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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Irish Poet Francis Edward Ledwidge

Francis Edward Ledwidge, Irish poet from County Meath, sometimes known as the “poet of the blackbirds,” is killed in action He was later also known as a World War I war poet. He was killed in action on July 31, 1917 at the Battle of Pilckem Ridge near Boezinge, Ypres Salient, Belgium.

Born on August 19, 1887 to a poor family in Slane, County Meath, Ledwidge starts writing at an early age, and is first published in a local newspaper at the age of fourteen. Finding work as a labourer and miner, he is also a trade union activist and a keen patriot and nationalist, associated with Sinn Féin. He becomes friendly with a local landowner, the writer Lord Dunsany, who gives him a workspace in the library of Dunsany Castle and introduces him to literary figures including William Butler Yeats and Katherine Tynan, with whom he has a long-term correspondence. He is elected to a local authority post and helps organise the local branch of the Irish Volunteers, while Dunsany edits and helps him secure publication for a first volume of his poetry.

Having sided with the faction of the Irish Volunteers which oppose participation in the war, he enlists in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in October 1914, and continues to write poetry on assignment, sending work to Lord Dunsany and to family and other friends. The poems he writes on active service reveal his pride at being a soldier, as he believes, in the service of Ireland. He often wonders whether he would find a soldier’s death.

On July 31, 1917, a group from Ledwidge’s battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers are road-laying in preparation for an assault during the Third Battle of Ypres, near the village of Boezinge, northwest of Ypres.

According to Irish author and lecturer Alice Curtayne, “Ledwidge and his comrades had been toiling since the early morning at road-making. The army’s first need was men; their second, guns; their third roads. These latter consisted mainly of heavy beech planks bolted together, which could be rapidly laid down. No advance could be supported in that sodden land without a sufficiency of these communications tracks, six or seven feet wide. Supplies were conveyed by pack mules over the wooden paths. Survivors concur in placing the road work done by B Company that day one mile northeast of Hellfire Corner, so called because it was very exposed to German shelling. There was a violent rainstorm in the afternoon, shrouding the region in a gray monochrome. Sullenly, the enemy’s long-range guns continued to fling their shells far behind the lines. Road-work could not be suspended, however, as the tracks were in use as fast as they were laid down. Tea was issued to the men and, drenched to the skin, they stopped to swallow it. A shell exploded beside Ledwidge and he was instantly killed.”

A Roman Catholic military chaplain, Father Devas, is the first on the scene. That night, Father Devas writes in his diary, “Crowds at Holy Communion. Arranged for service but washed out by rain and fatigues. Walk in rain with dogs. Ledwidge killed, blown to bits; at Confession yesterday and Mass and Holy Communion this morning. R.I.P.”

Ledwidge is first buried at Carrefour de Rose, and later re-interred in the nearby Artillery Wood Military Cemetery, at Boezinge, where the Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, who was killed in action on the same day, also lies buried.

Dunsany arranges for the publication of more of Ledwidge’s poems, and a collected edition in 1919. Further poems, from the archives at Dunsany Castle and some material held by family, are later published by Ledwdige’s biographer, Alice Curtayne, and by one of the Ledwidge memorial societies. Ledwidge is selected as one of twelve prominent war poets for the exhibition Anthem for Doomed Youth at the Imperial War Museum in London in 2002, and memorialised at an event in Inchicore, Dublin, in 2017, with his work set to music by Anúna. A museum of his life and work is opeend in his birthplace cottage in 1982. Some of his manuscripts are held in the National Library of Ireland and more in the archives of Dunsany Castle.


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Birth of Rev. William Corby, Chaplain & Notre Dame President

The Rev. William Corby, American priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross and Union Army chaplain in the American Civil War attached to the Irish Brigade, is born in Detroit, Michigan on October 2, 1833. He serves twice as president of the University of Notre Dame.

Corby is born to Daniel Corby, an Irish immigrant, and his wife Elizabeth, a Canadian. He attends public school until age 16, then joins his father’s real estate business. In 1853, he enrolls in the 10-year-old college of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and begins study for the priesthood three years later. Following ordination, he teaches at Notre Dame and serves as a local parish priest.

Corby leaves his position at Notre Dame and joins the predominately Catholic Irish Brigade in 1861. He spends the next three years as chaplain of the 88th New York Volunteer Infantry, which is one of the five original regiments in the Irish Brigade. He is perhaps best known for giving general absolution to the Irish Brigade on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Of the Brigade’s original 3,000 men, only about 500 remain. Of the men Corby absolves that day, 27 are killed, 109 are wounded, and 62 are listed as missing. The scene of Corby blessing the troops is depicted in the 1891 painting Absolution under Fire by Paul Wood, and dramatized in the 1993 film Gettysburg. His memoir of the Irish Brigade becomes a best-seller.

Following his service in the Civil War, Corby returns to Notre Dame and serves as its vice-president (1865–1866) and twice as its president (1866–1872, 1877-1881). Under his first administration, enrollment at Notre Dame increases to more than 500 students. In 1869 he opens the law school, which offers a two-year course of study, and in 1871 he begins construction of Sacred Heart Church, today the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Notre Dame. The institution is still small, and he teaches in the classroom and knows most students and faculty members. In 1869, the entire student body and the faculty present him with the gift of a black horse and, when he leaves the presidency three years later, they present him with a matching carriage.

Corby becomes president again following the short term of Fr. Patrick Colovin. When he returns to the presidency, Notre Dame has not yet become a significant academic institution. His presidency sees the April 1879 fire that destroys the old Main Building of the school. He sends all students home and promises that they will return to a “bigger and better Notre Dame.” He overcomes the $200,000 fire loss and rebuilds the Main Building, which now stands with its “Golden Dome.” During his administration, he also constructs Washington Hall, in which he takes much pride, and starts the construction of St. Edward’s Hall for the minims program.

In addition to his presidency, Corby is also serving as the Holy Cross Provincial, when Rev. Edward Sorin, who had become Superior General of the Congregation, writes to him to tell him that he will have to relinquish one of his positions. He wants to remain president but is overruled by Sorin. Famous throughout the U.S. Catholic world as chaplain for the Irish Brigade, known as the “Fighting Irish,” it may be that the nickname followed Corby back to Notre Dame, where it stuck.

Corby dies at the age of 64 on December 28, 1897 in South Bend, Indiana. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Notre Dame, Indiana.

A statue by Samuel Murray, depicting Corby with right hand raised in the gesture of blessing, stands upon the same boulder at the Gettysburg Battlefield on which the priest stood while blessing the troops that second morning of the battle. It is the first statue of a non-general erected on the Gettysburg Battlefield, and is dedicated in 1910.

Corby is widely remembered among military chaplains and celebrated by Irish American fraternal organizations. Corby Hall at Notre Dame is named for him, and a copy of the Gettysburg statue stands outside the building. An organization of Notre Dame alumni is named The William Corby Society.

(Pictured: Statue of Father William Corby by Samuel Murray, Gettysburg Battlefield, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)