Secret Scripture: Two Irish war poets: a lecture to be delivered at a Conference on Ireland, Wales and the First World War at the University of Cardiff, 10 September 2014
Introduction: It is instructive to look at the index to Paul Fussell's classic book about the literature of the First World War, The Great War and Modern Memory. It contains copious references to Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and other English poets who experienced life in the trenches of the First World War.
Only two Irish writers rate a mention in Fussell's book, James Joyce and WB Yeats, both decidedly non-combatants. Joyce's anti-war doggerel is quoted: "Poor Europe ambles/Like sheep to shambles."
There is no reference to Tom Kettle or Francis Ledwidge, even though both were published poets and both died on the Western Front. The two Irish war poets are also absent from the Imperial War Museum's centenary collection First World War: poems from the front (2014) although they do appear in some other World War 1 anthologies.
Kettle and Ledwidge were also Irish nationalists. Their stories provide an intriguing insight into Irish involvement in the First World War. Their poetic response to the war differed somewhat from that of their English literary counterparts. This can, I think, be accounted for by the particular predicament they experienced of being Irish nationalists in British uniform during World War 1, and especially after the Easter Rising of 1916, which remade the Irish political landscape.
A classic Home Ruler: Part of the Catholic nationalist community that was on the rise in late 19th century Ireland, Tom Kettle was a contemporary of James Joyce's at university. His father, Andrew, had been active in the Land League, which, alongside the Irish Parliamentary Party, had been a key driver and shaper of 19th century Irish nationalism.
Tom Kettle was elected as an Irish Party MP at Westminster in 1906. He was what might be called a classic Home Ruler, a member of a coming generation who would have gone on to run a self-governing Ireland had history not changed course dramatically. Kettle stepped down from Parliament in 1910 to pursue an academic career in Dublin. As Professor of National Economics, he developed a pragmatic economic philosophy, once writing that 'the State is you and me and the man around the corner.' He saw Ireland's Imperial connection as critical to the country's future development.
Although Kettle wrote poems, he was far more accomplished as an essayist and was also a convinced European. He once wrote of Ireland that, 'in order to become deeply Irish, she must become European.' His university classmate, James Joyce, would readily have endorsed such a sentiment.
After his departure from the Westminster Parliament, Kettle remained a committed nationalist and, in 1913, joined the Irish Volunteers, set up in opposition to the Ulster Volunteers as part of the struggle for Irish Home Rule, a consuming issue in the politics of these islands throughout the summer of 1914.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the advent of war in Britain in 1914 is the extent to which the political establishment was unprepared for it, having spent months obsessing instead about the looming crisis in Ireland. It was not until the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia had been digested in London that, as Winston Churchill put it, 'the parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland and a strange light began immediately ... to fall and grow upon the map of Europe.'
A poet of the blackbirds: Before the war, Francis Ledwidge was a promising poet in a pastoral mode.
My thoughts are, where Peace shuts the blackbirds' wings,
And it is cherry time by all the springs.
He had grown up in rural County Meath, where his poetic talent had been spotted and encouraged by the local landowner and writer, Lord Dunsany. A rural labour activist and a member the local authority in his home area, Ledwidge was a supporter of the Gaelic League which was dedicated to reviving the Irish language and from whose ranks many of those who went on to lead the Easter Rising of 1916 were drawn. He went on to become secretary of his local branch of the Irish Volunteers. All of this points to a political philosophy that went beyond Home Rule into the realms of advanced nationalism.
When the Irish Volunteers split in 1914 on account of divisions about participation in the war, Ledwidge initially went with those who opposed Irish Party leader, John Redmond, in his strong support for the British war effort. Yet, Ledwidge subsequently decided to enlist in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and saw service with the 10th Irish Division in the Dardanelles in 1915, in the Balkans and later on the Western Front.
He later explained his rationale for joining up. "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 but pass resolutions." (Stallworthy, pp48-49). There is a record of an exchange at the Navan Rural Council in which Ledwidge is asked if he was an Irishman or pro-German to which he replied "an anti-German and an Irishman." (Stallworthy, p. 48).
The plight of Belgium: Visiting Belgium in the summer of 1914, on a mission to purchase arms for the Irish Volunteers, Tom Kettle witnessed at first hand the German invasion of that country and the destruction of the great Library at Louvain, a place of significance over the centuries for exiled Irish scholars. He reported from Brussels for The Daily News in which he sympathised deeply with the plight of Belgium. From the start, he saw the war as a struggle for civilised European values against the threat posed by Imperial Germany. The plight of Belgium moved him and he admired "the courage and anguish of this glorious little nation, fighting now for its life." He saw Europe being "tortured to the pattern of a new devilry". (Lyons, p. 252).
Kettle returned to Ireland and became a determined recruiting officer, traveling around Ireland to urge his countrymen to commit themselves to the defence of values shared by Ireland and Britain.
Together with his fellow soldier/parliamentarian, Stephen Gwynn, Kettle published a collection of battle songs associated the Irish Brigades which had fought over the centuries in the armies of Europe's Catholic powers. He saw the First World War as an opportunity for the Irish once more to demonstrate their martial virtues. For first time in centuries, Irish men were now going out 'to fight for the sake of Ireland and for Ireland's cause.'
Bravely, Kettle stated that, if forced to choose, he cared for liberty more than he cared for Ireland. He believed that the tears and blood shed in Europe would be a prologue to two reconciliations - between Protestant Ulster and the rest of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. He had high hopes for the future of Ireland's relations with Britain.
Bond, from the toil of hate we may not cease:
Free, we are free to be your friend. ...
Soldier with equal soldier must we sit,
Closing a battle, not forgetting it.
A terrible beauty: As W.B. Yeats wrote with great perceptiveness at the time, Ireland was 'changed utterly' by the Easter Rising of 1916. It certainly changed things for Tom Kettle and Francis Ledwidge. Kettle's brother-in-law, the pacifist, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, was shot by a deranged British officer during the fighting in Dublin.
As he returned to the front in the summer of 1916, Kettle clearly realised that he was likely to end up on the wrong side of Irish history. He sensed that the leaders of the Easter Rising would 'go down in history as heroes and martyrs' while he would be viewed 'as a bloody British officer.'
Kettle's best-known poem, written just days before his death, reflects that awareness of changed circumstances. In it, he tries to explain to his daughter why he had sacrificed his life:
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead
Died not for flag, nor King nor Emperor -
But for a dream, born in a herdsman's shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.
This tenacious idealism about the war's purpose on the part of someone who had experienced the horrors of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 is quite striking.
It has echoes of Yeats's better-known poem 'An Irish airman foresees his death'-
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor.
An Irish poet at war: Francis Ledwidge wrote quite a few poems with wartime settings. However, when the war features in Ledwidge's poetry, it is as a realm of duty and honour rather than violent horror.
A keen-edged sword, a soldier's heart
Is greater than a poet's art.
And greater than a poet's fame
A little grave that has no name.'
In ‘The Irish at Gallipoli’ he expresses sentiments similar to those of Tom Kettle. The Irish fought:
Neither for lust of glory nor new throne
... we but war when war
Serves Liberty and Justice, Love and Peace.
Ledwidge was on home leave recuperating from war wounds when the Easter Rising broke out. The execution of its leaders, troubled him greatly. He wrote poems in their honour, including his best-known work dedicated to the poet/academic, Thomas McDonagh.
He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain.
Ledwidge clearly sympathised with the Rising's aims ("For mine are all the dead men's dreams) and recognised its capacity to change the course of Irish history.
A noble failure is not vain,
But hath a victory of its own.
A bright delectance from the slain
Is down the generations thrown.
Spurred by his feelings about the Easter Rising, Ledwidge deserted and was subjected to a court-martial. Despite this, he returned to service on the Western Front.
Death on the Western Front: After delivering hundreds of recruiting speeches, Kettle insisted on being sent to the front. In a letter to his brother written from France, Kettle reflected on his situation as a soldier on the Western Front.
"I hope to come back. If not, I believe that to sleep here in the France I have loved is no harsh fate, and that so passing out into silence, I shall help towards the Irish settlement." He was killed at Ginchy in September 1916. The unit beside Kettle's, as he went into battle, was led by a Dubliner, Emmet Dalton, who later distinguished himself as one of Michael Collins' ablest lieutenants during Ireland's war of independence.
Ledwidge was killed by an artillery shell at Ypres in 1917 and is buried in the cemetery at Artillery Wood at Boesinghe, not far from the grave of the Welsh poet, Hedd Wyn, who was killed on the same day.
Before his death, Ledwidge wrote to the poet, Katherine Tynan:
"If I survive the war I have great hopes of writing something that will live. If not, I trust to be remembered in my own land for one or two things which its long sorrow inspired." (Powell ed., p. 284).
Assessment and Legacy: There is little echo in the works of Kettle and Ledwidge of Wilfred Owen's 'doomed youth' or of Sassoon's dismissal of the officer class as 'incompetent swine'. Ledwidge's poems retain their pastoral flavour even when written from 'the muddy ranks of war.' The writings of the two Irish war poets contain more of Rupert Brooke's 'foreign field that is forever' - Ireland. As Irish nationalists, they persisted to the end in their belief in the essential nobility of the task in which they were engaged, and that this was a war fought for Ireland.
It is perhaps not wholly surprising that the writings of Kettle and Ledwidge have been overlooked. In Ireland, their sacrifice was long overshadowed by the central narrative of modern Irish history which runs through the General Post Office in 1916 rather than the Western Front. It is W.B. Yeats whose poetry - the 'terrible beauty' of Easter 1916 - defines this particular period in Irish history.
Tom Kettle is memorialised in Dublin's St. Stephen's Green and on the stairs leading out of Westminster Hall where he is listed as one of the MP's who perished in the 1914-1918 war. Ledwidge is remembered in his native County Meath as the poet of the blackbirds.
Both have been elegised by their fellow poets. The poet, George Russell (AE), wrote about Kettle, comparing his sacrifice with those who lead the 1916 Rising:
You proved by death as true as they,
In mightier conflicts played your part,
Equal your sacrifice may weigh
Dear Kettle of the generous heart.
Ledwidge appears in Seamus Heaney's work as 'our dead enigma', the 'sure confusing drum' sounded by an Irish nationalist in British uniform.
Kettle and Ledwidge have left behind powerful testimony of their wartime experience as Irish nationalists in British uniform. They speak to us on behalf of the many for whom we have no written record. By any standard, both Kettle and Ledwidge were fervent Irish nationalists. They saw themselves engaged in a fight in Ireland's name and for Ireland's cause. The fact that they fought on in British uniform even after the Easter Rising, by which they were moved in different ways, testifies to the coexistence of staunchly nationalistic views and deep commitment war service.
In all, hundreds of thousands of Irishmen from all parts of the country and all political and religious persuasions fought in British uniform and some 49,000 lost their lives. Their sacrifice now receives due recognition in Ireland and a Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cross of Sacrifice was dedicated in July at Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery, the principal resting place of Ireland's patriot dead.
The dedication ceremony for the Cross of Sacrifice was attended by President Michael D. Higgins and HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Kent. In his speech at the monument, President Higgins mentioned both Tom Kettle and Francis Ledwidge as illustrations of 'the complicated intertwining of loyalties which characterised Irish identities at the turn of the 20th century.' The President saw their writings as providing an understanding of their ‘multilayered senses of belonging.'
Both writers would surely be pleased with this generous, deserved recognition of the complex authenticity of their Irishness. They were, as Yeats might say, indomitably Irish.
Daniel Mulhall, Ambassador of Ireland, London