Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Francis Ledwidge

Just outside Mons in Belgium a stone monument records the date when a squadron from the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards fired the opening British shots of the first World War. The date was 22nd August 1914, the time 7.00 in the morning. By the time the ceasefire occurred on 11th November 1918 almost 10 million men, women and children had died in the war. Amongst the 10 million were approximately 35,000 Irish men and women and amongst those Irish men were two whose names will be forever remembered whenever and wherever the poets of World War I are recalled. Francis Ledwidge, a native of Slane, Co. Meath, left school at 14 years of age to work as a farm labourer and six years later took up employment as a roadworker with Meath County Council. In October 1914 he enlisted in the Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers where his mentor, Lord Dunsany, served as a captain. Ledwidge was a Lance Corporal when his battalion landed at Suvla Bay in August 1915. Within two months the British army lost more than 10,000 men and amongst those killed were Athy men Daniel Delaney, John Farrell, Christopher Hanlon, William Moran and Christopher Whelan. Edward Higgins and Henry Price, both of Ballitore and Michael Kinsella of Castledermot joined their Athy comrades in death on the beaches of the Dardanelles. After some time in Salonika where the Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers were encamped on the Greco-Serbian border, Ledwidge with his regiment were forced to retreat. Ledwidge was subsequently hospitalised in Cairo and from there sent back to a hospital in Manchester, just as the 1916 Rising was taking place in Dublin. The subsequent execution of the leaders of the Rising may have contributed to Ledwidge’s subsequent Court marshalling for overstaying his leave following which he was reduced in rank. He subsequently re-joined his regiment and on the opening day of the third battle of Ypres he was killed when a German shell exploded near him on 31st July 1917. Ledwidge, who was 29 years of age, is buried in Artillery Wood cemetery, Boesinghe, Belgium. His own poem ‘At a Poet’s Grave’ is a poignant reminder of Irish literature’s loss when Ledwidge died. ‘And here where the sweet poet sleeps I hear the songs he left unsung, When winds are fluttering the flowers And summer bells are rung.’ Tom Kettle’s father was a founder member of the Land League and a friend of Charles Stewart Parnell. Tom qualified as a barrister in 1906 and that same year he was elected as an M.P. to Westminster where he proved to be an orator of exceptional ability. Three years later he married Mary Sheehy, whose sister Hannah was married to Francis Skeffington and soon afterwards he was appointed Professor of Economics at Dublin University. He resigned his parliamentary seat in 1910 but continued to be politically active, becoming one of the founders of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913. When war was declared in August 1914 Kettle was abroad buying arms for the Volunteers. On his return to Ireland he enlisted but was not sent overseas until July 1916. Towards the end of August 1916 the Irish Brigade was sent to the Somme and it was there on 9th September Thomas Kettle was killed near the village of Ginchy. Aged 36 years his body was never recovered and he is today remembered on the ‘Thiepval Memorial to the Missing’ near Albert in France. The day Kettle died also saw the death of Maurice Cullen of Foxhill. Six days earlier John Vincent Holland of Model Farm Athy, as part of the Somme offensive, led his men in capturing the village of Guillemont located just a few miles south of Ginchy, an action for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. Thomas Kettle will always be remembered for the memorable poem which included the lines:- ‘So here, while the mad guns curse overhead, And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor, Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead, Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor, But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed, And for the secret scripture of the poor.’ Many of the young men who left Athy with the cheers and good wishes of local townspeople ringing in their ears were never to return. Many thousands of other Irish men including Francis Ledwidge and Tom Kettle believed they were fighting for Ireland, a claim which Ledwidge made in his poem. ‘For am I not of those who reared The banner of old Ireland high From Dublin town to Turkey’s shore’. On Thursday the Arts Centre hosts a show devised and directed by David Walsh remembering the men from Athy and district who died during the First World War. The following Sunday, November 11th, on the centenary of the ending of the war which witnessed the death of more than 120 young Athy men, those men and their colleagues who survived will be remembered at a commemoration ceremony at St. Michael’s cemetery commencing at 3pm.

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