‘Poets in the Trenches’ – recalling a war, and ‘ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances’

When it comes to World War I, Martin Butler will give you fair warning. “I can talk about it for hours,” says the Tipperary-born musician and singer who has been active in the Boston-area Irish music scene for years.
There are many facets to Butler’s interest in the “Great War”- the myriad, complex political, cultural and social forces that led to the conflict, and those that in turn were unleashed or affected by it – including, of course, Ireland’s bid for long-desired independence from England.
Yet Butler is most concerned with the war’s human dimension, not least because of a familial connection: his namesake great-uncle, who was killed in action in 1916. Private Martin Butler was one of more than 200,000 Irishmen who fought in Irish regiments of the Allied Powers – and one of anywhere from 30,000 to 49,000 Irish soldiers (depending on informational sources) who died during the war.
“There’s a difference between glorifying war and honoring those who fought,” says Butler, who credits friends John and Colin Owens for their invaluable assistance in pulling together the album. “World War I was a horrible, devastating event that caused so much death, destruction, and suffering. The fact that, less than a quarter-century later, we marched into war again shows that we learned nothing. But I’m not here to debate the causes or effects of the war, or how it was conducted, but to make the point that people like grand-uncle Martin bore the brunt of the everyday realities of the war.”
To commemorate the experiences and sacrifices of his great-uncle and other Irishmen, Butler has released a CD, “Poets in the Trenches: The Irish in the Great War,” that includes recitations of poetry, letters, and speeches from the period, along with instrumental music and songs, some original compositions and others from Irish tradition. The 70-minute album features more than 60 individuals – many from the Greater Boston community – providing voice or music; the use of occasional sound effects (troops marching, shells exploding, crowds cheering) lends additional atmosphere to the proceedings.
There is also a poem, “Orchards,” composed by Butler in memory of his great-uncle. It depicts the young private marching wearily with his fellow soldiers as dawn approaches, and being struck by the devastated countryside, a horrid parody of the familiar landscape he’d known in his youth: “I watched the rain falling on flowerless, crop-burned fields/On a corrupted well in a forlorn little town/Where even the apple orchards are cut down.”
While major historical figures like British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, the Irish nationalist Member of Parliament John Redmond, James Joyce, and Kaiser Wilhelm make cameo appearances, through readings of their speeches or pronouncements – or in the case of the Kaiser, an actual recording – it is the perspectives and words of three Irish soldier-poets that make up the bulk of the album: Tom Kettle, Francis Ledwidge, and Patrick MacGill.
The genesis of “Poets from the Trenches” came from Butler’s first CD project, “Thomas MacDonagh: Poet and Patriot,” in which – using a similar format of poetry, spoken word, songs, and music – he explored the life of MacDonagh, a poet, playwright, and educator who became one of the major figures of the 1916 Easter Rising. In his research on the literature and poetry of the period, Butler was intrigued by the works, and life stories, of Kettle, Ledwidge, and MacGill. Together with MacDonagh, they – although from different circumstances and with different writing styles and outlooks – represented the unconventional qualities of many Irishmen who would go to battle, whether in Ireland or in Europe: neither soldiers nor statesmen, but men immersed in the arts and education.
“There is, of course, a lot of famous World War I poetry – Wilfred Owens, Hedd Wynn, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, to name a few – and there were many Irish who produced World War I poems,” says Butler. “But I decided on these three because they offer such interesting contrasts: Ledwidge, who wrote these pastoral odes to nature while in the trenches looking out on the devastated landscape; MacGill, self-educated, and a socialist much like James Connolly; Kettle, well-educated and from a middle-class background, whose writing style was like oratory.”
Ledwidge, who was killed in 1917, is the most well known of the three; among his poems featured on the album are “After Court Martial,” “The Call to Ireland,” “Autumn Evening in Serbia” and “Soliloquy” (“A keen-edged sword, a soldier’s heart/Is greater than a poet’s art”). Kettle, a friend of Thomas MacDonagh, left poems such as “To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God” (“Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead/Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor/But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed/And for the secret Scripture of the poor”), penned four days before he met his death in battle.
MacGill, the “Navvy Poet” and the only one of the trio to survive the war, vividly captured the Battle of Loos in his book “The Great Push,” and its sorrowful aftermath in “After Loos” (“Was it only yesterday/lusty comrades marched away?”).
Highlighting the three poet/soldiers also serves to underscore the complexity of the war for Ireland, Butler points out: Many Irishmen confronted the dilemma of whether to take part in the struggle for independence from England, or join in the larger conflict taking place in Europe. And while much of the Irish populace looked askance at the 1916 Easter Rising, the British hardline response – especially the executions of the Rising’s leaders – changed attitudes, not just about the rebellion but also about Ireland’s participation in the Great War.
“Irishmen who went off to war being hailed as heroes,” Butler says, “were now coming back home to find indifference, even hostility.”
This ambivalence persisted for decades – far too long, as far as Butler is concerned. “No one has more respect for the men of 1916 than me, but it’s heartening to see a growing recognition of the Irish soldiers who fought for the Allies. I think there is finally a realization that the Irish in the Great War were fighting for the ideology of a free Ireland – they saw Germany as a menace to all of the UK, and that included Ireland. While in hindsight, through the lenses of today, the idea of a German invasion seems ludicrous, it was a very real, and scary, proposition.”
Such decisions were not made lightly, Butler says, and sometimes made for excruciating outcomes, particularly for families of combatants: Almost a year after Éamonn Ceannt was executed for his role in the Easter Rising, his brother William was killed in the Battle of Arras on the Western Front.
Although “Poets in the Trenches” touches on the controversy over Ireland and the Great War – among the references is the speech by Irish MP D. D. Sheehan criticizing British conscription in Ireland – Butler steered away from making it a major component in the project. “I had to really streamline the album, because being a World War I buff you can get to a point where you’re just throwing too much out there at once. I did my best to have a narrative of ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances.”
Butler also kept the album’s timeline focused: It begins with excerpts of Grey’s address to Parliament on August 3, 1914 – the day before Britain entered the war – in which he said “We are going to suffer, I am afraid, terribly in this war, whether we are in it or whether we stand aside,” and closes on November 12, 1918, the day after the war ended, as evoked by MacGill’s “The Cobbled Road” (“Now when we take the cobbled road/We often took before/Our thoughts are with the hearty lads/Who tread that way no more”).
Immersing himself in the writings of the era for this and the MacDonagh project was a treat for Butler: “People just don’t measure their words that way anymore. Back then, writing and speaking were both a true craft. So many of the soldiers kept diaries, full of incredible details that help us envision what they were seeing and feeling. And I think of D.D. Sheehan, for example, and the anger he expressed so eloquently, from a place of caring. There’s just so much power in words, and it’s all there for us to experience.”
“Poets in the Trenches” had “a lot of moving parts,” notes Butler, with recordings of its contributors coming from many, often far-flung locations. Among the many lending their skills were Grammy-winning flutist Frank Wharton, All-Ireland Fleadh champion musicians Stuart Peak and Torrin Ryan from Massachusetts, and actress Aedin Moloney, the daughter of Chieftains’ leader Paddy Moloney.
Butler – who is in the midst of writing a book to accompany the CD with co-author Captain Steven Dieter, a Canadian military historian – is no less grateful to all the other musicians, singers, readers, and technicians who were part of the album.
“It would’ve been a nightmare if I didn’t love it so much,” he quips. “But you know, it’s easy to lose your heart through something like this – just so many things that had to fall the right way. But in the end, a lot of good people made it work.”
“Poets in the Trenches” is available via iTunes, Apple and Amazon. For more details, go to the project Facebook page at facebook.com/PoetsInTheTrenches.