When the Slane poet Francis Ledwidge was introduced to the 20-year-old sister of a friend at a party in 1914, it was the beginning of a double love affair. The poet’s affections were given not only to the young woman but also to the Co Meath village in which she lived at the time.
Ledwidge had already come through a failed romance with the daughter of Slane neighbours, developing an almost paralysing passion for Ellie Vaughey, who rejected him. Ellie married another and went to live in Manchester where she later died in childbirth – all of which devastated the poet.
In the wake of that rejection, he turned his romantic attention to Lizzie Healy. The village of Wilkinstown was the backdrop to this second relationship. It appears Ledwidge became fascinated by the place and its surrounding landscape, particularly the nearby bog.
“I could have stayed down in Wilkinstown forever, it is so infinitely peaceful . . . I think of you in the lap of the quiet bog. You don’t know how fortunate you are. I would easily swap twenty years of my life with whatever powers shape our destiny for a home like yours . . .” Ledwidge, on his journey into battle in the Great War, wrote those words to Lizzie’s brother-in-law, Willie Farrelly, in a thank-you letter for a farewell party in his honour. After the earlier party at which Ledwidge’s close friend Paddy Healy introduced him to Lizzie, the pair met at dances in Slane and Ardee. It would seem they shared more in common than had been the case with Ellie Vaughey. Lizzie was a book-lover with a small library and had an interest in the melodies of Tom Moore. According to Ledwidge’s biographer, Alice Curtayne, her collection of books was “a marvel in the poet’s eyes”. He wrote to her immediately after the Ardee dance, promising to get her some things of Thomas Moore’s she had not read and asked if he could meet her again, choosing that most romantic location in Navan, the County Council office in Railway Street.
In her letter of reply she tells him that the Farrellys had found a house to rent in Wilkinstown and that she was going to live with them. She invited him to visit. “I certainly shall go to Wilkinstown some day”, he writes back, adding that her library will be “only a second consideration”.
In response to Lizzie's request for a poem, he wrote the lovely To Eilish of the Fair Hair. The Irish version of Lizzie's name was a thin disguise. Because of the social position of the Farrellys as the local teachers, they were concerned that their meetings might be discovered. In a letter, he tells her: "I will not risk being seen in Wilkinstown as the people are so fond of talking about me now, were I seen you'd never know where the tale would end".
Ledwidge was acutely aware of his social position. In one poem he writes,
And I thought how they will ignore me Because of my humble line, That I guided the plough before me Or bored in the deep wet mine.
Through a flow of correspondence between the two we get an insight to the poet’s deep affection for the area.
From Richmond Barracks in Dublin, he wrote to Lizzie words that now have a prominent position as a wall mural in the village: “It is spring now and it must be lovely down in Wilkinstown. Are the birds singing yet? When you hear a blackbird think of me”.
One of the most memorable events in Ledwidge’s life before he headed off to war was that farewell party on St Patrick’s Night 1915.
Afterwards he tells her: “I am a thousand times better of my visit to Wilkinstown. I had the happy realisation of hearing you say you would wait for me until I came back”.
The death of Ellie Vaughey in childbirth in Manchester haunted Ledwidge and brought an end to his correspondence with Lizzie. He continued to write to her brother, Paddy, letters in which he makes no mention of Lizzie, who eventually moved away to live and work in Dún Laoghaire. Even though the poet actually spent part of a final and dramatic visit home the following year in Dublin, in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, he made no attempt to see her, even though she was close by.
Two years after Ellie’s death, he wrote again to Lizzie: “You will be surprised to hear from me again after a silence nearly three years long. The reason I write is because I have been dreaming about you and it has made me rather anxious . . .”
And once more he is rhapsodising about that bog : “It must be quite beautiful on the bog now . . . please dear Lizzie, send me a flower from the bog, plucked specially for me. I may be home again soon.”
That last letter was written as the terrible bombardment of the third Battle of Ypres began – a battle in which the poet died one hundred years ago.