By Mervyn Ennis
A soft day, thank God!Winifred M Letts
a wind from the south
with a honeyed mouth;
a scent of drenching leaves,
That was in our school reader many years ago, joining the verse of Pearse and Yeats and R L Stevenson. We probably read it and talked about it, but knew nothing about the writer, Winifred M Letts. It turns out that she died in 1972 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Rathcoole, Co Dublin, but has been recently re-discovered and a monument erected. It was unveiled recently by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland.
Winifred M Letts (1882-1972) was born in Manchester, to an English clergyman father and an Irish mother. She spent many childhood holidays in Knockmaroon, her mother’s home, near Phoenix Park, Dublin. She was educated initially in Bromley in Kent and at 16 she persuaded her parents to allow her to move from Bromley to attend Alexandra College in Dublin, founded by the Quakers but by her time, run by the Church of Ireland. It was a school noted for its equality, feminism and advocacy of women’s suffrage.
After her father’s death, in 1904, she and her mother returned to Ireland and lived in a house called Dal Riada, between Blackrock and Stillorgan, County Dublin.
Her writing career began in 1907 when she published two novels, one of which was taken up by Thomas Nelson and enjoyed several reprints. In 1913 she published her first collection of poetry – Songs from Leinster. She had two plays The Eyes of the Blind (1906) and The Challenge (1909) accepted by the newly founded Abbey Theatre. In doing so she was at that time only the second woman to do so, Lady Gregory, one of the Abbey’s co-founders, being the first. Winifred was to publish nine novels and a book of poetry in the following nine years before being interrupted by the First World War. A biography is available in the Dictionary of Irish Biography and a bibliography is to be found on Ricorso (sadly, some of its biographical and critical information has not been updated, a sign that she fell out of circulation perhaps).
At the outbreak of war in August 1914 few people imagined how long or how disastrous a war between the great nations of Europe could be, and most believed that their country’s side would be victorious within a matter of months. But by June 1915 with casualties mounting the realities of war struck home. Living at Dal Riada, Winifred was within walking distance of Linden Auxiliary Hospital in Blackrock which was taking the wounded for rehabilitation. Her mother, Mary F Letts, then aged 67, volunteered to work for the VAD, and was joined shortly afterwards by her daughter. Now a mature woman of 33 years, Winifred went on to become a nurse specialising in what today we would call physiotherapy and massage therapy.
As a nurse viewing firsthand and up close the horrors of war, she found time to produce a collection of poems. Hallowe’en and Other Poems of the War (1916) proved so popular that it was reprinted in 1917 and renamed The Spires of Oxford and Other Poems.
One of her best-known poems, the Deserter, makes the case seldom told of the young terrified soldiers who could not face the guns and froze or turned tail and ran from the battlefield.
There was a man, don’t mind his name,
Whom Fear had dogged by night and day.
He could not face the German guns
And so he turned and ran away.
Just that – he turned and ran away,
But who can judge him, you or I?
God makes a man of flesh and blood
Who yearns to live and not to die.
And this man when he feared to die
Was scared as any frightened child,
His knees were shaking under him,
His breath came fast, his eyes were wild.
I’ve seen a hare with eyes as wild,
With throbbing heart and sobbing breath.
But oh ! it shames one’s soul to see
A man in abject fear of death,
But fear had gripped him, so had death;
His number had gone up that day,
They might not heed his frightened eyes,
They shot him when the dawn was grey.
Blindfolded, when the dawn was grey,
He stood there in a place apart,
The shots rang out and down he fell,
An English bullet in his heart.
An English bullet in his heart!
But here’s the irony of life,
His mother thinks he fought and fell
A hero, foremost in the strife.
So she goes proudly; to the strife
Her best, her hero son she gave.
O well for her she does not know
He lies in a deserter’s grave.
The poem can be found online and in many collections of WWI poetry. In recent years recognition that these executed or ‘insane’ soldiers were traumatised victims of war suffering post-traumatic stress disorder has become more common than it was between the wars and subsequently.
One had his glory,
One has found his rest.
But what of this poor babbler here
With chin sunk on his breast?
Flotsam of battle,
With brain bemused and dim,
O God, for such a sacrifice
Say, what reward for him?
A. P. Herbert’s The Secret Battle (1919) advocated for more compassionate treatment of soldiers who lost their nerve in the heat of battle (execution was often their fate) and like him, Winifred M Letts was ahead of her time in advancing their cause rather than depicting them as cowards to be hidden and shamed. Her work predates the protest poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and the writing of Robert Graves, yet she is seldom credited with this or remembered for it. She was, of course, also going against the culture of her tribe. Even in Ireland, it was not uncommon on the streets, trams, and buses for a woman to come up to a man suspected of not being in the Army to give him a white feather, or stick it in the lapel of his coat.
In 1926, aged 44, she married 66-year-old widower William Henry Foster Verschoyle, of Kilberry, County Kildare and Tassagart, Co Dublin who had lost two sons in the war. After they married, they lived between his properties at 19 Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, Tassagart, and Athy, Co Kildare. While she lived at 19 Fitzwilliam Square, Jack B Yeats occupied a flat and studio on the second floor. By all accounts, Vers and Win as they were sometimes known, had a happy marriage. He died on the day after Christmas 1943, aged 84, at 19 Fitzwilliam Square. After he died she lived for a time with her sisters in Faversham, Kent. She returned to Ireland in 1950 and bought Beech Cottage in Killiney, County Dublin, where she lived until finally moving to Tivoli Nursing Home, Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin in the late 1960s.
Winifred M Letts was one of the women writers who wrote to President Eamon de Valera expressing their ‘utmost dismay [at] the clauses in Articles 40, 41 and 45 of the Draft Constitution which provide for legislation to discriminate among certain classes of citizens and especially against women.’ As President of the Irish Women Writers’ Club she was also involved in passing a resolution at the 1942 AGM regretting the manner in which the Censorship of Publications Act 1929 was being administered. This was the year in which Eric Cross’s novel The Tailor and Ansty had been banned. In 1956, the women writers were again campaigning on the censorship issue. She signed a standard petition letter to An Taoiseach, John A Costello, about the great number of works having general literary merit that were being banned. She was a formidable woman and deserves recognition for her work against censorship.
Winifred had a self-deprecating humour and described herself as a ‘back door sort of bard.’ In an Irish Times interview in 1957, she described herself as a period piece, a has-been, totally unknown to this generation. Twelve years later she was to tell Maeve Binchy that she was ‘only interesting because she ‘knew so many of the people Ireland cared about’. Ulick O’Connor, who met her, describes her as a ‘rare species, a true poet,’ and commenting on her poem A Soft Day, how her humour shone through when, with a tinkling and a little laugh she enquired: ‘Do you think its title could have only been invented in Ireland?’
One may speculate that this woman is enjoying belatedly a moment in the sun because of her gender, her advocacy of causes that were ahead of the zeitgeist, or because she belonged to the wrong Irish tribe in terms of her class and religious affiliations, but it is to the credit of the Irish state and its more inclusive outlook to remind us of the ongoing significance of her life and works.
During the Covid lockdown 2020-22, Mervyn Ennis was introduced to Letts’ work through researching the family history of W H Verchoyle, whose family had been for generations a substantial land owner in the parish of Saggart, South Co Dublin. He developed an interest in her poetry and feared she was in danger of being forgotten as a serious WWI poet. When he discovered that she was buried in an unmarked grave in the local cemetery, he embarked on a campaign to have her grave marked appropriately. His campaign was successful and on 8 June 2022 after a memorial service in the local Church of Ireland, a sculpture was unveiled in her memory by the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins marking the fiftieth anniversary of her passing.
This article is drawn from the online work of Winifred Letts’ researcher Bairbre O’Hogan and research by Dr David Clare, Mary Immaculate College UL. See also Poets.Org, Wikipedia, Ricorso and Allpoetry.com