Awkward bits of history

Nov 9th, 2008 | By | Category: Ireland

BBC Songs of Praise focused on the poets of the Great War in its Remembrance Sunday edition.  The usual names were recalled, Housman, Owen and Sassoon.  There was the usual retelling of the story of Owen dying just before the Armistice.  Perhaps it would have disturbed too many English viewers to have included the work of Irish nationalist writers; perhaps the work of Tom Kettle, the journalist, barrister, writer, poet and economist, or Francis Ledwidge, the poet, would have been a step too far.

Kettle’s To my Darling daughter Betty:The Gift of God is a father’s farewell to his child:

In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime,
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To dice with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
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.

Francis Ledwidge was dismayed at the British reaction to the Easter Rising in 1916 and his work includes a lament for Thomas McDonagh, one of the leaders of the Rising executed by the British.

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.
Nor shall he know when loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.
But when the dark cow leaves the moor,
And pastures poor with greedy weeds,
Perhaps he’ll hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.

His poem Soliloquy comes at the end of a chequered life:

When I was young I had a care
Lest I should cheat me of my share
Of that which makes it sweet to strive
For life, and dying still survive,
A name in sunshine written higher
Than lark or poet dare aspire.

But I grew weary doing well.
Besides, ’twas sweeter in that hell,
Down with the loud banditti people
Who robbed the orchards, climbed the steeple
For jackdaws’ eyes and made the cock
Crow ere ’twas daylight on the clock.
I was so very bad the neighbours
Spoke of me at their daily labours.

And now I’m drinking wine in France,
The helpless child of circumstance.
To-morrow will be loud with war,
How will I be accounted for?

It is too late now to retrieve
A fallen dream, too late to grieve
A name unmade, but not too late
To thank the gods for what is great;
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.

Why would one include the work of Irish nationalists in the same programme as the work of English writers?

Because they died fighting in the same war.

Kettle’s poem is dated ‘In the field, before Guillemont, Somme, Sept. 4, 1916′.  He died in action at Guillemont on 9th September 1916.

Ledwidge died on 31st July 1917, north-west of Ypres.  The chaplain wrote, “Ledwidge killed, blown to bits”.  He had been part of a group mending a road prior to an attack; stopping for tea, they were all killed by a random shell.

Perhaps, one day, Ledwidge will be mentioned in the same sentence as Owen.

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  1. Ian

    You may be interested in a heated discussion which took place today on the use of the poppy as a symbol in Ireland. It was on ‘Spirit Moves’ presented by Tom McGurk…,null,200,

    It made for interesting listening while stuck in a traffic jam thanks to the Lord Mayor’s decision to turn on the Christmas lights in O’Connell street *grrr*

  2. Hi Steph,

    Our church would have a cross-section of people with very different views. Some of the more nationalist would happily leave all aspects of the day behind, regarding it as a remnant from British occupation, others would see it as important. I know one person who is not happy with us holding any act of remembrance. I hope, I’m conciliatory in my approach: our remembrance focuses upon our own fallen in the context of all the fallen. We have poppies, but there is nothing of a ‘military’ nature. I took part in a television programme a few years ago that covered similar ground; in the end we had to agree to disagree.

  3. The red poppy was chosen as it grew where so many had fallen, it lends itself to no national or political pressure, it is so sad that it would seem that there are many that want just to argue for the sake of argument

  4. I don’t think the nationalists in my church would agree. They do not perceive the poppy as a neutral symbol, but as a symbol of a British army that violently suppressed this country for generations. Suggest that it is not about one country and they point to the word “British” in “Royal British Legion”.

  5. Is there a particular side that you are supposed to wear the poppy on. I noticed everyone on TV had theirs on the left lapel, but Louis Walsh on the X factor on Saturday had his on the right! (Maybe it was his own private rebellion – or just an oversight)

  6. Hi Maria,

    The etiquette is the left-hand side.

    I assume this arose from wearing buttonholes on the left-hand side; a sensible thing to do because you would be in danger of crushing flowers every time you shook hands if you wore them on the right.

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