One day when he was nineteen or twenty, Dermot Bolger left the cracked concrete of Finglas and made his way up the North Road to Slane in search of the ghost of Francis Ledwidge.
Ledwidge, forever 29 thanks to a shell that obliterated his body and his life in July 1917, was a poet of extraordinary potential. Had he survived the carnage of World War One, he would almost certainly be remembered as one of Ireland’s greatest poets. As it is, he is revered only by those who have encountered his poems or learned about his life. Here in his native County Meath he is remembered with equal measures of fondness and sadness as “a helpless child of circumstance.”
When the teenage Bolger arrived in Slane he peered at the cottages on the road, uncertain which one had been the home of the poet. He was subsequently pinned to the hood of a police car by the local sergeant, John Clark, who had received no less than three phone calls from residents anxious about the long-haired Dubliner who was obviously up to no good.
“I’m a pilgrim!” Bolger cried, and recited two Ledwidge poems to prove it. The sergeant, convinced of his bona fides by this demonstration, not only let him go, but showed him the derelict cottage where the young Ledwidge had lived. The cottage next door was owned by a local artist Liam O’Brion, who gave Bolger a bed for the night in an attic surrounded by canvases and poetic atmosphere. Bolger spent the hours staring into the garden next door that had once, undoubtedly, been worked by the young Ledwidge.
Dermot Bolger told us this tale during the Hinterland Festival in Kells. The little church of St Columba’s was packed and we listened, spellbound, as he told us about Ledwidge’s life and the impact it had had on his own. “He was the James Dean of Irish poets,” Bolger said. “Who knows what he might have achieved if he had lived.”
He read several of Ledwidge’s poems, including my personal favourite, the Lament for 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.
(I have such fondness for the poem, it found its way into a play about 1916 I am writing called Dead Generation. )
Hearing Mr Bolger talk about the sad loss of an Irish poet who died on the battlefields of Belgium, under appreciated because the ‘real’ Irish poets were in the GPO fighting for their country’s independence, and long before he reached his true potential, I was struck by his passion and dedication to Ledwidge’s memory. It reminded me of a conversation I had about ten years ago.
I was working with a woman whose last name was Ledwidge. I asked her if she was related to the poet and she confirmed she was his great-niece.
“Do you have a favourite of his poems?” I asked.
“No. I don’t know any of them.”
“Your family must have some great memories of him.”
“We don’t talk about him.”
Even now, as I recall the conversation, I am struck by the same sense of sadness I felt at the time. It’s not only prophets, but poets, who are without honour among their familiars, it seems. It falls, instead, to the pilgrims, to honour their memory.
If you’d like to know more about poet, novelist, and playwright (and pilgrim) Dermot Bolger or his quest to discover Francis Ledwidge, please check out his essay: here