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Winnie Letts (1882-1972) – A Poet of the Great War

Illustration by Derry Dillon.

Winnifred Letts published a series of remarkable war poems during the First World War, in which she worked as a nurse. The Dublin-based author also published children’s books and a play staged by the Abbey Theatre. South Dublin Libraries will host a series of events to mark the 50th anniversary of her death in June 2022. Booking is advised here.

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Winnie Verschoyle (née Letts) was a friend and cousin of my great-grandmother Esmé Colley of Corkagh House, Clondalkin, County Dublin. Although born in Manchester, England, Winnie spent most of her childhood holidays in Dublin. The Ferriers, her mothers’ family, lived at Knockmaroon Hill by Phoenix Park, and were connected by marriage to the Burns family (as in my great-aunt Patricia Burns, who married Dudley Colley in 1947.)

Winifred attended school at Alexandra College, Dublin, from the age of sixteen. Along with her mother and her sister Mary, she came to live in Dublin permanently in 1904, following the death of father, the Reverend Ernest Letts, taking a house on Glenart Avenue in Blackrock. That same year, a poem she wrote entitled ‘The Wind’s Call’ appeared in the Westminster Gazette in 1904 although she would later state that her first poem was called ‘Blackberry Time’. (The latter appeared in The Spectator in September 1910 as ‘Thim that thravels on their feet’). She wrote a series of novels, poems, children’s books and plays, two of which were staged at the Abbey theatre in 1907 and 1909. Her 1913 book of poetry Songs from Leinster contains a whole section of Wexford poems, including ‘The Harbour’.

In 1914 the family moved to Dal Riada on nearby Avoca Avenue. During the war, she worked as a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment at the 2nd West General Hospital in Manchester and, back in Dublin, with the Linden Auxiliary Hospital in Blackrock. She later trained as a masseuse (now called physiotherapist) at the Dublin School of Massage and joined the Almeric Paget Military Massage Corps, working as a masseuse in Alnwick Camp, Northumberland and in the Military Orthopaedic Hospital in Blackrock.

Such experiences inspired ‘Hallowe’en and Other Poems of the War’, published in 1916, which probed the dark side of a nurse’s life, the indifference to death and the futility of the war. In one particularly remarkable poem entitled ‘The Deserter’, she expresses empathy for a man who is to be shot because he ran away. The poem beginds:

‘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?’

The Spires of Oxford and Other Poems (1917),a  second collection of war poems, also predates the collections of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Her children’s books include ‘The Story-Spinner’ (1907) and ‘Naughty Sophia’ (1912) and were regularly adapted for Children’s Hour, the BBC Radio show. She was also the second woman, after Lady Gregory, to have her plays dramatised by the Abbey Theatre.

Winnie Letts, The Wind’s Call, from the Shields Daily Gazette, 31 December 1904.

In 1926 she married William Henry Foster Verschoyle (known as Will or Willie), a widower who had lost two sons to the war. They lived between 19 Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, and Kilberry, just north of Athy, County Kildare. During their social visits to the capital city in the 1930s, the Colley girls often stayed with the Verschoyles on Fitzwilliam Square; Veronica Colley (later Lefroy) occasionally stayed when she missed the last bus home during her days working at the Irish Sweep. Winnie owned a small dog called Roguey that her great-niece Oriana Conner, who lived at Fitzwilliam Square, used to take for walks.

After Will’s death in 1943, Winnie went to live at Faversham in Kent with her two sisters. She returned to Dublin permanently in the mid-1950s and bought Beech Cottage on Ballinclea Road, Killiney, close to the Finlay-Colley stronghold at Shanganagh Terrace. She spent most of the next quarter of a century in Killiney and passed away at the Tivoli Nursing Home, Dún Laoghaire, in 1972. She is buried in Rathcoole, County Dublin.

7 June 2022 will be the 50th anniversary of Winnifred Letts’s death. With the assistance of South Dublin CoCo Libraries and local historian, Mervyn Ennis, arrangements have been made to celebrate the life and works of Winifred Letts in June 2022 with (a) the placement of a plaque in Rathcoole Church of Ireland graveyard near to her (to date) unmarked grave on 8 June, (b) a travelling exhibition entitled ‘The Life and Works of W.M. Letts (1882-1972)’, to be launched by Mayor Peter Kavanagh at the Tallaght library on 9 June, and, (c) a  symposium exploring her life’s work on 9 June (2pm-5.30pm) in the County Library, Tallaght.

With thanks to Bairbre O’Hogan.