The voice of a blackbird
Inspired by Francis Ledwidge (1887-1917), Irish nationalist, British soldier, poet
He was born in a blackbird’s nest, blessed
by poetry. Like Rhiannon’s fabled birds
his words could sing the dead to life
and mesmerise the living.
As Gallipoli unfurled he embraced
In Serbia he feasted on blue cherries.
Hospitalised in Egypt, a blackbird
materialised in his troubled mind.
Liffey was his Rubicon.
British soldier or Irish Volunteer?
The Rising transfigured him.
McDonagh’s ghost claimed him.
The King held him to his duty. Flanders,
not Ireland, was his martyr’s soil.
Bittern and blackbird cried
as the Germans’ shell
But he was someplace else,
back where he was born.
Francis Ledwidge: the poet of the Blackbirds
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.
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.
This poem was written for the Armistice project run by the writers’ group 26 and the Imperial War Museum to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. 100 writers were asked to write about 100 men and women who lived during the period of the First World War.