IN SEARCH OF LEDWIDGE
At unlikely times I think of the poet Francis Ledwidge. Maybe when playing football with my sons or driving home, knowing my wife is asleep upstairs. These were these futures he missed, the mundane yet magical realities. Ledwidge never knew a son or wife. Fate tackled him from behind, just before his thirtieth birthday, when he was killed by a stray shell while building a road behind the front line during the nightmare Third Battle of Ypres in Flanders. His shattered limbs were dumped in the crater before the road building recommenced. His face became trapped inside a few photographs. Like other Great War poets he stares out, condemned to the limbo of being forever young.
But like thousands of Irishmen he was also condemned to another limbo. Rupert Brooke’s death immortalised him at home. It was the same for the Canadian poet, John McCrea whose poem, In Flanders Fields, features on the Canadian $10 bill. Their posthumous reputation was simple, with no legacy of divided loyalties, no whispered rumours. They were never viewed as traitors, their stories never blotted from their country’s collective memory. Because only now is the Irish experience of that war being fully explored.
Ledwidge was born in 1887 in a labourer’s cottage in Slane, County Meath. His father was an agricultural labourer, a profession where you slaved into your eighties and were still called “the boy”. His father died when Francis was four and his brother Joe just a few months old, leaving the family destitute, but his mother supported her children by working all hours in the fields.
Ledwidge left school at thirteen to work for local farmers. He become a seasonal roadworker, but was lured underground when a copper mine opened. Conditions were dire. Despite Ledwidge’s youth, other workers asked him to present their demands for safer conditions. Three years before Jim Larkin organised the Dublin workers, Ledwidge organised a strike. But his fellow workers capitulated, leaving him sacked as a troublemaker.
Before those jobs however his mother got him employment as a grocer’s apprentice in Rathfarnham in Dublin at the age of sixteen. Consumed by homesickness in Rathfarnham one night he composed his first proper poem, a montage of memories of Slane. Excited by the words, he crept downstairs, terrified that his employer would hear. Walking into Dublin, he took the long road out past Finglas village back to Slane. This night walk of forty miles from Rathfarnham would bring him back to his impoverished mother and to the cottage where he had known penury, attempted eviction, starvation and the death of a sibling, but he carried with him the precious gift of this first poem.
At sixteen I first read about that walk in Alice Curtayne’s acclaimed labour of love biography of Ledwidge. At that age I craved reassurance, some affinity in my confusion at having become obsessed with the alchemy of verse among Finglas’s tough streets. I need a hand to reach out – living or dead – and say, “Follow your dreams, believe in your poems.” Curtayne claimed that during his long walk home at sixteen he stopped to rest at every milestone between Dublin and Slane. On the North Road in Finglas one milestone survived. I would sit there and envisage Ledwidge at my age. In my adolescent state, I wanted his ghost to haunt me, skeletal fingers to touch my shoulder. Opening my eyes to watch trucks thunder past towards Slane and swore that one night I too would walk out along that road, convinced that if I retraced each step and arrived at his cottage at dawn I would know how a poet felt.
By 1914, Ledwidge was starting to make a name as a poet, thanks to the intervention of a fellow writer, Lord Dunsany. He was active in Nationalist and union movements. When the Great War started and the overwhelming bulk of Irish Volunteers backed Redmond’s recruiting call, Ledwidge stood resolutely against popular opinion. With his brother, Joe, he walked out when the Slane Volunteers supported behind Redmond.
But he was fighting a losing battle with public opinion and was a lone voice at the Navan Board of Guardians where he was jeered and called pro-German coward by people who would not be lectured by a whippersnapper unemployed roadworker. If Ledwidge was any sort of true Irishman they maintained that he could show his patriotism by enlisting. It would also get him out of their hair.
Five days after being the sole dissenting voice there; haunted by sighting of his ex-girlfriend, Ellie Vaughey, being seen with her new beau; without a steady job to show for all his success as a poet; with streaks of depression and fierce pride in turmoil within him, Ledwidge did what many loud voices supporting Redmond shied away from. He decided that Europe’s war was Ireland’s war and therefore his war. He enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.
His war was protracted, bloody and disillusioning without breaking his spirit. He wrote in impossible conditions, with poems scribbled on any paper available, often lost or illegible after being soaked in mud in his uniform before he could post them on. He was injured and court-martialled, shot a Turkish sniper and crouched at night in trenches while the sky blazed with flares. Yet little of this horror permeated into his poems. He saw barbed wire in no man’s land and remembered fields at home. He saw a lone bird on a blackened stump and imagined flocks warbling by the Boyne.
Even today, Ledwidge’s reason for joining the army are still torturously debated. To accept that he enlisted – like two hundred thousand other Irishmen – not from any love of England but from a sense of duty to Ireland, was a heresy for decades. Part of his fascination is that he died young. The secret of Marilyn Monroe’s mystique is that she never wound up advertising support bras for mature women. Buddy Holly never wound up providing paid testimonials to the wonders of Vigera. The riddle of Ledwidge partly involves our ache of never knowing what he would have achieved.
At twenty I finally made that pilgrimage to Slane. But the sight a longhaired Dubliner on a twilight road perturbed locals, because shortly after starting my quest to see if Ledwidge’s cottage still existed, I found myself pinned against a squad car by a local sergeant, on presumption of being a burglar. After I proved my bona fides as a literary pilgrim, he became highly convivial and directed me towards a derelict cottage further along the road.
I reached this abandoned cottage at dusk. A remarkable artist living next door, Liam O’Brion, told me that some locals hoped to purchase it as a museum (it is now a truly wonderful one), with my police inquisitor being prominent among them. Ledwidge’s brother, Joe, was still alive then. I stood outside his house but lacked the courage to knock. Instead I accepted Liam O’Brion’s offer of a mattress in his attic studio. I sat up all night, surrounded by vivid canvases, staring at the garden where Ledwidge surely sought refuge from the terrible tragedies in that cottage. I was a pilgrim paying my dues, and wondered if one day I might even find Ledwidge’s grave.
It seemed unlikely but, if you live long enough – as Ledwidge never discovered – improbable things occur. In 1997 an old man visited the small graveyard where Ledwidge was reburied in Flanders and left behind a poem, given to his father by Ledwidge in the trenches. This in part led to Piet Chielens of the In Flanders Fields Museum researching who this unknown soldier-poet was and then painstakingly locating the spot of Ledwidge’s death.
In 1998 I was invited to unveil a monument in this spot with the poet’s nephew, Joe. After the unveiling locals crowded a school hall where a Ledwidge voice was heard again in Flanders when Joe Ledwidge was coaxed to bridge any language barriers with a mesmerising piece of singing that seemed to bring the ghost of the poet into the room.
That evening when a tricolour was raised in Flanders felt like the end of my pilgrimage, but Ledwidge’s walk as a boy still haunted my imagination. It led to the writing of a new play, Walking the Road and my editing of a new Selected Poems by him – The Ledwidge Treasury, with an introduction by Seamus Heaney. However the ghost of Ledwidge, still walking that same road home in my play, has become an everyman figure, representing the thousands of Irish ghosts walking home to Rathfarnham and Tallaght and Finglas and every corner of Ireland. Hopefully he also represents the man from every nation who died ninety years ago in that nightmare battle. Every time a road is built in Ieper (As Ypres is now called) more bodies are churned up, more autopsies held, more clues left for the In Flanders Fields Museum to piece together, using buttons and fragments of bone to try and identify the missing. Young men like the small crew of road builders blown to pieces in 1917 when men paused to drink scalding tea and turn their thoughts to home, to the secret places in their hearts to which they would never return.