By Tom Dillon
District Director: Joe murphy / Editor: Tommy Martin
‘He shall not hear the bittern cry in the wild sky where he is lain…’ are among the best known lines of poetry associated with the Easter Rising in 1916. They were penned by Irish WWI poet Francis Ledwidge as a lament for his friend and fellow poet, Thomas McDonogh, who was one of the executed leaders of the rebellion.
Ledwidge was one of thousands of Irish nationalists who were urged by political and religious leaders to support the war effort in order to hasten the enactment of Home Rule in Ireland. He was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers in County Meath before serving in the First World War on the Western Front where he was killed in 1917, aged 30, fighting with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.
Today, Ledwidge is one of Ireland’s best known poets but perhaps may have been forgotten only for the dedicated work of a Kerry woman, Alice Curtayne, who collected his poems and published the first biographical account of the soldier poet.
Born in 1898, Alice was the daughter of John Curtayne, a coach-builder in Castle Street, Tralee, and Bridget O’Dwyer. She had a long and distinguished literary career, penning books on Dante, Patrick Sarsfield, St Catherine of Siena and a number of other saints along with completing lecture tours of the United States. An accomplished journalist, she covered the Second Vatican Council in Rome with her reports appearing in various regional newspapers in Ireland. Her husband, Stephen Rynne, was also a well known writer and they lived together in Prosperous, County Meath where Alice died in 1981.
The Tralee native was considered the foremost authority on Ledwidge, Ireland’s soldier poet, and is widely credited with keeping his achievements alive. Along with a collection of his poems, The Complete Works of Francis Ledwidge, which she edited, her highly acclaimed biography of the Meath man – Francis Ledwidge: The Life of a Poet – was published in 1972.
This was dedicated to her older brother, Richard Curtayne, who was killed fighting in the First World War. He had volunteered for active service in April 1915 when the Band of the Irish Guards toured Tralee and the neighbouring towns of County Kerry. As part of a recruiting drive, in scarlet tunics, gold braid and bearskins, they played patriotic Irish airs such as ‘The Minstrel Boy’ and ‘Let Erin Remember’ as they marched through the streets. At the time, it was noted, that their recruiting office in Denny Street, Tralee received volunteers daily.
Previously serving as a member of the Irish Volunteers, Richard enlisted with a number of fellow Tralee men including 18-year-old Terence O’Regan whose father was Secretary of the Market Company in Tralee. Along with the other local recruits to the Irish Guards, both men left their home town together soon after to begin their training. Landing in France in August 1915, Curtayne fought at Loos a month later but was killed in action at Ginchy during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The 27-year-old has no known grave and appears among the countless names of the missing on the Thiepval Memorial which towers over the former Somme battlefield. His friend Terence O’Regan was wounded in fighting in Belgium during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917 and later died of his wounds. During the same battle, a stray shell claimed the life of Ireland’s soldier poet, Francis Ledwidge, whose anniversary is commemorated each year in July with ceremonies in Ireland and Belgium.