Poet Francis Ledwidge commemorated by people of Slane
British soldier died on July 31st, 1917, the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele
Relatives of Lance Corporal Francis Ledwidge, Frank Ledwidge and Joseph Ledwidge in his birthplace during the State Commemoration ceremony to mark the centenary of the poet’s death.Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The people of Slane never forgot Francis Ledwidge even while the rest of the country was indulging in what FX Martin called “national amnesia” over the Irishmen who fought and died in the First World War.
The robust little labourer’s cottage at Janesville outside Slane where Ledwidge grew up was restored in the 1980s by local people.
Its beautiful sloping garden was the setting for the first national state commemoration to remember the poet and British soldier who died on July 31st, 1917, the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele.
Ledwidge, along with five of his comrades from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, were killed by a shell as they repaired access roads to the front.
So many locals from around Slane are going to Belgium to mark the actual centenary that it was decided to hold the state commemoration a month early.
Dappled sunlight and a warm breeze greeted the guests who assembled for what was as much as a celebration of the poet’s life as a commemoration of a soldier’s death.
It was the type of day Ledwidge referred to in his poem June which was read out at the ceremony by local man James Doherty. “The fair tanned face of June, the nomad gipsy, laughs”.
Guest of honour
The guest of honour was the white-haired figure of Joe Ledwidge (87) the poet’s nephew. Francis Ledwidge, to him, was a lost uncle and the lost brother of his father, also called Joe. Joe Snr and Francis Ledwidge were the youngest of the nine Ledwidge children.
“My father was in a terrible way about it (the death of Francis Ledwidge),” he recalled. Frank Ledwidge, the poet’s grandnephew, followed his greatuncle into the British Army and was stationed in Kosovo near where Ledwidge served with the 10th (Irish) Division in the first World War.
“For the family he is a source of immense pride,” said Frank Ledwidge. “When I was in the Balkans, I carried his poems with me.”
He read the obituary from the Drogheda Argus which appeared in the aftermath of Ledwidge’s death. “The majority of his poetry was about Ireland and the fairies,” the paper stated. “He was one of nature’s poets and a strong adherent of the new Celtic renaissance”.
Musician Mary Clark played The Blackbird, a song synonymous with Ledwidge. It used to be played for Ledwidge by his good friend Matty McGoona. Local man Bob McMahon read an extract from one of Ledwidge’s letters to McGoona, its words particularly poignant given the poet’s premature death.
“Every time you play ‘The Blackbird’ think on me,” Ledwidge wrote. “I love that tune and snatches of it sing in my memory an odd time like ghosts haunting an old garden. My memory is no more than an old garden now full of the withered flowers of a dead summer.”
The Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee, who lives locally, spoke of Ledwidge as a “poet, a patriot and, first and foremost, a proud Meath man”.
She read from his most famous poem A Lament for Thomas MacDonagh and recalled how Ledwidge, a British soldier and Irish patriot, had been deeply conflicted by the Easter Rising.
She spoke of how the memories of the Irish men who served with the British Army during the first World War were, until recently, “whispered – hidden and ignored”, but the decade of centenaries had provided a “new momentum and interest on remembering those who fought and died and on reflecting upon the complex narratives surrounding Ireland’s participation in that war”.
The focal point of the ceremony was the memorial to Ledwidge made of Ieper stone which is an exact replica of the one that stands on the spot in Belgium where he died.
Ms McEntee laid a wreath there on behalf of the Government. The Ledwidge family, the Belgian ambassador to Ireland, Phillipe Roland, the chairman of Meath County Council Cllr Gerry O’Connor and Colonel Max Walker on behalf of the British ambassador Robin Barnett also laid wreaths at the memorial.