Friday, 13 January 2017

All the dead kings came to me - Francis Ledwidge and the legend of the sleeping horsemen of Rosnaree

There's a poem by Francis Ledwidge that I really love. Ledwidge was born at Slane and died in the Great War in 1917 at the age of 29. He loved the Boyne Valley, and shortly before he died he wrote of his great longing for home in a letter to fellow poet Katherine Tynan:

Francis Ledwidge
"I want to see again my wonderful mother, and to walk by the Boyne to Crewbawn and up through the brown and grey rocks of Crocknaharna. You have no idea of how I suffer with this longing for the swish of the reeds at Slane and the voices I used to hear coming over the low hills of Currabwee. Say a prayer that I may get this leave, and give us a condition my punctual return and sojourn till the war is over."

Unfortunately, he never came home. He and five others were killed when a shell exploded beside them at the Battle of Ypres.

The Boyne Canal and River at Staleen at dusk, looking upstream towards Rossnaree (on the left).

One of his poems, The Dead Kings, interests me greatly.

All the dead kings came to me
At Rosnaree, where I was dreaming,
A few stars glimmered through the morn,
And down the thorn the dews were streaming.

And every dead king had a story
Of ancient glory, sweetly told.
It was too early for the lark,
But the starry dark had tints of gold.

I listened to the sorrows three
Of that Eire passed into song.
A cock crowed near a hazel croft,
And up aloft dim larks winged strong.

And I, too, told the kings a story
Of later glory, her fourth sorrow:
There was a sound like moving shields
In high green fields and the lowland furrow.

And one said: ‘We who yet are kings
Have heard these things lamenting inly.’
Sweet music flowed from many a bill
And on the hill the morn stood queenly.

And one said: ‘Over is the singing,
And bell bough ringing, whence we come;
With heavy hearts we’ll tread the shadows,
In honey meadows birds are dumb.’

And one said: ‘Since the poets perished
And all they cherished in the way,
Their thoughts unsung, like petal showers
Inflame the hours of blue and grey.’

And one said: ‘A loud tramp of men
We’ll hear again at Rosnaree.’
A bomb burst near me where I lay.
I woke, ’twas day in Picardy.

Rosnaree (more often spelt Rossnaree these days) is on the southern bank of the Bend of the Boyne, overlooking the famous Fiacc's Pool, where Fionn Mac Cumhaill is said to have caught the Salmon of Knowledge. It is close to the river ford (áth) which would have been the main crossing point over the Boyne in ancient times. It is the place where the Boyne river swelled up so that Cormac Mac Art's body could not be brought to be buried at Brug na Bóinne.

I wonder, when reading some of the lines of Ledwidge's poem, whether it is perhaps infused with elements of a familiar legend from Rosnaree, one that might involve dead kings and the spectre of a loud tramp of men returning to haunt its woods. Being a native of the area, Ledwidge would have undoubtedly been familiar with some of its stories.

There is a legend about Rosnaree which tells of sleeping soldiers. It is a familiar story, being similar to that told about Garrett's Fort(1) at Hacklim, outside Ardee in Co. Louth.

Rossnaree and the River Boyne from Bing Maps.

The Rosnaree version of the story talks about a man who encountered a light at a fort near Rosnaree, close to the Boyne. He entered into the fort to find a lot of bags hanging on the walls and one of the bags had a sword stuck in it. This story was recounted to a collector from the National Folklore Collection in 1938 by Navan resident James Neill (aged 74), who in turn had heard the tale from an elderly gentleman called Johnny Murray:
He went over and he was lifting up the sword and according as he was lifting it there was a man's head lifted up from this big bag and a horse along with him, and he was riding the horse, and as according as he drew out the sword there were horsemen rising all around the wall. They were nearly clear out of where they were and he got afeerd and he let the sword drop back in, and as soon as he did he was told, 'Go home, you coward.'  I disremember the regiment he'd have lifted out of prison if he lifted up the sword altogether.(2)(3)

Legends of a sleeping army waiting for a hero to come and rouse them for some great battle are present in other parts of Ireland too (such as at The Curragh, Co. Kildare, and Lough Gur in Limerick). Gearóid Iarla (Earl Garrett, Gerald) is sometimes the one who is the chief of the chthonic army. At Hacklim, some versions say it is Fionn Mac Cumhaill. The messianic theme of the legend in its various forms is overtly political, the clear premise being that a great leader from the past will return, from a supernatural subterranean domain, leading a great army to restore glory to Ireland. In the context of a country under the sway of foreign rule and oppression, it is no wonder that such tales might have been commonplace in Ireland.

The rousing of the army will happen because a prophesied hero (those who tried and failed are invariably referred to in less than favourable terms, such as "coward") will pull a sword out of a wall or a stone or a bag. If the sword in the stone sounds familiar, think of King Arthur and Excalibur! The notion of a hero or king sleeping in a cave can be found all over Europe and even further afield. It is so familiar in folklore that it is referred to as the "king in the mountain" motif and has been classified in the Aarne-Thompson system of folktale motifs.(4)(5)

Ledwidge's opening lines, "All the dead kings came to me At Rosnaree, where I was dreaming" are suggestive that he is familiar with that location's mythic and perhaps even historic significance. Perhaps the dead High King Cormac Mac Airt was one of those of whom he writes.

"There was a sound like moving shields In high green fields and the lowland furrow." Was Ledwidge, perhaps, describing the sound of the enchanted army of Rosnaree being awakened?

"A loud tramp of men We'll hear again at Rosnaree." Granted, Ledwidge was in the battlefields of the Great War, and although he says he is dreaming at Rosnaree, the bomb wakes him to the reality that he is, in fact, in Picardy. Nevertheless, it's an interesting speculation that he was perhaps reflecting upon cultural aspects of his homeland. Rosnaree would have been visible just across the Boyne Valley from his home at Janeville, east of Slane. Interestingly, Rosnaree is a name that comes from the Irish Ros na Ríogh, meaning "wood of the kings".(6)

Had Francis Ledwidge heard the story of the sleeping army of Rosnaree, and did he incorporate it into The Dead Kings? One might never know.(7)

However, the final lines of his poem are sadly prescient. "A bomb burst near me where I lay." He was killed on July 31st, 1917.

(2) Marsh, Richard (2013), Meath Folk Tales, The History Press Ireland, p.164.
(3) A similar version, from the same original source (Johnny Murray) can be found in the Schools' Collection here:
(7) It must be pointed out here that I am not well versed in the life of Ledwidge, and have not researched it in any scholarly way. If it should transpire that someone has written of  Ledwidge's inspiration for The Dead Kings and can answer my speculation either positively or negatively, I will be duly obliged/embarrassed (delete as appropriate!)

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