DAY 52
Tom Collins

The voice of a blackbird

100 days
100 lives
100 words

Bittern and blackbird cried
as the Germans’ shell
fell.
But he was someplace else,
back where he was born.

“I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions.”

Creating the Centena

Francis Ledwidge wrote one of the most perfect lines in Irish poetry. His poem, Thomas McDonagh, came to symbolise the spirit of a nation struggling for its freedom. “He shall not hear the bittern cry” is its opening line. McDonagh, one of the 1916 Easter Rising leaders, was a poet too and signed the Proclamation of Irish Independence. The soldiers who executed him wore the same British uniform as Ledwidge who was a lance corporal in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Like McDonagh, he too was fighting for Irish freedom. “I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions.” This, as Seamus Heaney noted, is one of the rare times an army is referred to as female. Raised by his widowed mother, Ledwidge knew women were strong.

A member of the Irish Volunteers, Ledwidge was an Irish nationalist like most of the forgotten Irishmen who died in the war. The Rising, and its synchronicity with the Somme, still resonates. It made republicans of nationalists, and reinforced unionist opposition to independence. Ulster unionists viewed it as treason, many still do. By executing its leaders Britain radicalised nationalism. And the Home Rulers – who were cheered when they signed up in 1914 – were branded collaborators. Ireland erased them from history. Britain went its separate way too, and forgot them also.

Francis Ledwidge by Liam Ó Broin in Slane, County Meath. Ledwidge would have appreciated the bird ‘annointing’ the statue. Image © Tom Collins

'It is surprising what silly things one thinks of in a big fight,' he wrote
Creating the Centena by Tom Collins

The Peace Process changed things. During her 2011 state visit, the Queen laid a wreath for those who fought for Ireland’s independence. Her host, President Mary McAleese, inaugurated on Armistice Day 1997, had already broken the taboo by honouring Ireland’s war dead. With the Queen and King Albert of Belgium she opened the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines in 1998. For this project, she shared with me her lecture marking the 1914 Christmas Truce. In it she said: “It is true we cannot change the past, but we can change how we tell the past.”

This piece, written after visiting Ledwidge’s birthplace in Slane – now a fine museum – references some of his poems. His were the words of a war poet who rarely wrote directly of war. “It is surprising what silly things one thinks of in a big fight,” he wrote. “I was lying on one side of a low bush on 19 August, pouring lead into the Turks and for four hours my mind was on the silliest things of home. Once I found myself wondering if a cow that I knew to have a disease called ‘timbertongue’ had really died.”

A shell killed him, aged 29, on July 31 1917 at Ypres. He had survived Gallipoli and Serbia. When Ledwidge’s remains were reclaimed from the crater where he was hastily buried, his body was identified by the book of poems in his pocket. Nicknamed the Poet of the Blackbirds, Ledwidge now lies in Artillery Wood cemetery in Belgium.

 

A plaque in Francis Ledwidge’s memory at the entrance to his birthplace in Slane, now the Francis Ledgwidge Museum. Image © Tom Collins

Lives of the First World War

You can find out more about Francis Ledwidge here at Lives of the First World War

About the Writer

Tom Collins

More About Tom Collins