Tuesday 12 December 2017

Dermot Bolger: 'I wondered if one day I'd track down his grave'

Next month marks the centenary of the death of Irish war poet Francis Ledwidge. Author Dermot Bolger recalls his own pilgrimage to find the soldier's cottage in Slane and his final resting place in Flanders

Crossing divides: Ledwidge found a patron in fellow writer Lord Dunsany
Crossing divides: Ledwidge found a patron in fellow writer Lord Dunsany

Having laboured as a road worker in his native Meath, the poet Francis Ledwidge found himself doing a job during his final moments on earth which surely felt strangely familiar. Nothing else felt familiar about the nightmare landscape around him on July 31, 1917, when the horrific Third Battle of Ypres commenced.

Ledwidge's unit were a mile behind the frontline, trying to construct a road across a quagmire of mud when tea was issued in the rain. As they paused to drink, a stray shell killed them outright, with Ledwidge's shattered limbs dumped in the shell crater. His remains were reburied in Artillery Wood Cemetery in 1919.

Surely Ledwidge could never have imagined that, on this coming July 31, Meath people will converse on the spot where he died near Ieper (as Ypres is now called) to mark the centenary of his death. Nor could this road worker, copper miner, farm labourer and poet have known that his lyric brilliance would be celebrated today, when more illustrious writers of that era are forgotten.

At times during this past century, Ledwidge - as a committed Irish nationalist who died in a different uniform to his friend Thomas MacDonagh - was in danger of being forgotten. But today his cottage is a vibrant museum run by volunteers; a new edition of his Selected Poems has just been published, and Meath County Council and library service are planning numerous events to honour the poet.

Ledwidge only held one volume of his poems in his hands. In 1915, while on starvation rations in the freezing cold of Serbia, a tattered parcel reached him, containing his debut collection, Songs of the Fields. Holding it, Ledwidge surely wondered if he would live to see a second book in print and, if he was killed, would anyone remember him.

I have thought about him at the oddest moments since first reading his poems as a teenager, like when cheating time in my forties to still play football with my sons. Ledwidge never got to be a father or needed to cheat time. Time cheated him. Like other Great War poets, he was condemned to the limbo of being forever young. But like thousands of Irishmen, he was condemned to another limbo. Death immortalised Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. Their posthumous reputation was simple; no legacy of divided loyalties. They were never viewed as traitors, their stories blotted from their nation's collective memory.

Ledwidge was born in 1887 in a labourer's cottage in Slane. His father - an agricultural labourer - died when Ledwidge was four, leaving his mother, Anne, destitute. She refused to place Francis in an orphanage, keeping her family together by working in the fields by day or taking in sewing at night. The Meath countryside is beautiful, but there's nothing picturesque in a child seeing bailiffs try to evict his family or watching an older brother die of TB.

Ledwidge poems rarely mention such memories. Instead, we get celebrations of the Meath landscape, intimations of a tentative doomed love affair and all the paraphernalia of Georgian verse written by an apprentice poet weary from agricultural work. But Ledwidge's originality shines through as he gains confidence. There was an audacity in someone from his class even aspiring to be a poet. Ledwidge's emergence had to be stage-managed by a rich patron, Lord Dunsany, who marketed him as "a peasant poet".

Ledwidge left school at 13 to work for farmers for seven shillings a week. In 1907, he became a seasonal road worker, earning 17-and-a-half shillings, but was lured underground when a copper mine opened. Conditions were dire, with regular flooding and accidents. Despite Ledwidge's youth, he organised a strike for safer conditions, a labour leader sacked as a troublemaker when his fellow miners capitulated.

It needed something special for him to seen as anything other a labourer. But something special happened.

Meath possessed a famous writer, Lord Dunsany. In 1912, Ledwidge posted handwritten poems to Dunsany Castle. One evening when Ledwidge cycled home, a letter awaited him. He opened it and along with it a whole new world. Without poetry, Ledwidge and Dunsany would have led segregated lives, 20 miles apart. But Dunsany recognised his gift and started a friendship that evoked suspicion across a rigid social divide. When cycling to Dunsany Castle, Ledwidge was crossing fault lines between nationalities.

The outbreak of war never interrupted their friendship, but it interrupted their lives. Dunsany immediately enlisted but agreed that Ledwidge - a leading member of the Irish Volunteers in Slane - should stay out of it. Indeed, Ledwidge was almost a sole dissenting voice among the Slane Volunteers in rejecting John Redmond's call for Irishmen to enlist. But five days after being jeered as a pro-German coward at a Navan Board of Guardians meeting, without a steady job for his fame as a poet, and heartbroken after a failed love affair, he unexpectedly enlisted.

Ledwidge's war was protracted and disillusioning. He wrote in impossible conditions: poems scribbled on any paper available, barely legible after being soaked in mud. He endured the slaughter of Gallipoli. When his debut reached him in Serbia, London critics praised his "stream of pure crystal". But all Ledwidge wanted was writing paper as he froze there. He gave a shivering child his great coat, forgetting his reading glasses were in the pocket. When his unit reached Salonika, Ledwidge physically collapsed, so crippled with rheumatic arthritis he could barely stand up.

He was transferred to a Manchester hospital when, on Easter Monday 1916, he heard about the Rising. Ledwidge reached Dublin two days before the final executions. In Richmond Barracks he rowed with an officer, arguing that, when fighting abroad, he was fighting for Ireland just like the rebels. This and other acts of defiance led to his court-martial.

Despite his injuries, he was made to rejoin the fighting in France in December 1916. In freezing trenches, he wrote superb poems but remained a cheap hunk of meat to be sacrificed whenever his superiors decided, which finally happened on July 31, 1917.

In 1979, I made a pilgrimage to Slane to see if his cottage still existed - a long-haired Finglas youth staring at houses as I walked out the country road perturbed some locals. Shortly after starting my quest, I found myself pinned against a squad car by the local garda sergeant on suspicion of being a burglar. After I proved my bona fides by reciting two poems, the sergeant become very friendly, directing me towards a derelict cottage, which a local committee (of which he was a member) were trying to purchase and preserve.

After I located Ledwidge's empty cottage at dusk, the remarkable artist who lived next door, Liam Ó Broin, (whom I interview about Ledwidge in The National Museum, Collins Barracks, on June 25) offered me a mattress in his attic studio. I sat up all night, staring down at Ledwidge's overgrown garden, wondering if one day I would track down Ledwidge's actual grave.

I might never have done so if, in 1997, an old man hadn't visited Ledwidge's graveyard in Flanders and inscribed in the visitor's book a poem given to his father by Ledwidge in the trenches. This handwritten poem alerted Piet Chielens of the In Flanders Fields Museum to the fact that a poet was buried there.

Chielens painstakingly identified the exact location where that shell killed Ledwidge. A year later, alongside the poet's nephew, Joe, I unveiled a monument on that spot. What really moved every local present was the elderly Joe Ledwidge playing his accordion and singing a song which seemed to unite two rural communities some 600 miles apart.

Those links between Meath and Flanders continue. Ieper Stone masons have built a replica of their non-militaristic monument in Ledwidge's garden, and Meath people have planted an apple tree - from the orchard once owned by Ledwidge's best friend - beside his monument in Flanders.

Ledwidge died for an Ireland slow to acknowledge this fact. His death was a waste, like thousands of young men whose bodies still remain unfound. Every time a road is built in Ieper, more bodies are discovered, with buttons and bone fragments used to try and identify the missing. Men like Ledwidge's unit, blown to pieces as they paused to drink tea and turn their thoughts to home, the secret place in their hearts to which they would never return.

Selected Poems by Francis Ledwidge, edited by Dermot Bolger, is published by New Island (€14.99 hardback)

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