On Thursday evening the Inniskillings Museum with Fermanagh Writers hosted a centenary concert jointly in St. Macartin’s Cathedral, the home of the Inniskillings Regimental Chapel, and St. Michael’s Church to mark the anniversary of the death of Irish war poet, Francis Ledwidge. Although I had been sceptical about the project when it was first suggested to the writers group, I was delighted to see how well it all came together.
Francis Ledwidge was an Irish nationalist who fought for the British Army during the First World War. He was a member of the Gaelic League and he and his brother Joe were among the first to join the local branch of the Irish Volunteers, where he became friends with Thomas MacDonagh, one of the seven leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. When the Volunteers split over the issue of support for the First World War, Ledwidge sided with the minority opposed to joining the war effort.
So, what connection does Ledwidge, who was from Slane, Co Meath, have with Fermanagh Writers and Enniskillen?
Shortly after the spilt in the Gaelic League, he enlisted in the 5th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, saying: “I joined the British army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation.”
He was killed by a stray shell during the Battle of Passchendaele on July 31, 1917.
The concert evening was a mix of readings of Ledwidge’s poetry, recitals of musical settings of his work by Head and Gurney, poetry which influenced him such as WB Yeats and Thomas Moore, and short talks about his military career. Enniskillen born actor and director, Adrian Dunbar drew the evening to a close by reading Seamus Heaney’s emotive poem ‘In Memoriam – Francis Ledwidge’.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this project when we first started it but I quickly became interested in the historical aspect of it. In early June, Fermanagh Writers visited Slane, Co Meath to see the birthplace of Ledwidge. While we were there, we visited his family home which is now a museum, stopped into his favourite pub in the town to chat with committee members who run the Ledwidge Museum and climbed the Hill of Slane to visit the grave of the woman he loved.
After learning a bit about Ledwidge’s life and writings, our members wrote their own poetry and stories inspired by the poet and his times. A booklet of these stories and poems was produced and distributed at the concert on Thursday.
Ledwidge’s love of his homeplace and the countryside he grew up in was something that particularly spoke to me, as I never cease to be amazed by the countryside where I live in County Fermanagh. Despite the fact that we lived a century apart, I know he would have seen many of the same sights as I do in the countryside and my contribution to the booklet sprang from this thought. I had first thought that it might be rather a chore to produce ‘writing to order’ on a particular theme but, the more I learned about the poet and his life, the easier it was to write.
My poem, Waiting To Be Called, was inspired by the mutual love of nature that Ledwidge and I share, and also by a letter that Ledwidge wrote home in July 1917. He was hoping for leave which was long overdue for his unit after seven months on active service. In the letter, he said that he may be home again soon and added, “In fact, I am only waiting to be called home.” His hope was never realised, of course, as he died on the 31st of the same month.
After the commemorative concert, the evening was rounded off by music and poetry in Blakes of the Hollow. Pat McManus and his band provided the music, Adrian Dunbar sang a rousing rendition of Fare Thee Well, Inniskilling, the 5th Royal Inniskilling Guards regimental march, and members of Fermanagh Writers shared the poems we had written.
It was a great evening and the inspiration I drew from the project will spill over into my other writing.