‘Generous heart’ – An Irishman’s Diary on poet and patriot Tom Kettle

Tom Kettle was killed at Ginchy during the Battle of the Somme on September 9th, 1916

Tom Kettle was killed at Ginchy during the Battle of the Somme on September 9th, 1916

 

You proved by death as true as they, In mightier conflicts played your part, Equal your sacrifice may weigh, Dear Kettle, of the generous heart . . .

Tom Kettle was killed at Ginchy during the Battle of the Somme on September 9th, 1916. George Russell’s poem, To the Memory of Some I Knew Who Are Dead and Who Loved Ireland, represents an early attempt to commemorate both the dead of the first World War and of the Rising. Kettle was born in 1880 in north Dublin, the son of a prosperous farmer who had been active during the land war. Educated by the Christian Brothers and the Jesuits, in 1897 he enrolled at University College, St Stephen’s Green, where his contemporaries included Patrick Pearse and James Joyce. He was elected auditor of the college’s Literary and Historical Society. Kettle postponed taking examinations in 1900. He experienced the highs and lows sometimes seen in people of genius. (According to his wife, Mary Sheehy, he never quite regained normal health, which may explain his heavy drinking.) He spent the following two years travelling on the Continent, practising French and German, before returning to take a BA in mental and moral science at the Royal University of Ireland. He continued to edit the college newspaper and remained active in student politics, participating in protests against the university’s ceremonial playing of God Save the King at graduations. He was called to the bar but soon forsook law for journalism. In his presidential address before the Young Ireland branch of the United Irish League – a ginger group within the Irish Parliamentary Party – he asserted that “politics is not as it seems in clouded moments, a mere gabble and squabble of self interests”; rather it is “the great human conspiracy against hunger and cold, against loneliness and ignorance . . . the foster-mother of the arts . . . all that redeems from despair that strange adventure we call human life”.

He served as Home Rule MP for East Tyrone, until appointed professor of national economics at the newly constituted University College Dublin. He supported the Dublin strikers in 1913, highlighting their harsh working and living conditions. He tried without success to broker an agreement between employers and workers – efforts not helped by his inebriated appearance at a crucial meeting. Despite deteriorating health, he became deeply involved in the Irish Volunteers, using his language skills and experience of Europe to procure arms for the movement. He was in Belgium when the German army invaded in August 1914. As lawyer, poet and journalist, he possessed a triple intensity of vision. The “scientific brutality” he witnessed convinced him that it was a war of civilisation against barbarism. Having distributed anti-recruiting leaflets during the Boer war, he now took a commission in the British army, entering the Great War as an Irish soldier in the army of Europe. In November 1914 he was invited to speak, with Pearse and WB Yeats, at a meeting in Dublin to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Young Irelander Thomas Davis. Turning up drunk and in army uniform, Kettle was derided by the crowd. But Pearse, showing a grace lacking in many of his contemporaries, wrote later: “If I have spoken bitterly in anything I have said to you, forgive me for it. I have never lost the affection I had for you.”

Kettle was still in Ireland when the Rising broke out. What he regarded as a political calamity was touched by personal tragedy, in the murder of his brother-in-law Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. He predicted that the executed leaders would go down in history “as heroes and martyrs, and I will go down as a bloody British officer”. In July 1916 he departed for the trenches, where “men die and rats increase”. There he recognised something divine in the “radiant valour of my Dublin Fusiliers”. He told his wife he wished to live “to use all my powers of thinking, writing and working to drive out of civilisation this foul thing called war” . Should he die, however, “I shall sleep well in the France I always loved”. There is only one journey, this man of faith once wrote, “in which we attain our ideal of going away and going home at the same time”. As surely as Pearse sacrificed his life, Kettle’s beliefs led him to die for Ireland. He wrote his own epitaph five days before his death: 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.