An ode to Londonderry’s lesser-known war poets

Dean William Morton and Canon John Merrick at Cecil Frances Alexander's grave in Londonderry. Cecil's daughter Eleanor wrote an ode to those who died at the Somme.
Dean William Morton and Canon John Merrick at Cecil Frances Alexander's grave in Londonderry. Cecil's daughter Eleanor wrote an ode to those who died at the Somme.

The death took place on Saturday, June 3, 1939, at Hampton Court Palace, London, of Eleanor Jane Alexander, daughter of the Reverend William Alexander, a former Anglican Primate of All-Ireland, and Cecil Frances Alexander, the world-famous hymn-writer.

Her body was brought back to the Maiden City and interred in Londonderry City Cemetery, in the same grave as her mother and father.

Preceding the burial, a funeral service was conducted in St Columb’s Cathedral.

Eleanor, who died unmarried, was born in Strabane, County Tyrone, in 1857. She spent thirty years of her life in Londonderry when her father was Anglican Lord Bishop of Derry and Raphoe (1867-1896), before becoming Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland on February 25, 1896.

Like her mother, Eleanor played an active part in the life of St Columb’s Cathedral. She was a Sunday School teacher and a leading worker in the Mothers’ Union, the Girls’ Friendly Society, and other church organisations.

She also took a prominent role in the organising of plays and other entertainments on behalf of parochial funds.

Eleanor helped her mother and father to entertain at the Bishop’s Palace, Bishop St, King Edward and Queen Alexandra, when as Prince and Princess of Wales they visited Londonderry in 1885.

On that occasion, a doorway was broken through the boundary wall between the Palace grounds and the City Wall, and by this means the Prince and Princess entered Derry Walls. The girls of the Deanery Schools strewed flowers in the way of the Prince and Princess as they passed through the Palace grounds to the Walls.

When Eleanor’s father passed away, in 1911, the King, to mark appreciation of his career, granted her rooms in Hampton Court Palace, where she resided until her death.

Eleanor was an authoress and poetess, and wrote several books, including, ‘Lady Anne’s Walk’ (1903) – a miscellany of historical reminiscences woven round the sketches of Lady Anne Beresford; ‘The Lady of the Well’ (1906); and ‘The Rambling Rector’ (1904) – a novel of life in an Ulster parish with dialect features. She also wrote ‘A Life of Primate Alexander’ (1913), about her father, and contributed occasional poems to ‘The Times’ and ‘The Spectator.’

Eleanor was naturally inclined towards charitable work and nursing. In Londonderry and Armagh, the local nursing associations benefited by her constant encouragement and help.

When Primate Alexander resigned, in 1911, and gifts and tributes were made to him on his departure to take up residence in Torquay, residents of Armagh and neighbourhood joined in paying similar compliments to his daughter. One of the most generous came from Cardinal Michael Logue, Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland from 1887 until his death in 1924. He said: ‘She worked hard and never made a noise about the work. ‘She went among the people like a sunbeam, bringing light into their lives, and she was a prime mover in the most useful work in the city – the nursing association.

‘She was a very pleasant neighbour, and it was but right that they should give her a testimonial of their esteem, telling how much they missed her. ‘Her illustrious father was also a very pleasant neighbour, always agreeable. He occupied a considerable place in literature, and it was an honour to their city to have him among them. Miss Alexander inherited the gifts of her distinguished father and no less distinguished mother.’

In late June 1917, approaching the first anniversary of the beginning of the Somme campaign of July 1916, Eleanor Alexander wrote a ‘Commemorative Ode’ on the 36th (Ulster) Division for the Belfast Telegraph, which attracted widespread attention at the time. Some of the verses are appended below:

‘Heaven for a moment; heaven, then hell,

Into the sunshine yellow on the grass

With brows uplifted, stern-lipped, glad they pass

To shot and splitting shell.

Now in the open, now at last

For love of liberty in England’s name,

To prove the soul of Derry’s ancient fame,

The mettle of Belfast

Not tear-dimmed, downcast, follow higher

Proud eyes, the well-beloved that toil and strain

In battle-storm and death and bitter pain

Through enfilading fire.

On to the trenches burrowed deep –

What of the brave, the brave who fight and fall

On to that last line in the smoke’s grey pall,

To have, to hold, to keep.’

Eleanor Alexander was not the only female Great War poetess associated with the Maiden City. On September 5, 1956, Lilian (Lily) Marcus died at her home, Northland Road, Londonderry. She was a well-known and talented literary figure and a prolific writer of poetry, chiefly of a sacred and devotional nature.

Born in County Antrim, Lily was the daughter of David and Mary Marcus. The family, who were Presbyterian, appear to have arrived in Londonderry when Lily was very young, as a sister, Jeannie, who was five years younger than Lily, was born in the city. In the 1901 Census, eighteen-year-old Lily was working as a teacher, and living in Beechwood Avenue. A decade later, she was residing in Westland Terrace, and gave her occupation in the 1911 Census form as a typist and stenographer.

Lily was for many years among the clerical staff of Messrs. A. A. Watt & Co., the erstwhile Londonderry firm of distillers. She also became identified with the efforts of the British Legion and was Assistant Secretary for a significant period.

During her life, Lily Marcus maintained a profound interest in poetry and had many works published in support of such charitable organisations as St Dunstan’s for soldiers blinded during the 1914-18 War. St Dunstan’s was founded by Arthur Pearson, who had himself lost his sight due to glaucoma. Because of the increasing numbers of British soldiers returning from the front lines during the First World War suffering from blindness, Pearson established a hostel for these soldiers as well as blinded sailors and airmen. His intention was that, with training and assistance, they could go on to lead productive lives and would not have to depend on charity.

A selection of Lily Marcus ‘War Poems’ in aid of St Dunstan’s was printed by the ‘Derry Standard’ in 1916, and in the foreword Lily wrote: ‘Of the many War-heroes who to-day are bearing the seal of sacrifice, perhaps none are so in need of our sympathy as those who have been deprived of their sight while fulfilling the trust reposed in them...these men whose darkened lives remind us that the light of the homeland is still undimmed.’

A poem in the book, ‘To the Blinded Heroes of the War,’ contains the lines:

‘Ye who, in your bright day of life, went forth

Into the ranks of unknown sacrifice,

And now return to your remaining night.

Your night! Whose vacant mystery reflects

No image of those dear familiar things

Which still surround your life, yet only meet

The unavailing glance of sightless eyes!

Oh! hero-pride is strong to die, but that

Which lives, undaunted by cruel lot,

Is Heroism, pure, great, infinite!’

Lily Marcus earned numerous awards for her labours and one which she cherished most was a gold watch she was awarded in a competition promoted by the Ulster Tourist Development Association in connection with the first T.T. car race.

She also had in her possession a large number of letters from members of the Royal Family to whom she sent some of her poems.