The Poet of the Blackbird by Mary Turley-McGrath
(Poetry Ireland News, September/October 2011)
Islandbridge, Sunday 31 July – the date on which Francis Ledwidge, poet and soldier, was killed by an exploding shell at Ypres, Belgium, in 1917. Groups of people make their way along the paths of the War Memorial Gardens. Some carry books, others sunhats or umbrellas. They cross the edge of the Central Lawn and gather under the pergolas of the granite colonnade looking down over the terraces of the Sunken Rose Garden.
The garden is ablaze with roses; a single fountain in the lily pond is at its centre. Here is the focus of the midday commemoration ceremony, the framed photograph of Ledwidge in his great coat. Beside the photograph stands a poppy wreath.
Liam O’Meara and Michael O’Flanagan organised the first Ledwidge Day at
these symbolic gardens in 1995. They’d founded The Inchicore Ledwidge
Society earlier that year, as Ledwidge had enlisted in the British Army at
Richmond Barracks, Inchicore, in 1914.
The ceremony begins with a welcome from O’Meara who introduces the guest
speaker, David McFarlane Johnson, Custodian of the Gardens. Guest speakers
in the past have included well known figures from literary, political and
public life: the late Michael Hartnett in 1995, when the special guests were
Pearl Baxter of The Ledwidge Cottage Committee in Slane, and Dr Andrew
Rynne, son of Alice Curtayne, biographer of Francis Ledwidge. Other past
speakers include: Ulick O’Connor, Dermot Bolger and five Lord Mayors of
Following the opening address, there are readings by invited poets of their
favourite Ledwidge poems. Rachael Hegarty, winner of the annual Francis
Ledwidge Poetry Competition in 2010, is first to read. The poetry
competition began in 1999 and it now attracts entries from as far away as
the USA, Canada and Peru. Since 2007 the organisers of the Forward Poetry
Prize allow the three winning poems from the competition to be considered
for inclusion in the annual Forward Book of Poetry – ‘an anthology of the
best poems of the year’ from the UK and Ireland.
Ledwidge Day at The Memorial Gardens is a unique open-air event and this is
indeed an appropriate place to commemorate ‘The Poet of the Blackbird’. Over
the years the ceremony has grown in popularity, supported by families with
connections to The Great War. There is also support from writers’ groups,
especially Rathmines Writers, and from previous winners of the competition
and guest speakers. The work of Liam O’Meara, who compiled The Complete
Poems of Francis Ledwidge, and has written three books on the poet’s life,
is a great influence, as is the work of the late Anthony P Quinn, whose book
Wigs and Guns deals with the involvement of Irish barristers in the Great
Ledwidge, born in Slane, Co Meath in 1887, died in his thirtieth year. His
writing career spanned only eight and a half years; the number of poems
attributed to him, predominantly nature lyrics, now stands at two hundred
and seventy-six, and new work is still being discovered. He was introduced
by Lord Dunsany to the Irish Literary Society in 1912 and was already known
to Yeats, Æ and Padraic Colum. Lord Dunsany became the young poet’s patron,
critic and mentor and gave him access to his library in Dunsany Castle.
When Ledwidge enlisted in 1914, he did so for numerous reasons – financial,
political, patriotic and personal. His first love, Ellie Vaughey, married
another and went to Manchester. Also, though a strong Nationalist, it is
clear from his poems that he felt Irishmen should participate in the War.
His poems do not denounce the horrors he witnessed as do the works of
Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but are imbued with a sense of tragedy
and foreboding. In 1916 he wrote, in ‘War’:
Darkness and I are one, and wind
And nagging thunder, brothers all...
His war poems show that violence had not supplanted the love of nature and
homeland in his heart. It is as though he had a very special parallel
universe of the imagination which sustained his poetic vision, allowing him
transcend the destruction around him. In July 1917, shortly before he was
killed, he wrote, in ‘Home’:
A burst of sudden wings at dawn,
Faint voices in a dreamy noon,
Evenings of mist and murmurings,
And nights with rainbows of the moon.
Songs of the Fields, his first collection, was published in 1916, and two
other collections, Songs of Peace and Last Songs, were published
posthumously. In her review of Last Songs for The Times Literary Supplement
of May 1918, Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘Most of Mr. Ledwidge’s poems are about
those little things … as common as the grass and sky…. And you come to
believe in the end that you, too, hold these things dear.’
The lyrical poems of Francis Ledwidge overflow with his love of the natural
world and his gentle humanity. Almost a century after his death, at The War
Memorial Gardens, his eco-poetics still speaks to our times.
Darkness and I are one, and wind
And nagging thunder, brothers all,
My mother was a storm. I call
And shorten your way with speed to me.
I am Love and Hate and the terrible mind
Of vicious gods, but more am I,
I am th eprode in the lover's eye,
I am the epic of the sea.
Mary Turley-McGrath’s collection of poetry New Grass under Snow was
published by Summer Palace Press (2003). She was the winner of the inaugural
Francis Ledwidge Award in 1999. In 2009 she was awarded an M Phil. in
Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin.