Episode 3 The Arts Show


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Episode 3

A century on from the Battle of the Somme, The Arts Show looks at the role of the war artist as an interpreter and witness to conflict. Presented by Marie-Louise Muir.


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It is almost impossible to imagine the horror of what happened

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here 100 years ago.

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But in this sleepy part of provincial northern France

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is where one of the bloodiest battles of World War I was fought.

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Much of what I know about war is not just from history books.

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It's from the war poets, the songs, the paintings, the photography.

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The artists who fought on these battlefields,

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and who tried to interpret and make sense of it all.

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These days, when conflict can be settled at a remove by drones,

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do we still need artists to hold a mirror up to humanity

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at its worst and its best?

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This is Thiepval Wood, where the Ulster Division was stationed

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before going over the top on 1st July early morning.

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This is the Ulster Memorial Tower,

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an exact replica of Helen's Tower in Bangor.

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There really feels like an echo of home here.

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These are the trenches which held the Ulstermen

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who inspired Frank McGuinness's seminal play,

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Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme.

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Answer me why we did it.

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Why we let ourselves be led to extermination.

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In the end, we were not led.

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We led ourselves.

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We claimed we would die for each other in battle.

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To fulfil that claim, we marched into the battle that killed us all.

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Why did you write this play?

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Well, it's over 30 years ago since I started researching it

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and writing it.

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I think it's basically a consequence of a time

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that I spent in my very first job, which was lecturer of English

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in Coleraine with the University of Ulster.

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I had never really lived in a largely Protestant community before,

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and I had never really had any great access to the history and culture

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of the Protestant people before.

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At that time, I was spending some time in Coleraine,

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some time in Enniskillen, some time in Derry,

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and one linking factor between all those big towns

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was the war memorial.

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And that war memorial really didn't mean anything to me

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because at school we were not really taught anything

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about either of the great wars of the 20th century.

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Bit by bit, I started to get a fascination with it

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and started to make a connection with it.

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-But it wasn't your natural background.

-No.

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I mean, you're a Catholic from Donegal.

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Yes, I was immensely aware of the border, and of the other side,

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and of the six counties, and we were the Free Staters.

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So I had this strong awareness of division,

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and of alienation from each other.

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And I think, like a lot of people in the '70s and '80s,

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I was determined to do something to bridge the gap,

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the cultural gap, between us and them,

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and not to accept that ridiculous difference

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and ridiculous lack of contact which our education on both sides

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had very deeply ingrained in us.

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I wanted to really react against that.

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SHOUTING

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What the hell do yous two think you're doing?

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-Defending this part of the realm.

-Keep your defending for where it's needed across the water.

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-Let that lad go!

-He's a Catholic bastard, he's no place in this.

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-He's no Catholic, he's one of ours.

-Look at his eyes.

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-Are you a Catholic, son?

-No!

-Let him go, do you hear?

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He said, do you hear?!

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I hear. I hear clearly.

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The Boyne and the Somme,

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what parallels did you want to draw with those seismic battles?

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Yes, and it was a tremendous coincidence that the two

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great days in the history of Ulster Protestantism is, by a quirk

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of the calendar, they actually were fought on the same day.

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I mean, that really was screaming at me, actually,

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that there is this tremendous metaphor for, if you like,

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the energy of the culture.

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But I really wanted to make use of that very potent connection

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in deliberating what it is to be of the Protestant mind.

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Were people questioning you, saying, "Why is Frank McGuinness

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"writing this play about our heritage, our boys?"

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I don't thing I got too much of that, really,

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and I would have had an answer for it.

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And that answer was, "Look, it's a great story.

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"It's a ferocious, terrifying, heartbreaking story,

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"and if you didn't do it, I was going to do it."

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We're here, we're here!

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No cause for panic, ladies. The men are here.

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And these eight men, very strong male characters,

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women are mentioned but never appear in the play.

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I did make a very conscious decision that I would concentrate

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exclusively on men because they have to fulfil the role

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that normally they assign to women.

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They have to become protectors,

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nurturers, they have to become defenders.

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They have to love each other.

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The whole variety of ways of loving each other

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that normally they depend on a woman to do.

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Do you feel that Observe The Sons Of Ulster

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sits in the pantheon of great Unionist plays?

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Would you consider that?

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No, I don't think it's a Unionist play.

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I don't think it's a Republican play,

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or a Catholic play, or a Protestant play.

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It's a play that I hope genuinely makes an effort to understand

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why we are what we are,

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and I hope it does its job in terms of bringing an audience with it,

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through its beginning, middle and end,

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to a place of great tragedy and great loss.

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I feel a tremendous sense of grief at the loss of so much life

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and so much potential.

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But that's what I hope the play is,

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it is a great cry for peace.

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The soldiers in Frank's play would have known

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nurses like Newry woman Olive Swanzy.

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She not only saved lives, she also saved a unique

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collection of drawings, poems and sketches,

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created by the soldiers in her care,

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which lay undisturbed in an attic for 75 years.

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The story has been brought to the stage by Kabosh.

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"The miser crept out of his hole,

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"his bags of clink he clunk,

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"and many a smile that miser smole

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"and many a wink he wunk."

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Private A Bligh.

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Not a natural poet, I think we can agree.

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It's just spoofy, that's soldiers for you.

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Tomfoolery is their speciality,

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in the hospital with nothing to do all day,

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that's all they were at from dawn to dusk.

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They poured their droll humour into this book.

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Much of the humour is black humour,

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and there's much else that isn't humorous at all

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in this poignant scrapbook kept by nurse Olive Swanzy,

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who served in France during World War I.

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It's a collection of over 100 poems and sketches by soldiers

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she was caring for.

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It's a first-hand account of the thoughts that preoccupied the men

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as they lay in a field hospital, contemplating an uncertain future.

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"I want to go home,

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"where you can't hear the cannons rumble and roar.

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"I don't want to go to the trenches no more.

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"Take me over the seas where the Germans, they can't get at me.

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"Oh, my, I don't want to die.

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"I want to go home."

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The daughter of a Church of Ireland minister,

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Olive's nursing career began in 1915,

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when she left her home in Newry to join

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the Volunteer Aid Detachment, and was posted to Portsmouth.

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It was here the injured were sent for treatment

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and often returned to the front.

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At 7:30am, on 1st July 1916, the Battle of the Somme began.

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No-one could have imagined it would be the bloodiest day

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in British military history.

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The number of casualties was so enormous

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that more nurses were urgently needed.

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Olive found herself at Field Hospital Number 12

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on the racetrack outside Rouen in France.

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"I could smell the ether, it sickened me, I hated it.

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"And the noise.

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"The noise the men make when they first come in, mashed up,

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"bandaged, bewildered."

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Despite the horrendous conditions,

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Olive found relief from day-to-day stresses

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by painting her surroundings,

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the tainted landscape of Rouen hospital.

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What she was practising was her own form of occupational therapy,

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an idea scarcely known at the time,

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and which also led her to encourage her patients to draw and to write.

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One of the contributors was Fergus McCain,

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an illustrator from New York.

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This early cartoon is a comic treatment of his own wounding

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at the Battle of Delville Wood, nicknamed Devil's Wood.

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McCain would later create a series of cartoon postcards

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depicting life in the trenches, known as A Tommy's Life In France.

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Troops were encouraged to buy them and send them home.

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Humour was surprisingly common in the sketches,

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and while the battlefront does feature,

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many of the artists had different people and places in mind.

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The First World War is, for many people, a male narrative.

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It's about men, who mostly were the ones who suffered in the trenches,

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and who died.

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But it's also a women's war.

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So what we get with Nurse Swanzy's story

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is a woman's outlook on the war,

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and in particular, the way that she cherished the men sufficiently

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to want them to record a little bit of themselves.

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Why did they do it?

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The relationship between a nurse and a soldier,

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a wounded soldier in particular, at the front, was a rather special one.

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Because these young men, during the course of a war,

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were in male environments.

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They very rarely encountered women.

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And suddenly you're in a position where you're in the hospital ward,

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you're away from the sound of the guns, and there is this

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angel of the wards who is maybe doing very intimate things.

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She's washing you if you're unable to wash yourself.

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She's helping you to dress. She's there.

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She's a kindly voice, and she may well remind you of the mother

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that you maybe write to,

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the mother that you've maybe written a poem about

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in order to celebrate how much she means to you.

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And she's there almost as a sister,

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or perhaps even an imagined lover.

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Who knows?

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Some of them who write in this book of Olive's die in the war.

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They go back to the front and die,

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and the little poem that they leave, the little sketch, is perhaps all

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we have as we look at it 100 years later, all we have of their lives.

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If I want to live now, in this bright, shining present,

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the past must go, starting with this autograph book and the sketch pad.

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They can go into the fire.

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Think how long your patients took making their entries,

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doing their drawings. They wanted them kept.

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They wanted something they made to be held on to by you.

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Lock it away in a box, out of sight.

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And that's exactly what Olive did.

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The poems and sketches were hidden away in The Manse in Newry,

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and in her later home in Rostrevor for nearly 70 years.

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In 1974, Olive died,

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but it was another 16 years before the collection was discovered.

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Now, at last, the words and pictures created by wounded men,

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can be seen more widely than their creators ever imagined.

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And Olive's collection is currently on show in the Ulster museum.

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Now, each war has its own unique soundtrack,

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be it Jimi Hendrix in Vietnam, or Vera Lynn in World War II.

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Michael, what was the sound of World War I?

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Although there were phonographs and some recorded material,

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the vast majority of the songs came from the music hall.

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You've got the classic things like

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We Don't Want To Lose You, But We Think You Ought To Go...

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# Oh, we don't want to lose you... #

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It's all part of the patriotic feel that they were trying

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to instil, which is why there were so many people who were enlisting.

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So when they get here, we're in Thiepval Woods at the moment,

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and they're in these trenches, what songs are they listening to here?

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What are they singing?

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The classic one, the one that everyone knows,

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is It's A Long Way To Tipperary.

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# It's a long way to Tipperary

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# It's a long way to go... #

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This was sung as the expeditionary force were landing in 1914,

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and it just happened that the Daily Mail correspondent was there

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when they were singing that song as they came off the ship.

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Had he been a mile down the road,

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they could have been singing another song.

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But it was a marching song,

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and one of the key things about this song was, could you march to it?

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# Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag

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# And smile, smile, smile... #

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Pack Up Your Troubles is a really interesting one

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because that was 1915, and in fact a competition was held,

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and the guys who wrote the song thought it was piffle

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and thought it was hilarious that it was then being

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used as the troops were marching off to war.

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So when it goes from marching and patriotic songs,

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it starts to become quite sentimental and nostalgic.

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You get more and more sentimental songs from around 1915, 1916.

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You know, Home Sweet Home, actually, was extremely popular.

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# Be it ever so humble

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# There's no place like home... #

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Say here in Thiepval Woods, they're singing songs,

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they're so close to the enemy front line.

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They wouldn't do that. It was discouraged on the front line,

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for obvious reasons,

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and also, moving up to the front line, they didn't sing.

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# The bells of hell go ting-a-ling, for you but not for me. #

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Apparently it was sung as the troops were marching away from the front

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to the guys who were going into the front line,

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and they would emphasise the word "you".

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They weren't prescriptive in what they were doing.

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They just sang whatever was in the head.

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# Here we are, here we are here we are again

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# Hello! Hello!

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# Hello, hello, hello... #

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It's not just about keeping the spirits up of the troops here,

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of course - it's keeping the spirits up of the families at home.

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# Has anybody here seen Kelly... #

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I love the fact that it was surrounded by birdsong,

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and, you know, nature will always find a way through.

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-But to imagine those songs...

-It's pretty overwhelming.

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As well as music, war has its own defining images.

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In a world of 24-hour rolling news,

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should the interpretation of war be left to artists?

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War is something that most of us

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probably only ever experience through here, the newsroom.

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And since the Vietnam War, the sight of news crews

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bunkering down with troops has become common.

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But before television,

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governments found a different method of capturing battle,

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commissioning war artists

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to experience and interpret what they encountered.

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In 2002, professor of photography

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and head of the Belfast School of Art, Paul Seawright,

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was sent to Afghanistan as a war artist.

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What is the role of the war artist?

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Well, the idea of the war artist is kind of counter to the media,

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I guess, is probably the best way to think about that.

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Wars are photographed and filmed by the media.

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That's how we encounter war mostly.

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The war artist tries to bring a different voice to that,

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something, I guess maybe more poetic or slower,

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less informed or directed by other agencies.

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The idea of the independent artist going to a war

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to give us something that's perhaps more reflective,

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more complex in terms of what it does than the media might do.

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But why would a government or a body invest in an artist

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to capture their experience of war?

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I think it's essential that governments face up

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to their responsibility

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of trying to somehow document

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in a much more emotive and open, unattached way,

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to the kind of things...

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These are huge issues in the world.

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I mean, war... We send people off to fight and die.

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For that just to be recorded in an official capacity by the government

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or the military themselves, would be a disaster for us.

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Having independent people in those situations is crucial.

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When I did the Afghanistan commission,

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I had a lovely note from Seamus Heaney saying how essential

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he thought it was that writers, poets, playwrights, painters, should

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go to war because their account of that war will be absolutely unique.

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As we know with looking at war art from the First World War now,

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it's an insight into that war

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that you cannot get from any other mediation of it.

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Are they truly independent, though?

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What's the crossover between an official war artist

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and pure propaganda?

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Originally, it was called the official war artist.

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That term became very contentious.

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Artists were turning down the commissions

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because they didn't want to be an official anything.

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It runs against the grain of being an artist.

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So the "official" thing going was quite important,

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and the independence of the artist

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is really crucial to that whole project being successful.

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The only way I'd ever have accepted doing a commission like that

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was to have complete independence.

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The way the process works, and I'm on the commissioning committee

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at the Imperial War Museum, is you identify artists

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whose work might be suitable, and then they make proposals.

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All the commissioning committee does is facilitate your project.

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Can these be artworks in their own right?

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I'm thinking of official war artists from the Great War,

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like Sir John Lavery, or William Connor.

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Their work clearly was intended as propaganda,

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but as time has gone on, we can look at it very differently now.

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A lot of that art doesn't feel like propaganda now. At the time it was.

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Look at some of those paintings, and they're quite celebratory almost.

5:12:215:12:25

Blue skies and very rich colours.

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But at the same time, there are people producing paintings

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in the very same capacity that are very black and sombre and difficult.

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I think it's to do with the individual.

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The more versions we have, the more narratives we have,

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the more voices we have, be it artists, journalists, be it writers,

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anyone at all, it's all of value.

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And in fact it will all impact, I think, eventually

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on how we might engage or not engage in conflicts in the future.

5:12:495:12:53

Men from right across the island of Ireland

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fought here on these battlefields,

5:13:095:13:11

including Francis Ledwidge from Slane in County Meath.

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Now, Slane is probably best known these days for its rock concerts,

5:13:155:13:19

but it was also the home place of this Irish poet,

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whose work, arguably, should be as well known as Wilfred Owen's

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or Siegfried Sassoon's.

5:13:275:13:29

When I was young I had a care

5:13:295:13:32

Lest I should cheat me of my share

5:13:325:13:35

Of that which makes it sweet to strive

5:13:355:13:37

For life, and dying still survive,

5:13:375:13:39

A name in sunshine written higher

5:13:395:13:42

Than lark or poet dare aspire.

5:13:425:13:44

When we think of the great war poets,

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we think of Owen, Sassoon, Kipling.

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But here in Slane in County Meath lived one of the finest,

5:13:535:13:57

yet lesser-known Irish poets -

5:13:575:13:59

Francis Ledwidge.

5:13:595:14:00

He was born in August 1887

5:14:025:14:04

in this very cottage in Janeville, Slane in Ireland.

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The eighth of nine children in a poverty-stricken family.

5:14:085:14:11

Francis was only five when his father, Patrick,

5:14:115:14:14

died prematurely, which forced his wife

5:14:145:14:17

and the children out to work at an early age.

5:14:175:14:20

Strongly built with striking brown eyes and a handsome face,

5:14:205:14:24

Ledwidge was a keen poet, writing wherever he could,

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sometimes even on gates and fence posts.

5:14:285:14:31

While working as a road labourer,

5:14:325:14:34

he won the patronage of the writer Lord Dunsany,

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after he wrote to him enclosing copybooks of his early work.

5:14:385:14:42

Dunsany, a man of letters already well-established in Dublin

5:14:425:14:46

and London literary circles, promoted Ledwidge in Dublin,

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where he introduced him to the burgeoning literary scene

5:14:505:14:53

and the Abbey Theatre.

5:14:535:14:54

He encouraged the young writer to become a fixture at the theatre,

5:14:555:14:59

to absorb the plays and the actors' interaction with the written word,

5:14:595:15:03

thus expanding his own horizons.

5:15:035:15:05

Ledwidge was a keen patriot and Nationalist

5:15:075:15:10

and a founding member, with his brother Joseph,

5:15:105:15:12

of the Slane branch of the Irish Volunteers,

5:15:125:15:15

a Nationalist force sworn to defend the introduction of Home Rule

5:15:155:15:19

for Ireland, by force if need be.

5:15:195:15:21

On the outbreak of war in August 1914,

5:15:275:15:30

and on account of Ireland's involvement in the war,

5:15:305:15:33

the Irish Volunteers split into two factions -

5:15:335:15:37

the National Volunteers,

5:15:375:15:38

who supported John Redmond's appeal to join Irish regiments

5:15:385:15:41

in support of Great Britain's war efforts,

5:15:415:15:44

and those who did not.

5:15:445:15:45

Francis was originally of the latter party,

5:15:465:15:49

but changed his mind,

5:15:495:15:50

declaring that it was because "Britain stood between Ireland

5:15:505:15:54

"and an enemy common to our civilisation,

5:15:545:15:57

"and I would not have her say she defended us

5:15:575:16:01

"while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions."

5:16:015:16:04

In October 1914, Francis enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers,

5:16:065:16:12

initially serving in Turkey and Serbia,

5:16:125:16:14

and was promoted to Lance Corporal.

5:16:145:16:16

While recovering from injury in Manchester,

5:16:185:16:20

news reached him of the Easter Uprising

5:16:205:16:23

and the execution of his good friend and fellow poet Thomas MacDonagh.

5:16:235:16:27

He became angry and disillusioned

5:16:275:16:30

and was finally court-martialed

5:16:305:16:31

and demoted for overstaying his home leave,

5:16:315:16:34

though his corporal stripes would be restored when he went back to war.

5:16:345:16:39

What is certainly true is that Frank's views were

5:16:405:16:43

crystallised by the deaths of his friends

5:16:435:16:45

after the Rising executions, of course, by the British Army.

5:16:455:16:49

It's worth saying as well that he was court-martialed

5:16:495:16:51

after the Rising, I think, for insubordination.

5:16:515:16:53

During the court martial, he was accused of being a traitor.

5:16:535:16:56

He reacted extremely strongly to that,

5:16:565:16:58

because, of course, that's a multivalent term,

5:16:585:17:01

it's got many meanings,

5:17:015:17:02

particularly for an Irishmen in British uniform at that time.

5:17:025:17:05

How did Frank's attitude to war change after 1916

5:17:055:17:09

and the executions?

5:17:095:17:11

Well, let's not forget that Frank had the chance to be invalided out.

5:17:115:17:14

He was given the means to do so and refused.

5:17:145:17:17

He never waivered, as far as I can see, from his writings,

5:17:175:17:21

from his views that he was fighting against a great evil.

5:17:215:17:25

An enemy, as he put it, of civilisation.

5:17:255:17:28

Ledwidge endured harsh conditions in Gallipoli in 1915,

5:17:285:17:32

however, his poetry evokes a sense of peace and simplicity,

5:17:325:17:36

not violence.

5:17:365:17:37

A sentiment which appealed to many readers during the war.

5:17:375:17:41

Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms

5:17:415:17:44

Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death

5:17:445:17:48

Lest he should hear again the mad alarms

5:17:485:17:50

Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.

5:17:505:17:54

And where the earth was soft for flowers we made

5:17:545:17:56

A grave for him that he might better rest.

5:17:565:18:00

So, Spring shall come and leave it sweet arrayed,

5:18:005:18:04

And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest.

5:18:045:18:08

As one critic commented about the poems and songs of the fields,

5:18:105:18:15

they are the spontaneous expression

5:18:155:18:17

of his simple love of the Irish fields,

5:18:175:18:19

and the feeling of these songs is sincere enough

5:18:195:18:22

to take us back from the present fields of war.

5:18:225:18:25

On the 31st of July 1917,

5:18:285:18:29

a group from Ledwidge's battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers

5:18:295:18:33

were road laying in preparation for an assault

5:18:335:18:36

during the third Battle of Ypres.

5:18:365:18:38

While Ledwidge was drinking tea in a mud hole with his comrades,

5:18:385:18:42

a shell exploded alongside, killing the poet and five others.

5:18:425:18:46

Ledwidge's poetic legacy, what Seamus Heaney calls

5:18:465:18:50

the "twilit note" was,

5:18:505:18:52

like his political life, unseen for many decades.

5:18:525:18:57

Now, however, he is being heralded as a man of our times,

5:18:575:19:01

one in whom "All the strains crisscross".

5:19:015:19:04

And now I'm drinking wine in France,

5:19:065:19:08

The helpless child of circumstance.

5:19:085:19:11

Tomorrow will be loud with war,

5:19:115:19:14

How will I be accounted for?

5:19:155:19:18

It is too late now to retrieve

5:19:185:19:20

A fallen dream, too late to grieve

5:19:205:19:24

A name unmade, but not too late

5:19:245:19:27

To thank the gods for what is great;

5:19:275:19:31

A keen-edged sword, a soldier's heart,

5:19:315:19:35

Is greater than a poet's art.

5:19:355:19:38

And greater than a poet's fame

5:19:385:19:41

A little grave that has no name.

5:19:415:19:44

Whence honour turns away in shame.

5:19:445:19:48

Belfast poet Michael Longley's dad Richard fought in these fields

5:19:545:19:59

and survived.

5:19:595:20:00

This place has been a constant inspiration in Michael's work.

5:20:005:20:04

Here he is reading the poem Harmonica.

5:20:045:20:07

From the Western Front and The Arts Show, goodnight.

5:20:075:20:12

A tommy drops his harmonica in No Man's Land.

5:20:245:20:28

My dad like old Anaximines breathes in and out

5:20:295:20:35

Through the holes and reeds and finds this melody.

5:20:355:20:40

Our souls are air. They hold us together. Listen.

5:20:415:20:49

A music-hall favourite lasts until the end of time.

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My dad is playing it. His breath contains the world.

5:20:555:21:02

The wind is playing an orchestra of harmonicas.

5:21:025:21:07

One hundred years after the Battle of the Somme, The Arts Show looks at the role of the war artist as an interpreter and witness to conflict. Presented by Marie-Louise Muir.