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Rhyme and Reason

Francis Ledwidge


Watching Gay Byrne's My Father's War on Monday on RTE, I noticed when the camera roamed past the war memorial with the names of the Irish soldiers killed at the Battle of Ypres that the name of Francis Ledwidge (inset) appeared.

I was surprised that this brought no comment from Gaybo, as Ledwidge is one of the leading Irish poets of all time.

Gay can sometimes get a fit of the shivers when the subject of the 1916 Rising comes up. Surely it wasn't because Ledwidge wrote a famous poem about his friend Thomas McDonagh (who was among the leaders executed in 1916) that there wasn't any notice paid to his name as it came on camera.

It might be a good lesson for Byrne if he was to take down his old school poetry book and look up Ledwidge's beautiful lament for McDonagh.

The poem is a miracle of rhyme and word music which, if read aloud, can bring an echo of the bittern's cry to the reader's ear as the lines glide past.

Take the first four lines.

"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."

Note that the fourth word in the second line rhymes with the last word in the first. Other words, carefully inserted in the lines, heighten the sense of loneliness hung in the stricken air.

In the third verse you can hear the moo of the cow running under the lines as he moves through the rich grass (the "dark cow" is one of the symbolic names for Ireland).

Ledwidge was killed in July 1917 at the Battle of Ypres.

I had the privilege, about eight years ago, of being asked to give an address in the National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, in the course of which I recited Ledwidge's beautiful lament. I would like to think that Gaybo was among the gathering.