 2009).

[ Source: Dictionary of Irish Biography from the Earliest Times to the Year 2010 [new edition] (Cambridge UP 2009). The biography was posted by its author on Facebook > Irish Military History [group], on 31. July 2020; available - online. it is reproduced here with only minor typographical changes in the section titles. ]

Francis Ledwidge (1887–1917), poet and soldier, was born 19 August 1887 at Janeville, Slane, Co. Meath, eighth among nine children of Patrick Ledwidge (1840/41–1892), farm labourer, and his wife, Anne (1853/4–1926), daughter of Nicholas Lynch of Slane. The Ledwidges (the name is also found as Ledwick, Ledwich, and Ledwith) were of German origin and had come to Meath in the thirteenth century with the Anglo-Normans. After the reformation they shared the declining fortunes of landowners who had remained Roman catholic, ultimately becoming indistinguishable from many impoverished families. Yet the young Francis was taught by his mother to regard his ancestors proudly as “once a great people ... ever soldiers and poets” who had long been a great landed power in the district (Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 15). Patrick and Anne Ledwidge were poor, initially living in a tiny dwelling, where one of Frank’s older brothers died in infancy. In the early 1880s, however, they were able to move to a more spacious cottage in Janestown, where Francis – or “Frank”, as he was generally called – was born. In 1892, however, when the youngest was only three months old, Patrick Ledwidge died suddenly, leaving his widow to provide for the family on outdoor relief of a shilling per week per child, and whatever else supportive neighbours might provide. She refused advice to place the children temporarily in care, and remained determined to keep the family and the home intact. To this end she worked for local farmers as a field hand, took in washing, and mended clothes. In common with her late husband, she had a great respect for education, and when the eldest, Patrick, was made a school monitor, she hoped that he might ultimately train as a teacher, but he was now forced to leave school earlier to train as a bookkeeper and effectively became the family breadwinner. Tragically, he contracted tuberculosis, died within four years, and his burial had to be charged to the parish. Anne Lynch’s resilience was thus tested again, till some relief was provided by her third son’s apprenticeship to a Rathfarnham grocer.

Education and early working life Francis attended Slane national school, where he received a robust but wide-ranging education from its master, Thomas Madden. There he recalled being deeply moved by “The deserted village” by Oliver Goldsmith (qv). Madden cultivated in him a profound awareness of and familiarity with the folklore and prehistoric and historic sites that littered the Boyne valley, from ancient burial mounds and the Patrician Hill of Tara to monastic ruins and the eponymous battlefield of the Williamite war. He spent what little money he made doing odd jobs on books such as The Arabian nights, Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, and the poetry of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Longfellow; the last remained a particular favourite of his. He also became increasingly inspired by the Old Testament, Dante’s Divine comedy, Homer’s Odyssey, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Byron, Swinburne, Welsh romances, and Celtic sagas.

Ledwidge’s mother’s educational ambitions were frustrated by harsh economic reality. He left school at 13 to become a farmer’s boy for a weekly wage of seven shillings. His strong build, keen sense of humour, and rhyming fluency made him a popular employee, and he was an enthusiastic cricketer at a time when that sport was popular in the locality. He began to write verses whenever he could, even on gates, fencing posts, and boulders, inspired by the pastoral landscape, flora, and bird life of the region. In 1907 he became a road mender, then worked at a copper mine, where he organised a strike in 1910, before being appointed supervisor of roads. Meanwhile, encouraged by a local curate, Fr Smyth, he became a regular contributor of poetry to the Drogheda Independent. He soon became aware of the Irish cultural revival. He sought unsuccessfully to establish a permanent Gaelic League presence in Slane, but his overtures received a sarcastic response from a regional luminary, Sean MacNamee. This fatefully closed an important avenue of connection for Ledwidge to leading contemporary literary circles.

Dunsany - The Literary World - Lost Love

Following the tragic death by drowning of Fr Smyth, Ledwidge struck up a friendship with Matty McGoona, a talented violinist and voracious reader, who greatly encouraged his interest in Celtic mythology. He also developed an interest in hypnosis. He befriended an accomplished sculptor who had risen from humble origins, John Cassidy (1860–1939), who crucially advised him to seek the patronage of Lord Dunsany (qv), poet, painter, writer, and a leading figure in the Irish literary renaissance. On the face of it, Ledwidge and Dunsany came from different worlds, the latter possessing the second oldest Irish peerage. Dunsany had attended Eton and Sandhurst, and he had served as a Coldstream Guardsman in the South African war, but his own early literary trials made him sympathetic to struggling young writers. He eagerly took up the promotion of Ledwidge’s career, introducing his pastoral and historical poetry in a lecture to the National Literary Society in October 1912. This earned Ledwidge the admiration of – among others – Padraic Colum (qv), Brian O’Higgins, AE (George Russell (qv)), and Katherine Tynan (qv). Through Dunsany, he also met Oliver St John Gogarty (qv), W. B. Yeats (qv), Thomas MacDonagh (qv), and W. F. Trench (qv), sometime professor of English Literature at TCD. In February 1913 Ledwidge was himself asked to contribute to the National Literary Society’s deliberations. By the age of 25, then, he had become an established writer. He had also fallen deeply in love for the first time, with Ellie Vaughey, younger sister of close friends in Co. Meath. He was desolate, however, when she reluctantly broke off the friendship, most probably because of the material gulf between him and her prosperous farming family. As he put it in the poem “A song”, he was “sad below the depth of words/That nevermore [they] two shall draw anear”, and a melancholia increasingly pervaded his poetry as a consequence.

Despite Ledwidge’s growing association with the aristocratic Lord Dunsany, he retained a keen interest in conditions for working men. He had been one of the founders of the Slane branch of the Meath Labour Union in 1906, and he familiarised himself with the writings of James Connolly (qv) and Patrick Pearse (qv), detecting no apparent contradiction between Christianity and socialism. In 1913 he became temporary secretary of the union, charged with overseeing the state insurance act of 1912, and early the following year he was elected to the Navan district rural council and board of guardians. His mother’s fortunes improved, supported by him and his younger brother, Joseph. However, he never fully recovered from the broken love affair with Ellie. His later intense romantic attachment to Lizzie Healey, sister of a local schoolmaster and friend, proved equally fruitless. He and Joseph were founder members of the Slane branch of the Irish Volunteers, in which they were very active as the crisis over the third home rule bill became acute. On the outbreak of war in Europe, he appeared to share strongly the views of those Volunteers who were critical of the call by John Redmond (qv) for Irishmen to support the British war effort.

War: Gallipoli - The Balkans - France

Nevertheless, on 24 October 1914 he joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, in which regiment Lord Dunsany had also enlisted, and he was soon promoted to lance-corporal. His patron was not a factor in his decision, however; Dunsany had settled a weekly allowance on Ledwidge to enable him to remain in Ireland to continue writing, an agreement that Ledwidge terminated on enlistment. Whatever Ledwidge’s misgivings, Redmondite fervour was strong in Meath and, lacking Gaelic League or Sinn Féin connections, he may well have been swept along by this tide of opinion. He later justified his joining the British army on the grounds that it “stood between Ireland and an enemy common to [their] civilisation”, preferring this course to staying at home “pass[ing] resolutions”. (Curtayne, Ledwidge, 83). He anticipated a speedy allied victory and hoped in vain for an early commission, as well as better-paid clerical work.

Although opposed to Ledwidge’s enlistment, Dunsany continued to facilitate practically his poetic career. Ledwidge befriended Robert Christie, a Belfast protestant who shared his literary interests and became a constant regimental companion. Athletic in build, Ledwidge thrived on army discipline, but he was short of money, with Dunsany having to settle an embarrassing debt of £5 with AE. Ledwidge was homesick, a condition heightened by the news that Ellie Vaughey had married. He managed to visit Slane while on leave, which inspired one of his finest poems, “A little boy in the morning”, in tribute to a local boy who had died suddenly. He renewed his friendship with Lizzie Healey, but it came to nothing. News of the death in childbirth of Ellie brought him renewed sadness.

Ledwidge was stationed in Basingstoke, England, parting with Dunsany, who was posted back to Ireland. In July 1915 he landed at Gallipoli and saw action for the first time near Sedd-el-Bahr alongside Australian and French troops, evading daily Turkish sniper fire; “a horrible and a great day [which he would] not have missed ... for worlds” (Curtayne, Ledwidge, 127). In October, after evacuation from the Dardanelles, he arrived in Serbia, where his regiment endured many privations, including frostbite. He was heartened, however, on receipt of an advance copy of Songs of the fields, which had been greeted enthusiastically by the British press, including the Review of reviews. This earned him the somewhat overused bucolic epithet of “the poet of the blackbirds”. The critic Sir Edward Marsh published three of Ledwidge’s poems in his Georgian poetry. Ledwidge injured his back in the retreat to Salonika and convalesced in military hospitals in Cairo and, by April 1916, Manchester. He was glad to “return to western civilization again”, and, on seeing the English landscape, thought he might have been an English patriot, were he not an Irish one (Curtayne, Ledwidge, 148).

In Manchester, however, Ledwidge heard news of the Easter rising, which greatly distressed him, as he had so admired Pearse and, especially, Connolly, while MacDonagh had been a personal friend whose execution inspired his poem “Thomas MacDonagh”, with the first stanza of which Ledwidge would ever after be associated: “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.” He clearly sympathised with “the dead men’s dreams” of the insurrection (Curtayne, Ledwidge, 157) and, along with his friend, Christie, he became disillusioned with the allied war effort. He was court-martialled for insubordinate talk and overstaying his leave. Nevertheless, and in spite of an intense homesickness, he rejoined his regiment and, on transfer to a different battalion, was posted in December 1916 near to Amiens. He was sustained by correspondence with Dunsany and Katharine Tynan (Katharine Hinkson). He hoped that a new Ireland might arise from the ashes of war and thus no longer be the “Cinderella ... amongst the nations” (Curtayne, Ledwidge, 180). Still, he valued the widening horizons afforded by his wartime experiences, and he took a renewed pride in Irish military valour in support of the allied cause.

Ypres - Death and Commemoration

In July 1917 his unit was ordered north to the Ypres salient. Even there, amid the horrors of the front line, he was moved in a lull in the bombardment by the sound of a robin, which inspired his poem “Home”. The third battle of Ypres (in which up to 135,000 British and dominion troops may have been killed over three months) began on 31 July. Ledwidge was kept in reserve, where he was engaged in road-making. Later that day, having attended confession the night before and received Holy Communion that morning from his Jesuit chaplain, he was caught by long-range German artillery fire and killed instantly. He was buried close by in Artillery Wood cemetery, Boesinghe (Boezinge), poignantly near to the grave of Ellis Humphrey Evans, alias “Hedd Wyn”, a leading contemporary Welsh poet, who was killed on the same day, at almost the same age.

Ledwidge’s posthumously published Songs of peace (1917) contains his wartime poems as well as his elegy for MacDonagh. Last songs (1918) and Complete poems (1924) were edited by Lord Dunsany. In the 1970s Ledwidge received renewed attention with the publication of Alice Curtayne’s (qv) biography, a revised edition of his Complete poems, and Seamus Heaney’s elegy for Ledwidge (Field work, 1979) in which he is described as “our dead enigma”. Heaney provided a foreword to a new edition of Ledwidge’s Selected poems which appeared in 1993. Against a background of growing interest in Ireland’s involvement in the Great War, Ledwidge received further recognition in the unveiling of a memorial in the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines (Mesen), Belgium, on which is inscribed lines from his “Soliloquy”:


It is too late now to retrieve
A fallen dream, too late to grieve
A name unmade, but not too late
To thank the gods for what is great;
A keen-edged sword, a soldier’s heart,
Is greater than a poet’s art.
And greater than a poet’s fame
A little grave that has no name.

A further monument to him was unveiled at the National War Memorial at Islandbridge, Dublin, in 2005. The Ledwidge Museum at Slane holds correspondence, manuscript poems, and memorabilia.

[ close ]

[ top ]