At War and Peace: George Russell (AE) and Francis Ledwidge in 1917
It is a pleasure to be here for this, the inaugural West Cork History Festival. I wish to pay tribute to Simon Kingston and his festival team for taking this initiative. I trust that this will be the first of many such festivals here in fabulous Skibbereen. I want to speak today about two Irish poets, George Russell (AE) on the 150th anniversary of his birth, and Francis Ledwidge on the centenary of his death.
Why, you may ask, am I focusing on two writers at a history festival? The answer is that I have long been interested in the connection between Irish literature and history, especially in the opening decades of the 20th century when Irish writing was at its most creative and our country experienced a profound political transformation.
Part of this literary/historical story is well known. I have spoken and written many times about W.B. Yeats as a witness to Irish history. His poem ‘Easter 1916’ represents a wondrous, elegiac response to the events and personalities of Easter week. It is in my opinion indispensable reading for any historian of 1916.
And let's not forget the role of three published poets, Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett, as leaders of the Rising, giving credence to the notion that it was somehow a poets' revolution. It was far more than that of course, but the poets gave it some of its flavour. Last year, I wrote about the parallel lives of two writers who met their deaths in 1916, Easter Rising leader Thomas MacDonagh, and Thomas Kettle, for former nationalist MP who was killed on the Western Front in September 1916, and how those very similar men ended up dying in such contrasting circumstances.
Today, I again look back a century and turn my attention to two less well-known figures, Russell and Ledwidge, who, in their own ways, further illustrate the complexities of the period whose 100th anniversary we are now marking as part of our Decade of Centenaries.
There is an, in retrospect, amusing link between the two writers for AE once complained to Dunsany that Ledwidge had borrowed £5 from him and failed to pay back. The debt was promptly repaid. Ledwidge was not the only one indebted to AE for we know from Ulysses that Leopold Bloom (and therefore probably James Joyce) owed the bearded poet money! AEIOU.
George Russell (AE):
George Russell had a very busy 1917 as a member of the Irish Convention that met from July of that year until the early months of 1918 in a sincere but ultimately fruitless effort to arrive at an agreement between nationalism and unionism in Ireland.
Russell was born in Lurgan, Co. Armagh, in 1867, but moved to Dublin as a boy and attended Art school where he encountered Yeats with whom he struck up a lifelong, if sometimes strained, friendship as the two men did not always see eye-to-eye. Under his pen-name, AE, Russell contributed to the Irish Literary Revival and was involved with Yeats in setting up the Abbey Theatre in 1904.
Russell was a mystical visionary but he also possessed a strong practical streak which came to the fore when he joined the Irish cooperative movement in 1897 as a banks' organiser, in which role he spent much time in the west of Ireland. In 1905, he became editor of the cooperative movement's weekly paper, the Irish Homestead, for which he produced a prodigious output of writing on the widest conceivable range of topics, from the spiritual to the agricultural.
Although he strove to keep the Homestead strictly non-political, events in Ireland drew him into the political arena and AE took a strong position on the side of Dublin's workers during the 1913 Lockout. He took a considerable political risk by chiding both the Catholic hierarchy and the Irish Party for their lack of sympathy for the plight of the workers and their families. It was a brave man who would take on 'the bishops and the party' in early 20th century Ireland! AE formed a friendship with James Connolly which led him to conclude that the root causes of the Easter Rising were essentially economic. In a poem written in the wake of the Easter Rising, he referred to Connolly as ‘my man.’
In the Rising's aftermath, AE thought that Ireland was suffering from 'a kind of suppressed hysteria' and he fretted that the recourse to violence could undo the economic advances made by the cooperative movement. In his political tract, The National Being, published in September 1916, he argued for a cooperative commonwealth which he believed could address Ireland's challenges and its divisions.
Francis Ledwidge had a very different background from AE's. He was born in Slane, Co. Meath in 1888 and grew up in a farm labourer's cottage. With just a primary education, he worked locally in a succession of jobs, all the time seeking an outlet for his writing, in which he received unstinting support and encouragement from local literary grandee, Lord Dunsany.
Ledwidge was something of an identikit early 20th century Irish nationalist of the advanced kind. He was an enthusiast for the revival of the Irish language, an activist in the nascent Labour movement and, through the influence of Dunsany, associated with the Irish literary revival. He played Gaelic football (and cricket too) and was an active member of the nationalist Irish Volunteers set up in 1913 as part of the struggle for Home Rule. And Ledwidge became a member of the local authority in his area, a political domain in which the nationalist community were increasingly influential.
Everything about Ledwidge's life and background would seem to put him in the camp of radical nationalism rather than the more moderate strand epitomised by John Redmond and the experienced leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party. And sure enough, when War broke out in August 1914, Ledwidge was among those who saw the job of the Irish Volunteers as defending Ireland from invasion rather that fighting on the Western Front.
When John Redmond, in a speech delivered at Woodenbridge in September 1914, urged the Irish Volunteers to enlist for service 'wherever the firing line extends', Ledwidge was firmly opposed. When his local branch of the Volunteers met to debate the issue, Ledwidge was among a handful of members who came out against Redmond. At a meeting of the Navan Rural Council, Ledwidge objected to a resolution condemning those Irish Volunteers who had refused to go along with Redmond, he insisted that they were 'true patriots'. At the Navan Board of Guardians, Ledwidge, who was alone in his defence of the anti-Redmond Irish Volunteers, was accused of being pro-German, but he retorted that he was 'an anti-German and an Irishman'. Echoing a traditional separatist perspective, he observed that 'England's uprise has always been Ireland's downfall.'
Remarkably just 5 days after that forthright expression of nationalist sentiment, Ledwidge enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and spent the remaining 3 years of his life in British uniform. The apparent contradictions of Ledwidge's stance resulted in Seamus Heaney's description of him as 'our dead enigma' who, in the poet's view, was not 'keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones/though all of you consort now underground.'
Ledwidge at war, 1914-17:
Ledwidge seems to have been adept at soldiering and, after some months of training in Dublin and Hampshire, saw service at Gallipoli and endured severe privations in the winter cold at Lake Doiran in the Balkans, from where he was invalided out to Egypt and eventually to Manchester, where he was convalescing when news reached him of the Easter Rising. The executions of its leaders, and especially his friend, Thomas MacDonagh left him devastated. He wrote about the Rising, making plain his identification with the rebels.
A noble failure is not vain
But hath a victory of its own
For mine are all the dead man's dreams.
His best-known poem is dedicated to the memory of MacDonagh:
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.
Yet, while the Rising and its aftermath left him deeply disenchanted, he did not desert nor seek a discharge. He became a troublesome figure in the army, who did not hide his sympathies with the 'men of 1916' and as a result lost his Corporal's stripe. Yet he returned to the front in December 1916 and what is striking about his surviving correspondence is his stoicism and determination to do what he continued to consider his duty.
As he wrote to the poet, Katharine Tynan, in January 1917: 'I am a unit in the Great War, doing and suffering, admiring great endeavour and condemning great dishonour. I may be dead before this reaches you, but I will have done my part.' He expresses perennial homesickness for his Co. Meath home, but there is also a surprising sense of excitement at being in the heat of battle.
In June 1917, he wrote that he was 'not without hope that a new Ireland will arise from her ashes in the ruins of Dublin, like the Phoenix, with one purpose, one aim and one ambition'. He also suggested that 'every honour won by Irishmen on the battlefields of the world' was Ireland's honour, 'and does it not tend to the glory and delight of her posterity?' In other words, while undoubtedly disenchanted after 1916, he continued to believe that military service on the battlefields of World War 1 was the right thing to do.
Ledwidge was killed on 31 July during the 3rd Battle of Ypres when a German shell exploded beside him. He was buried at the Artillery Wood Cemetery, not far from the grave of the Welsh language poet, Hedd Wyn, who was killed that very same day, and whose home I visited recently in North Wales.
AE in 1917:
From the start of 1917, AE was busy thinking up that might help stave off looming conflict and division in Ireland. With support from Dublin businessman, James Douglas and Col. Maurice Moore, brother of the novelist, George Moore, AE drew up a scheme for Dominion status for Ireland, but with special arrangements for Ulster. He subsequently published this as a pamphlet, Thoughts for a Convention, in which he argued that nationalist and unionist interests could be reconciled in a self-governing Ireland within the Empire and that a Dublin parliament would never undermine Ulster's economic strengths.
When the Irish Convention was being set up, in the words of the British Government, in order that 'Ireland should try her hand at hammering out an instrument of Government for her own people', AE was one of three figures invited to join because of their understanding of the thinking of Sinn Féin, which had refused to take part.
The Convention opened its doors on the 25th of July 1917 with AE's mentor, Horace Plunkett in the chair. AE's priority was that control of taxation and trade policy should rest in Dublin. This reflected his longstanding preoccupation with the economic and social implications of self-government. In his quest for compromise solutions, he found himself aligned with the Catholic bishops and his old adversary from the 1913 Lock-Out, William Martin Murphy. In a troubled international environment, he feared the effects of continued political turmoil in Ireland. As the put it, 'there is going to be wild weather through the world, and we want an Irish captain and an Irish crew in charge of the Irish ship.'
In December 1917, AE made one of his most eloquent, passionate appeals for compromise between nationalist and unionist ideals. AE argued for a setting aside of arguments about the past so that Irishmen might consider 'how in the future they may live together'. The two traditions had, he insisted, much to learn from each other. Nationalists could learn from unionists 'a practical efficiency in the affairs of life' while unionists could acquire from nationalists 'that idealism and love of beauty which has blossomed in a thousand songs.' He urged that the two sides escape from 'an eternity of opposites by rising above them'. Idealistically but probably unrealistically in the context of 1917, he argued that the Irish were no longer Celtic or Norman-Saxon, but a new race 'closer in character than we are to any other race.'
As if to underline this underlying unity of national character, he appended a poem with the ungainly title, 'To the memory of some I knew who are dead and who loved Ireland'. This was a poem well ahead of its time for it paid tribute not only to Pearse, Connolly, MacDonagh and Constance Markievicz, but also to three victims of the First World War, 'who thought of something for Ireland done', Willie Redmond, Alan Anderson and Tom Kettle. In the poem's concluding lines he wrote optimistically about
..the confluence of dreams
That clashed together in our night,
One river, born of many streams,
Roll in one blaze of blinding light.
AE found the Convention a frustrating experience and when it became clear to him that the minimum he could endorse - Ireland having complete control over Irish affairs - was not going to be acceptable to the British Government or the Ulster unionists, he tendered his resignation, expressing sentiments that showed how far he had travelled politically.
'I think nothing but the most determined opposition to British Government in Ireland will have any effects on that Government'. .. A man must be either an Irishman or an Englishman in this matter. I am Irish.'
In a letter to Lloyd George explaining his resignation, he wrote in quite prophetic terms that 'we have for the first time in Ireland a disinterested nationalism not deriving its power from grievances connected with land or even oppressive Government but solely from the growing self-consciousness of nationality, and this has with the younger generation all the force of a religion.' He concluded that any Government 'which does not allow this national impulse free play, will be wrecked by it.'
Thus, AE's experience in 1917 of seeking, and failing, to promote understanding between nationalism and unionism, left him, despite his fundamental, undying pacifism - which ought to have endeared the Irish Party to him - into a position of strong support for Ireland's independence movement. AE’s political journey testifies to the broad appeal of Irish nationalism in the years following the Easter Rising.
Francis Ledwidge's life was cut tragically short before had reached his 30th birthday and we have no way of knowing how he might have developed as a writer had he survived the war. When you consider how Yeats's work evolved between 1895 when he was 30 and 1935, it is entirely possible that Ledwidge would have matured in interesting ways. Had he survived the war, would he have been able to write about his experiences in the idiom of 20th century poetry? Given his background as a soldier of the Great War and a fervent admirer of the leaders of the Easter Rising, how would he have perceived the war of independence, the civil war and the new state that emerged from it? We can never know, but from the evidence of his letters from the front, he certainly had big literary ambitions and believed that he could do great things with his writings once peace was restored.
As to why Ledwidge, the left-leaning nationalist ended up in British uniform, perhaps James Stephens' description of him as 'a lump of a lad' gives some clue to this puzzle. At the Navan local authority in 1914, he appears to have been stung by accusations that he was pro-German. As he put it later, '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.
One hundred years after his death, there is no longer any need to view Ledwidge as Seamus Heaney did in 1980 as an 'enigma'. A century on from those tragically troubled and turbulent times in Ireland and across the world, we are now more comfortable about the idea of Irishmen in a 'Tommy's uniform' 'ghosting the trenches', even as we recognise how uncomfortable it must have been for many of them in the aftermath of Easter week 1916.
As for George Russell, he flourished in the post-war period, but not in the way Yeats did, or Ledwidge might have done, as a poet. The dramatic events that gripped and transformed Ireland in the half-decade after the war's end drew from him no great poem, play or work of prose fiction. He became something different, but equally useful, an astute commentator on the affairs of Ireland as it made its way towards independence.
He viewed the events of that period with a mix of fascination and trepidation. During the 1920s, he played an important role as editor of the Irish Statesman in providing an intelligent and relatively balanced commentary on the affairs of the fledgling Irish Free State. Russell was supportive of the Cumann na nGaedhael Government but also gave space to conflicting viewpoints. As the 1920s wore on, he experienced the kind of disenchantment that affected Yeats and many other Irish writers of that period. He was dismayed in particular by the imposition of literary censorship during the 1920s although, as a left-leaning individual, he never flirted with the authoritarian tendencies and aristocratic nationalism that was part of Yeats's response to the Ireland of that time. AE left Ireland in the early 1930s and died in Bournemouth in 1935.
Francis Ledwidge once wrote that 'AE sets me thinking of things long forgotten'. Both writers, and their contrasting experience in 1917, deserve to be remembered. They both formed part of that 'confluence of dreams' a century ago that helped to make us what we are today.