Two Lives: Francis Ledwidge and Hedd Wyn

Long before I read Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ or Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Base Details’, we had studied an essay in secondary school entitled, ‘Sunday before the War’ by Arthur Clutton-Brock. In this essay he describes a remote valley with its orchards, hopyards and fields of golden wheat, close to the Welsh border. It was a scene from a golden age of peace and beauty that was to come to an end the next day. The first sign of trouble was the man in his reservist uniform saying goodbye to his wife and children before walking up the hill that led out of the valley.

For Francis Ledwidge, to leave the village of Slane and the beauty of the Boyne Valley was a complex decision. He enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in Richmond Barracks in October 1914. His reasons were many: he had been rejected as a suitable husband by the family of his sweetheart Ellie Vaghey; he was disappointed by failure to gain a position as a journalist with the Drogheda Independent; he could also have been partly influenced by  Lord Dunsany, by then a British army officer,  who had supported him in his writing. There were of course his ardent political beliefs; Ledwidge was a proud and independent thinker. 

When he wrote in February of that year in ‘The Call to Ireland’: It’s time to be up and doing, / To be up and doing now; we have to take him as his word. He was aware of his possible fate when he wrote: Tis the rustle of golden harvest / Where the reapers and all are slain, (‘The Call’). Much as he believed in his own actions for the freedom of small nations, the underpinning of his beliefs were destroyed the following year by the events of the Easter Rising and the execution of the leaders. It also provoked the writing of ‘Lament for Thomas McDonagh’, one of the nation’s favourite poems, and the work by which Ledwidge is best remembered.

While Ledwidge joined the army voluntarily, the Welsh language poet Hedd Wyn was conscripted after the passing of the Military Services Bill 1916. He enlisted in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers early in 1917. The eldest son of a large family living in Trawsfynydd, a village in the Prysor Valley, Merionethshire, he had resisted joining the army for as long as possible on the grounds that his work as a sheep farmer on the hundred and sixty acre family farm, was essential to the war effort at home. Eventually, rather than have his younger brother be conscripted, he joined himself. His time as a soldier lasted seven months. 

The opening lines of the poem ‘War’ reflect Hedd Wyn’s pacifist, non-conformist, and deeply religious convictions: Bitter to live in times like these / While God declines beyond the seas …. The concluding lines reflect his sense of foreboding: Ballads of boys blow in the wind / Their blood is mingled with the rain. How ironic that the name Hedd Wyn, his bardic name, means white peace or holy peace; his birth name was Ellis Humphrey Evans.

Ledwidge’s formal education ended at primary school. Lord Dunsany became a mentor for the young writer whose father, a farm labourer, died when he was four years old. Dunsany was a very prominent literary figure at that time; his plays were staged in Dublin, London, and New York. He was impressed by Ledwidge and introduced him to his literary circle in Dublin. To have this level of support and friendship enabled Ledwidge to flourish; he had his first collection of poems Songs of the Fields published in 1916, and two other collections published posthumously. 

Hedd Wyn’s education ended at the age of fourteen. He had the guidance of his father who bought him a book on the strict-metre of Welsh verse. He began writing poetry when he was twelve but did not have the range of social or literary supports available to Ledwidge. However, the help and encouragement of J.D. Richards and Silyn Roberts, both Methodist ministers with a keen interest and knowledge of Welsh language verse, was an impetus for the shy young poet, who loved the beauty and isolation of his Welsh mountain farm.

In 1907, he won his first chair at Bala Eisteddfod, and over the next ten years won several prizes in competitions and eisteddfodau. His main ambition was to win the National Eisteddfod. Weeks after he was killed in action, his poem ‘The Hero’ was awarded the Poet’s Chair at the National Eisteddfod in Birkenhead. He had completed it as he travelled to join the war effort in Belgium. When news of his death was announced, the chair was sent to Trawsfynydd village, draped in black cloth.

Afterwards, a local committee collected his poems, many in his own hand, and published The Shepherd’s Poems in 1918. A complete Welsh language Anthology was published in 2012. The headstone over his grave has an extra inscription: Y PRIFARDD, which means ‘head-poet’ or ‘poet laureate’.

Francis Ledwidge and Hedd Wyn were killed on the same day, 31st July 1917, both in their  thirtieth year. The ‘Poet of the Blackbird’ and the ‘Poet of the Black Chair’ are buried in Artillery Wood Cemetery at Boesinge, Belgium.

Mary Turley-McGrath holds an M Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin. Her third poetry collection, Other Routes (Arlen House), was published in 2016. She was the winner of the inaugural Francis Ledwidge Poetry Award. Her work has appeared in magazines and anthologies, and has been broadcast on Sunday Miscellany.

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