Irish War Poets

There is no echo in the works of Tom Kettle and Francis Ledwidge of Owen’s ‘doomed youth’ or of Sassoon’s dismissal of the officer class as ‘incompetent swine’. Their writings contain more echoes 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. They adhered to the view of Irish parliamentary leader, John Redmond, for whom the war was a struggle ‘in defence of rights and freedom and religion.’ 

The stories of Kettle and Ledwidge provide an intriguing insight into Irish involvement in the First World War. Their poetic responses to the war differed from those of their English literary counterparts. 

Francis Ledwidge, 1887-1917

© francis ledwidge museum

Francis Ledwidge decided to enlist in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and his first introduction to the war was at Gallipoli. He wrote no poetry during the eight weeks he spent on the campaign but was lucky enough to be included among the 118,000 men who were evacuated from the peninsula. 

While recovering from an inflamed back in Manchester in 1916, Frank received news of the Easter Rising in Dublin and the executions of nationalist leaders that followed it, including his good friend and fellow poet Thomas MacDonagh.  He became completely disillusioned and declared ‘If someone was to tell me now that the Germans were coming over back wall, I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them. They should come’.

In July 1917 having survived the Battle of Arras, Francis’ unit was ordered north to Belgium in preparation for the Battle of Passchendaele.  On 31st July the 1st Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, of which Frank was a member, were repairing the road to Pilkem near the village of Boezinghe northwest of Ypres. In the afternoon of that day a shell exploded beside them, killing one officer and five enlisted men, among them Francis.

A Soldier’s Grave by Francis Ledwidge

Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms

Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death,

Lest he should hear again the mad alarms

Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.

And where the earth was soft for flowers we made

A grave for him that he might better rest.

So, Spring shall come and leave it sweet arrayed,

And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest

Tom Kettle, 1880-1916

In 1913, Tom Kettle joined the Irish Volunteers, a paramilitary group set up in opposition to the Ulster Volunteers as a part of the struggle for Irish Home Rule. 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. Kettle like many Irish nationalists 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 and became convinced that Britain’s support of Belgium would be a precursor to subsequent support for Irish Home Rule – already committed to by the government in London, albeit delayed in its implementation by the arrival of war. 

Tom returned to Ireland and became a recruiting officer. Often criticised by other nationalists for his recruiting activities, Kettle once stated that, if forced to choose, he cared for liberty more than he cared for Ireland. 

Tom requested that he be sent to fight in France in the Battle of the Somme and was killed during an attack upon Givenchy on 9th September 1916. 

To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God by Tom Kettle

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.