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 Dublin.
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 War.
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.