Nationalist who returned to front to die at Ypres in 1917
Ireland’s postal service, An Post, has issued a stamp commemorating the centenary of the death of soldier and poet Francis Ledwidge, The Poet of the Blackbirds.
The €1 stamp features a portrait of the Co Meath poet and incorporates a photograph of a blackbird by nature photographer Lewis Bates. Ledwidge was born in Slane, Co Meath in 1887, the eighth of nine children.
The family was extremely poor even by the standards of the time for most Irish people but they were forced into even greater penury when Ledwidge’s father died prematurely.
Their mother worked hard to keep her children in school, believing in the value of an education.
Young Francis wrote poems from the age of seven and – while working as a road labourer – became a published poet in his early teens after he secured the patronage of Lord Dunsany, a well-known society and literary figure in Dublin who introduced him to WB Yeats.
Inspired by Lord Dunsany’s past as an Inniskilling Fusilier, Ledwidge enlisted, at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, in the 5th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, part of the 10th Irish Division and served in Gallipoli, the Balkans and in France on the Western Front.
During the Balkan campaign in 1915, he was invalided home with a back injury. While he was still recovering, the Easter Rising happened.
One of the 1916 leaders, Thomas MacDonagh, was a good friend of his and a fellow poet. When MacDonagh was executed by the British Army Ledwidge wrote what was to become for many years his best known poem, Lament for Thomas MacDonagh.
Despite his Irish nationalism Ledwidge returned to the front when his recovery was complete where he had to earn back his lance-corporal stripes, having been demoted when he overstayed his leave of absence. Ledwidge regained those stripes in January 1917.
It was while preparing the road for an assault during the Battle of Ypres that a stray shell landed beside the mud hole where he and his crew were taking a break.
Battle of Ypres
He was killed outright at the third battle of Ypres in July 1917, just 17 days before his 30th birthday.
Ledwidge had continued writing poetry throughout his time in the army and his first volume of poetry was published in 1915.
A second volume Songs of Peace appeared just three months after his death. Ledwidge’s complete poems were published in 1919.
Down through the years, he has inspired poetry in others incuding Seamus Heaney who wrote In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge.