An Affirming Flame

Gerald Dawe looks at the life of soldier and poet Francis Ledwidge, one of the inspirations behind his new book on Irish writing and wartime

Of War and War’s Alarms deals with individual lives, writers’ lives and their individual work, and of how history – literary or social - never really begins with a capital H or ends as a process of ends.

History in Of War and War’s Alarms is about the cultural ethics of sharing and understanding each other’s different backgrounds as best we can. I hope the book also shows what happens when a society fails to do so for whatever politically exigent reasons.

The Meath poet, Francis Ledwidge, who died in the First World War had a good friend, Robert (or Bob) Christie, a Belfast-born Protestant whom Ledwidge had befriended in Dublin during their army training.

Ledwidge saved his friend’s life when Christie was seriously injured on 15 August 1915 during the disastrous Gallipoli offensive. This is how Christie describes the moment:

It was quite dark when I was picked up. Four men carried me in on a ground sheet and when they put me down, I thanked them. As I said, “Thanks, boys”, Ledwidge’s voice above me yelled, “Is it you, Bob?” He had been holding one of the corners of the sheet. As there were so many wounded, the Medical Corps could not cope with them and he had volunteered to help. Needless to say I was surprised – and pleased – to meet him again. He asked me about my injury and all I could tell him then was that I could not walk. He said, “See you in the morning”, and darted away to carry in more wounded.

As a result of his wounds, Christie was demobbed from the Army and returned to family life in Belfast where he continued dental studies.

On his way from Dublin en route to the regimental barracks in Derry in the late spring of 1916, Ledwidge visited Bob and his family in Belfast. Through the researches of Dr. Sandra O’Connell, it was possible to identify the Christie home as 163 Duncairn Gardens, off the Antrim Road in north Belfast.

The house was demolished sometime in the 1970s but it was, so far as I can tell, the same house in which my own mother grew up during the 1930s. The house must have been bought from the Christie family earlier in the late 1910s, early 1920s by my mother’s grandparents.

So a tentative alluring connection emerges, tenuous as these things always are in hindsight, with the image of Bob Christie of Belfast and Frank Ledwidge of Slane arguing – as they certainly would have – over the Easter Rising, the course of the Great War, and the future of the country they both loved, and doing so in the same rooms where my late mother and her brother had played as children of the 1930s before World War II forced their evacuation in 1940/41 to the County Antrim countryside.

Ledwidge stayed for only a couple of nights but it was more than he was entitled to under army regulations. He would get into trouble as a result of the delay. More importantly, it was the last time the pals would see one another because Ledwidge was killed the following July, at the Front. This is how Alice Curtayne sets the scene:

[…] the preliminary bombardment opened for the third battle of Ypres. Soon houses twelve miles behind the lines vibrated in the blasts, the most concentrated, continuous, and ear-splitting yet experienced. When the guns stopped for a brief spell, the silence assailed the ear with a kind of shock. The uproar of the guns was the prelude to a formidable assault, “the battle which all the world had been expecting” according to Philip Gibbs. One morning, during a lull in the bombardment, Ledwidge heard a robin singing. He stopped short and listened to the brave trilling until the noisy tumult of the guns roared again and drowned the little roundelay. This inspired the poem 'Home'.

According to Ledwidge’s patron and advisor, Lord Dunsany, the poem ‘Home’ carries an untypical jolt, in its otherwise characteristically pastoral harmony. ‘The poem’, Dunsany continues, ‘that he wrote in France, nearly his last […] shows how completely he cloaked himself with the Irish atmosphere and carried it always with him’:

This is a song sang

This morning on a broken tree,

It was about the little fields

That call across the world to me.

Dunsany continues,' Only one word in the poem shows that it was written on a battlefield during the Great War. The robin sang on a broken tree, and but for that one word ‘broken’ the poem would be an idyll of peace'. Maybe as well that ‘burst’ brings the booming artillery to mind.

But if there are other ghosts on my mind, beyond the sad loss of Ledwidge and the young poet Charles Donnelly, killed fighting during the Spanish Civil War, and all those other men and women who died tragically young, it is the ghost of WB Yeats because, in asking the hardest of questions, I realised Of War and War’s Alarms is an extended argument with Yeats’ cultural legacy, his towering prolific presence but also of how poetry enlightens - to use WH Auden’s powerful phrase, - with ‘an affirming flame’.

Of War and War’s Alarms: Reflections on Modern Irish Writing by Gerald Dawe is published by Cork University Press on October 14. Book tickets for a talk by the author on the publication as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival on October 16 here.