Poet's Pick April 11
Francis Ledwidge: "Thomas McDonagh"
Selected by John McAuliffe
National Poetry Month 2016

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John McAuliffe's Poetry Month Pick, April 11, 2016

"Thomas McDonagh"
by Francis Ledwidge (1887-1917)

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.

 

* John McAuliffe Comments:
When WB Yeats heard about the insurrection in Dublin in April 1916, he was staying with his artist friend William Rothenstein near Stroud in Gloucestershire. It was there Yeats began one of the last century’s most influential poems, “Easter 1916”.

Another Irish poet also responded to the Rising, though from a very different English base, a requisitioned primary school, Lily Lane, in Moston in Manchester. Francis Ledwidge left school at 14 and worked as a labourer in Co Meath while beginning to write poems. In 1914, he joined up with the British Army’s Iniskilling Fusiliers and served in Gallipoli and Serbia where he was injured and sent to Manchester to be treated. The Western General Hospital there had expanded into various primary schools which were re-constituted as hospital wards, which is how Ledwidge ended up in Lily Lane School as the Rising began on April 24th 1916. He would have a lot of time to consider the fate of his friend Thomas McDonagh, critic, poet, lecturer and revolutionary.

Ledwidge’s elegy for McDonagh, written after he learned of his execution, is probably his most famous poem. More adventurous than many of his other poems, it tries to draw McDonagh’s work and death into its pastoral scene. McDonagh’s own best-known poem had been his translation of an Irish-language drinking song, “The Yellow Bittern”, and as a critic he had written about the possibilities of carrying some Irish-language poetic techniques across into Ireland’s long English-language poetic tradition.  Ledwidge’s poem, drafted in that Manchester school-turned-ward, alludes to the thirsty bittern in its opening lines and to an Irish-language image for Ireland as a lost cow in the closing stanza, while his medial rhymes give the poem great assurance. The more expected pastoral images, those daffodils (growing still outside my south Manchester window as I write this), co-exist with these other stranger, national images.

12 months later, back in action, and a long way from yellow bitterns and dark cows (and Slane and Dublin and Manchester and Stroud), on a rainy summer day, Ledwidge was “blown to bits” near Ypres. “Thomas McDonagh” would be published that same year in his second, final collection, Songs of Peace.


John McAuliffe:
John McAuliffe’s fourth book is The Way In (Gallery Press). A selection from his first three books appeared in Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry (vol III). He writes the regular poetry column for the Irish Times and teaches poetry at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing where he also co-edits the Manchester Review.


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