FRANCIS LEDWIDGE - MEATH POET'S LIFE RECALLED BY KILDARE WOMAN
Leinster Leader 13 September 2007
Kildare author recalled life and loves of tragic Meath poet.
Poetic imagination, love and war are a potent trio of circumstances which have inspired many volumes of verse written by men caught up in personal and political dilemmas. But the work of a poet, especially one with a complex personal story, needs the good offices of a skilled interpreter to rescue his verse from obscure printed volumes. Ninety-years ago Francis Ledwidge, of Slane, Co. Meath, was killed near Ypres, at just thirty years of age, in the interminable battles of the First World War.
His poetry, and indeed the poignant circumstances of his life, might have remained forgotten – all the more so because of ambivalent feelings in modern Ireland towards those who had donned British uniforms – were it not for the research and writing skills of Alice Curtayne who lived at Downings, near Prosperous, in Co. Kildare and who in 1972 authored the first biography of the Meath-born poet. The book was republished by New Island Books in 1998 and rekindled an interest in Ledwidge’s fine verse which lyricises the lush pastures of his native Meath, grapples with his conflicting loyalties to Irish nationalism and to the call to fight in Britain’s forces in WW1, and agonises over his unrequited love for a Boyne valley girl.
Alice Curtayne had a personal insight into the political dilemma of Ledwidge; her brother Richard had also straddled the fluid strands of Irish sentiment in the era of the First World War. He had been a member of the Irish Volunteers and later joined the Irish Guards regiment of the British Army; he died at the battle of the Somme in September 1916.
Returning to Francis Ledwidge it is worth recalling at least some of the threads of his short life. As early as school years he showed poetic talent, entertaining class-mates with rhymes on the issues of the day. Forced by family poverty to leave school at fourteen, he worked as a roads labourer, a farm hand, and in a copper mine. The dire treatment of workers at the time radicalised him and he became active in labour issues and, beyond that, in freedom of all kinds for the Irish working people. There were stirring influences emerging in early 1900s: Sinn Fein, the GAA and the Gaelic League all stimulated the ardent Ledwidge.
The next few years were to prove bitter-sweet. His writing career was put on a more secure footing through the patronage of Lord Dunsany; and his political activism was to intensify when he became a founding member of the Irish Volunteers in Co. Meath. However his personal life was to flourish briefly only to flounder. He fell in love with Ellie Vaughey, a prosperous farmer’s daughter, whom he courted on the banks of the Boyne. But class distinctions were to sunder the young couple’s relationship – the farmer’s daughter and the labourer’s son were never to wed. It was probably this rejection, and confusion in 1914 over the split in the Irish Volunteers movement, which led him to the uncharacteristic move of joining the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers at a time when influential voices were urging Irish men to support the British War effort as a way of securing the reward of Home Rule.
He coped with the rigours of battle well and continued to write poetry as his regiment fought in Gallipoli, Serbia and later on the western front at the Somme. But his talent was to be cut short on the 31st July 1917 when a German shell blasted his road mending party near Ypres in Flanders and he died at the spot. He is buried in a war graves cemetery near by which is still visited by Irish people ninety years later. He died in a sense as he had written: the opening lines of Alice Curtayne’s biography quote him as writing ‘I am of a family who were ever soldiers and poets.’
For a beautifully written account of the life and work of the Meath poet, ‘Francis Ledwidge – A Life of the Poet’ published by New Island Books in 1998 is worth seeking out in library or bookshop.
Series No. 32
Liam Kenny's article on Francis Ledwidge the Meath poet who lost his life in WWI and his Kildare biographer Alice Curtayne - from 'Nothing New Under the Sun,' Leianster Leader 13 Septemnber 2007.