The Irish in Gallipoli

A memorial to honour Irishmen who fought in the British Army during WWI is to be unveiled Thursday at the National War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge.

The Ledwidge plaque will feature Francis Ledwidge’s poem “The Irish in Gallipoli” and will remember the estimated 50,000 Irish soldiers who died in the Great War.

Like many of his countrymen, Ledwidge volunteered even though he was a nationalist: “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.”He returned to Ireland during 1916 to recover from an injury and left disillusioned following the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rebellion. In May 1916 he became depressed: “if someone were to tell me now that the Germans were coming in over our back wall, I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them. They could come!”

He returned to the front and died in Flanders in 1917.

‘The Irish in Gallipoli’

Where Aegean cliffs with bristling menace front
The Threatening splendour of that isley sea
Lighted by Troy’s last shadow, where the first
Hero kept watch and the last Mystery
Shook with dark thunder. Hark! The battle brunt!
A nation speaks, old Silences are burst.

‘Tis not for lust of glory, no new throne
This thunder and this lightning of our power
Wakens up frantic echoes, not for these
Our Cross with England’s mingle, to be blown
At Mammon’s threshold. We but war when war
Serves Liberty and Keeps a world at peace.

Who said that such an emprise could be vain?
Were they not one with Christ, who fought and died?
Let Ireland weep: but not for sorrow, weep
That by her sons a land is sanctified
For Christ arisen, and angels once again
Come back, like exile birds, and watch their sleep.

France, 24 February 1917.

He also wrote a poem about his comrade Thomas MacDonagh, who was executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Rising.

Thomas 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.

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.

Not forgetting Seamus Heaney’s poem: In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge

The bronze soldier hitches a bronze cape
That crumples stiffly in imagined wind
No matter how the real winds buff and sweep
His sudden hunkering run, forever craned

Over Flanders. Helmet and haversack,
The gun’s firm slope from butt to bayonet,
The loyal, fallen names on the embossed plaque —
It all meant little to the worried pet

I was in nineteen forty-six or seven,
Gripping my Aunt Mary by the hand
Along the Portstewart prom, then round the crescent
To thread the Castle Walk out to the strand.

The pilot from Coleraine sailed to the coal-boat.
Courting couples rose out of the scooped dunes.
A farmer stripped to his studs and shiny waistcoat
Rolled the trousers down on his timid shins.

At night when coloured bulbs strung out the sea-front
Country voices rose from a cliff-top shelter
With news of a great litter – “we’ll pet the runt!” –
And barbed wire that had torn a friesian’s elder.

Francis Ledwidge, you courted at the seaside
Beyond Drogheda one Sunday afternoon.
Literary, sweet-talking, countrified,
You pedalled out the leafy road from Slane

Where you belonged, among the dolorous
And lovely: the May altar of wild flowers,
Easter water sprinkled in outhouses,
Mass-rocks and hill-top raths and raftered byres.

I think of you in your Tommy’s uniform,
A haunted Catholic face, pallid and brave,
Ghosting the trenches with a bloom of hawthorn
Or silence cored from a Boyne passage-grave.

It’s summer, nineteen-fifteen. I see the girl
My aunt was then, herding on the long acre.
Behind a low bush in the Dardanelles
You suck stones to make your dry mouth water.

It’s nineteen-seventeen. She still herds cows,
But a big strafe puts the candles out in Ypres:
‘My soul is by the Boyne, cutting new meadows…
My country wears her confirmation dress.’

‘To be called a British soldier while my country
has no place among nations…’ You were rent
By shrapnel six weeks later. ‘I am sorry
That party politics should divide our tents.’

In you, our dead enigma, all the strains
Criss-cross in useless equilibrium
And as the wind tunes through this vigilant bronze
I hear again the sure confusing drum

You followed from Boyne water tot he Balkans
But miss the twilit note your flute should sound.
You were not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones
Though all of you consort now underground.