Francis Ledwidge

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Francis Ledwidge (19 August 1887 – 31 July 1917) was an Irish poet from Meath, sometimes known as the "poet of the blackbirds", killed in action during World War I.


  • 1 Early life
  • 2 Early work
  • 3 Home Rule and WWI
  • 4 Publication and reception
  • 6 Works
  • 7 Trivia
  • 8 References
  • 9 External link

Early life

Ledwidge was born at Slane in Ireland, into a large and poverty-stricken family. His parents believed in giving their children the best education they could afford, but Francis' father died when he was only five, and he was sent out to work at an early age, working while he continued school on farms and eventually finding employment in a copper mine.

Early work

Ledwidge was a keen poet, and his works were published in local newspapers for some time before he won the patronage of the writer, Lord Dunsany, to whom he wrote in 1912, enclosing copybooks of early work. Dunsany, already well-known in Dublin and London literary and dramatic circles, and whose own start in publishing had been with a few poems, introduced him in Dublin. Dunsany supported and advised Ledwidge for some years, providing him with access to and a workspace in Dunsany Castle's Library and later prepared his first collection of poetry Songs of the Fields.

Home Rule and WWI

Ledwidge was a keen patriot and nationalist. His effort to found a branch of the Gaelic League in Slane were thwarted, with a key local organiser turning him down. He did manage to act as a founding member of the Slane Branch of the Irish Volunteers, a nationalist force sworn to defend Home Rule for Ireland, by force if need be.

The Irish Volunteers were split into two factions by World War I in 1914: those who wished to fight in the war and those who did not. Francis was originally of the latter party, however, having defended this position strongly at a local authority meeting, he soon after joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, signing-up in Dublin, against the urgings of Lord Dunsany (allocated to the same unit), who had offered him a stipend to support him if he stayed away from the war. Some have speculated that he went to war because his sweetheart Ellie Vaughey had found a new lover, John O'Neill, whom she later married, but Ledwidge himself wrote, and forcefully, that he could not stand aside while others sought to defend Ireland's freedom.

Ledwidge seems to have fitted into Army life well, and rapidly achieved promotion to lance corporal. In 1915, he saw action at Suvla Bay in Turkey, where he suffered severe rheumatism. Having survived huge losses from his company at Gallipoli, he became ill on a tough mountain journey in Serbia, a locale while inspired a number of poems.

Ledwidge was dismayed by the news of the Easter Rising, and was court-martialled and demoted for overstaying his home leave and being drunk in uniform. He gained and lost stripes over a period in Derry (he was a corporal when the introduction to his first book was written), and then, returned to the front, received back his lance corporal's stripe one last time in January 1917.

Ledwidge continued to write when feasible throughout the war years, though he lost much work, for example, in atrocious weather in Serbia. He sent much of his output to Lord Dunsany, himself moving on war assignments, as well as to readers among family, friends and literary contacts.

On 31st July 1917, a group from Ledwidge's Battalion of the Royal Inniskillen Fusiliers were repairing the road to Pilkem, near the village of Boezinghe, northwest of Ieper (Ypres). While Ledwidge was drinking tea with his colleagues in the mud, a shell exploded alongside, killing the poet and five others. A chaplain who knew him, Father Devas, arrived soon after, and recorded "Ledwidge killed, blown to bits."

The dead were buried at Carrefour de Rose, and later reinterred in the nearby Artillery Wood Military Cemetery. A stone tablet commemorates Ledwidge in the Island of Ireland Peace Park, Messines, Belgium.

Publication and reception

Much of Ledwidge's work was published in newspapers and journals in Ireland and the UK. The only work published in book form during Ledwidge's lifetime was the original Songs of the Fields, which was very well received. The critic Edward Marsh printed three of the poems in the Georgian Poetry series, and remained a correspondent for the remainder of Ledwidge's life. A second volume, Songs of Peace was in preparation when Ledwidge died; patron and friend Lord Dunsany wrote the introduction while both were in Derry in September 1916.

Following the war, Dunsany arranged for more of Ledwidge's work to be published, first in a third and final new volume, Last Songs, and then later in an anthology in 1919; he commented on the work with words such as:

"[I was] astonished by the brilliance of that eye and that had looked at the fields of Meath and seen there all the simple birds and flowers, with a vividness which made those pages like a magnifying glass, through which one looked at familiar things for the first time."

Later collections, first by Alice Curtayne, who also wrote the comprehensive biography of the poet, and later by Liam O'Meara, each added some previously unpublished work, and in 2006, a few more poems were released in a commemorative volume, "The Minstrel Boy" by Hubert Dunn.

A new volume by longtime Ledwidge admirer, Dublin poet Dermot Bolger, "A Ledwidge Treasury", is due for release in July 2007, following newspaper writings, an exhibition (travelling May - August 2007, in Ireland and Belgium) and a short play by Mr. Bolger inspired by Ledwidge's death.


  • Oh what a pleasant world 'twould be,
How easy we'd step thro' it,
If all the fools who meant no harm,
Could manage not to do it!
  • 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
Nor shall he know when the loud March blows
Thro' slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil. - Lament for Thomas MacDonagh


  • Songs of the Fields (1915)
  • Songs of Peace (1917)
  • Last Songs (1918)


  • Ledwidge corresponded for some months with Irish writer Katharine Tynan
  • Ledwidge was the subject of an RTÉ documentary entitled Behind the Closed Eye, first broadcast on January 18, 1973. It won awards for Best Story and Best Implementation Documentary at the Golden Prague International Television Festival.[1]
  1. ^ Bruce, Jim, Faithful Servant: A Memoir of Brian Cleeve Lulu, 2007, ISBN 978-1-84753-064-6, (p.185)

External link

  • Fermanagh Herald, 31 Jan 2007, Books, Michael Breslin
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