The following story by Patricia Killeen is taken from the US website IrishCentral.com published on September 10th. It details a commemoration held by the Irish in France including our Ambassador commemorating Lt Tom Kettle (former MP), Lance Corporal Francis Ledwidge from Slane and other members of Irish regiments in WWI.
Tom Kettle: Irish War Poet and nationalist was remembered by the Irish in France on the eve of the anniversary of his death.
On Sunday, September 8th 2019 the Irish Embassy Paris and the Irish in France Association invited Irish people living in France to the inauguration of the ‘Irish Peace Garden.’ The garden, located in the grounds of the Château de Péronne, in the heart of the Somme battlefields, pays homage to the WW1 Irish soldiers. The château also houses ‘The Historical Museum of the Great War’.
Our day out also included visiting the museum, the Church and village of Guillemont and the Ulster Tower in Thiepval.
As our Ambassador Patricia O’Brien rendered homage to the Irish WW1 soldiers, complimented the new garden, and spoke of the strong link between Ireland and France, at that moment in time I felt happy to be Irish in France. After the speeches, Peter Donegan led us through the gardens and entertained us with stories of his challenge transforming a 14th-century dried-up moat, constructed to keep people out, into a welcoming garden that drew people in.
The village of Guillemont, a short drive away and the neighboring village Ginchy, are soaked in Irish blood. More than 1,200 men from the 16th (Irish) Division were killed in the liberation of these two villages on 3rd and 9th September 1916. The church is at the very centre of the small village, which has neither a shop nor a café. However, we did locate the ‘Rue de la 16ème Division Irlandaise’!
One again French officials and the Irish Ambassador spoke. I lost the battle of keeping tears in check in the beautifully decorated church, where the dead Irish soldiers are so honored. Plaques on the wall list the different battalions of the 16th Irish Division including the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in which Thomas Kettle and many Irish Volunteers had enlisted. Our Ambassador paid homage to Kettle (economist, journalist, barrister, writer, poet, and former Member of Parliament for John Redmond’s constitutional nationalist party) who died at the Battle of Ginchy on 9th September 1916. She said she hoped that Kettle would be proud of the progress that had been made for peace in Europe and Ireland.
Kettle, an ardent Irish nationalist, donned the British uniform knowing many of his fellow countrymen wouldn’t understand why. He enlisted after witnessing the horrors in Belgium after the German invasion and said “while a strong people has its own self for centre, it has the universe for circumference.”
He went to war for European civilization and to fight for the freedom of another small country, fully aware that after Irish independence eventually came he would be seen as one of the ‘foolish dead,’ in contrast with the 1916 Rising ‘heroes’. In the final lines of his poem, ‘To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God’, Kettle explained his decision: “Know that we fools, … Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor, But for a dream, born in a herdsmen shed, And for the secret Scripture of the poor.”
In the lead up to the centenary of the 1916 Rising, the Irish President Michael D. Higgins, acknowledged Kettle’s place in Irish history and said he was “an Irish patriot, a British soldier and a true European and understood that be authentically Irish we must also embrace our European identity’.
Francis Ledwidge, the other Irish WW1 war poet who died at the Battle of Ypres on July 31, 1917, like Kettle is now also considered as an Irish patriot and a WW1 war hero.
More Irish men, many of them members of the Irish Volunteers, died defending France than died creating an Irish republic. Many of them died for European freedom and in the hope that a grateful Britain post-war would pass the shelved Home Rule bill. On the other hand, other brave Irish men from Ulster enlisted in WW1 in the hope that the British would throw out the same Home Rule Bill!
Our final stop was at the Ulster Tower, Northern Ireland’s national war memorial, constructed in 1921 opposite the Thiepval Wood from where the 36th (Ulster) Division made its historic charge on July 1st 1916. The Irish Ambassador, the Mayor of Péronne and the Sous-Préfet de Péronne once again laid wreaths, as they had done at the Celtic cross and French monument outside the Guillemont church.
As I looked at the orange flowers in the green, white and gold Irish wreath, I remembered in ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somne,’ how Frank McGuinness’s had described that Protestant soldiers exchanged their Orange sashes before going into battle.
Over the course of the day, I saw how revered our Irish WW1 soldiers were in France. The men, whose place in Irish history had been a long time enigma, had apparently always been honored in the French villages they defended. Tom Kettle and Francis Ledwidge were friends with many of the 16 men executed in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising. Francis Ledwidge’s poem “The Lament for Thomas MacDonagh” is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful WW1 poems.
When young people are struck down in their prime we can’t help but wonder about the outcome if they had lived. How would the combined talents of Tom Kettle, Tom Redmond and the 16 executed men have impacted the course of Irish history and the 1921 peace terms if they had been spared?
Kettle wrote from the Somme that if he were to live he would “spend the rest of his life working for perpetual peace.” He had enlisted for ‘Liberty’ and after being wounded insisted on returning to the Somme out of ‘Fraternity’, for his Dublin Fusiliers. The WW1 soldiers were denied ‘Equality’ in a world where ‘bumbling’ deciders sacrificed young men as fodder. Kettle described the Great War as ‘an outrage against simple men’.
In the Irish Peace Garden, Ambassador Patricia O’Brien expressed her hope in people’s ability to assemble and discuss. I hope many will have the opportunity to visit the Peace Garden and museum in Péronne, the village of Guillemont and the Ulster Tower for the pleasure of a great day out, and ‘lest we forget’ peace can never be taken for granted.