An Irish nationalist and our first European


Ninety years after his death, Tom Kettle's life continues to fascinate, writes Frank Callanan.

It is a remarkable tribute to TM Kettle that as a public figure who, in terms of the politics of early 20th century Ireland, found himself on the "wrong side of history", he has continued to exert a powerful fascination.

Broken politically and emotionally by the Easter Rising, Kettle, a lieutenant in the Dublin Fusiliers, was killed five months later, on September 8th, 1916, on the Somme in the assault on the village of Ginchy.

Kettle was born in Artane, Dublin on February 9th, 1880, the third son of Andrew Kettle, a progressive north Co Dublin farmer and a collaborator of Parnell. Andrew Kettle was the Parnellite candidate in the Carlow by-election of July 1891, the third of the Parnell split and the last of Parnell's life.

Tom Kettle went to the O'Connell School, North Richmond Street, and then to Clongowes. At University College Dublin, from 1897, he was a highly charismatic student, who lived in what Robert Lynd called "a blaze of adoration". He was the auditor of the Literary and Historical Society 1989-99, and editor of the unusually sophisticated college journal St Stephen's 1903-4.

At university Kettle encountered Francis Skeffington and Francis Cruise O'Brien. All three would marry daughters of the Irish Party MP David Sheehy, and were to be prominent in the Young Ireland branch of the United Irish League, the organisation of the Irish Party. The "Yibs", if they carried little or no weight in the counsels of the Irish Party, attracted a good deal of public attention for their advocacy of a more aggressive and sharply focused pursuit of home rule.

Among Kettle's contemporaries at university was James Augustine Joyce. While a decorous mutual respect was observed, their political, aesthetic and philosophical convictions collided sharply. With equal conviction Kettle sought to impose, Joyce to shatter, intellectual consensus.

Joyce famously declined to sign the somewhat unctuous letter of student protest to the Freeman's Journal against Yeats's Countess Cathleen that was promoted and probably written by Kettle. Joyce preferred the company of the more cynical Oliver St John Gogarty and lithely teased: "A holy Hegelian Kettle Has faith which we cannot unsettle."

Richard Ellmann, Joyce's biographer discerned something of Kettle, among others, in the character of Robert Hand, who counters the Joyce figure Richard Rowan in Joyce's play Exiles.

Kettle was virtually unique in Irish public life in seeking from 1905 to explore the possibility of a via media between the Irish Party and Arthur Griffith's then minuscule Sinn Féin. Kettle was unswervingly committed to home rule, and was offering little more than a respectful imaginative accommodation with Sinn Féin. Griffith, as ever a superb polemicist, responded with blasts of withering excoriation. It is unlikely that the Irish Party regarded Kettle's campaign to bring at least the rhetoric of home rule into a closer alignment with the thinking of his generation with any greater enthusiasm than did Griffith.

Called to the bar in 1906, Kettle, possibly by reason of his genial benignity, did not pursue his short career as a barrister with especial zeal. He was elected by a tiny margin as MP for East Tyrone. A speaking tour of the United States exposed him to Irish American extremism, and his own position hardened in response.

While Kettle's career as a parliamentarian appeared promising, he was too sensitive for the psychological rigours of political life. He held his seat in the first 1910 election, but did not contest the second. The most abiding legacy of his parliamentary career may be his lethal epigram: "When in office the Liberals forget their principles, and the Conservatives remember their friends".

Kettle was appointed professor of, somewhat improbably, National Economics at UCD, and through the elegance of his published writing, and his interventions in public controversy (notably in relation to the 1913 lock out) remained a prominent public figure in Ireland.

Kettle was in Belgium for the Irish Volunteers when the first World War broke out. Horrified by the ferocity of the German onslaught, he despatched impassioned and very moving reports for the liberal Daily News. He enlisted on his way home, presenting his wife with a fait accompli. A lieutenant in the Dublin Fusiliers, Kettle in uniform tirelessly advocated recruitment.

What gave still greater offence to Sinn Féin and Irish republicans was his unremitting insistence that support for the allied war effort against German militarism was wholly consistent with, and indeed was dictated by, his Irish nationalism.

For Kettle, the 1916 Rising was a catastrophe, a seismic event that cracked apart the fault line of his own complex nationalism. In addition to the executions - Kettle had been friendly with Thomas McDonagh - his brother-in-law Francis Sheehy Skeffington - a non combatant - had been summarily shot in Portobello Barracks. Shattered, and with some presentiment of his own death, Kettle left Dublin on July 14th for the atrocious conditions of the trenches of the Somme. Ill but refusing to leave "my Dublin Fusiliers" at the front, he wrote to his wife on September 3rd, "it is no longer indiscreet to say we are to take part in one of the biggest attacks of the war. Many will not come back".

Like Parnell, whose memory he revered, Kettle has left a myth. It endures through the grace of his prose, and the integrity and amplitude of his nationalism, manifested above all in the conviction that suffused his writing and public life that Irish nationalism had to become European. In that central respect, James Joyce and Tom Kettle were at one.

Frank Callanan SC will be one of the speakers at a meeting to honour the life of Tom Kettle to be held in the House of Lords Chamber at the Bank of Ireland, College Green, Dublin next Thursday at 6.30pm