Andrew J Kettle was the third co-founder of the Irish National Land League. At the insistence of Parnell and Davitt, he chaired the meeting to establish the organisation in Dublin in 1879. Both men were keenly aware that broad-based support of the new body, which brought together the parliamentary and Fenian currents of Irish nationalism, required the prominent involvement of Kettle, a working tenant farmer, who was widely recognised at the time as a highly capable leader of Ireland’s tenant-rights movement. A few years earlier, in 1874, Kettle had led a delegation to persuade the then 28-year-old Parnell to run for election as a Home Rule candidate. Thereafter, Kettle became a trusted, on-the-ground confidant, staunch supporter and critical friend of Parnell until the latter’s death in 1891 following the O’Shea divorce scandal. Despite Kettle’s central role in the formation of the Land League and the Land War (1879-1882), mainstream history texts dealing with the period often omit Kettle or refer to him fleetingly as a “strong farmer” or “politician” in Parnell’s circle. These labels, however, belie the true scope and radical nature of Kettle’s activism, which included spending six months in Kilmainham Gaol in 1881 for his part in the Land War.
In December 1884, a looming economic depression prompted Kettle to write a series of article-length letters to the Freeman’s Journal, urging renewed agrarian mobilisation of “the whole Irish people… around the National League centre”. While the Land War had stimulated legislative reforms that were benefiting some farmers, Kettle saw the need for further action to transform what he characterised as “by far the most shameless system of public and private plunder that ever existed on the face of the Earth”. By this he meant the continuing imposition on tenant farmers of unsupportable rents combined with a system of taxation, whereby two-thirds of rent and taxes were “being taken out of the country and spent elsewhere”. Without stopping this “eternal money drain that keeps Ireland poor”, Kettle anticipated that “the standard people of Ireland”, like the population of “England-governed India”, were doomed to face recurring “ruin, famine and death”. Further, he argued, “to give our [farm] labourers a fair start they must get the land free of rent”. He insisted that excessive “rent is not a farmer’s question; it is rather the great industrial question of the hour” because money paid in rent cannot be spent in wages. These positions are not those of a “strong farmer” driven by narrow class interests or of a career-seeking politician aspiring to a more comfortable position within the British empire.
So, who was Andrew J Kettle and where did he come from?
Kettle was born in Swords, Co Dublin, in 1833. He was the second of six siblings and his family were relatively comfortable Catholic tenant farmers of a 30-acre holding. As recounted in The Material for Victory: The Memoirs of Andrew J Kettle, Kettle took great pride in family stories of his grandparents’ involvement in the 1798 rebellion. He expressed surprise to have found himself working so closely with national leaders in the maelstrom of “public work”, noting with characteristic self-effacement that he was “a very ordinary man with a particularly ordinary education”. Kettle attended the local national school, which he left early to work on the family farm, and was self-educated thereafter. He was greatly influenced by his mother, Alice (Kavanagh) Kettle, who was appalled by the devastation wrought by the Famine and exhorted him to take action whenever possible to promote economic, social and political justice. Kettle’s mother criticised both Daniel O’Connell and the Young Irelanders – the rival nationalist leaders of the 1840s – for “being on the platform and in the press when they should have been organising the people in every parish to seize the food, and stop the whole business of town and country to save the lives of the people”. She singled out Fintan Lalor as the only Young Irelander who understood that the first fight must be against the prevailing oppressive land system in order to create the material conditions for Ireland’s self-determination – that is, “the material for victory” of the memoir’s title.
Alice Kettle’s influence permeates her son’s memoirs. The Material for Victory exemplifies an understudied tradition in late-19th-century Irish sociopolitical history, between the imagined poles of parliamentary and “physical force” nationalisms, in which a commitment to democratisation, progressive grassroots mobilisation, non-sectarianism, the amelioration of human misery and the pre-emption of the recourse to violence are key features. A commitment to non-sectarianism is especially evident in Kettle’s accounts of his tenant-rights organising efforts during the 1870s. He describes enthusiastically a major conference in 1877 that drew “a host of Presbyterian and Catholic clergymen from all parts of Ireland”. At the same time, Kettle objects strenuously to the direct involvement of the Catholic clergy in electoral politics. He recounts one scene in Cork in the 1880 general election, in which Kettle himself was a reluctant candidate, where he was followed threateningly by “the priests and their party who were armed with good sticks”, which Kettle and his colleague managed to disperse without incident.
Kettle’s investment in democratic political practice is evident throughout his memoirs. When Parnell approached Kettle in the summer of 1879 to seek his views on Davitt’s proposal to form the Land League, Kettle’s principal concern was that it should not be a secret “oath-bound organisation” but “an open call to all the people” in order to press for radical change through political means rather than by “shooting”. Later in 1880, when Davitt initially opposed spending Land League monies raised in America to support Irish Parliamentary Party election campaigning, Kettle disagreed, arguing that “you can make a revolutionary use of the parliamentary machine as well as every other political weapon”. Again, in 1885, in a visit to Parnell’s hunting lodge at Aughavanagh, Kettle warned Parnell wryly that he had heard that “the young men in many parts of the country are falling back into line with the extreme movement notwithstanding all the glamour of your parliamentary work”. In the same year, Kettle had published his series of letters in the Freeman’s Journal, hoping to stimulate a new wave of non-violent agrarian agitation under Parnell and Davitt’s leadership, undoubtedly, in part, to attract those same young men back to political means.
Kettle’s endorsement of Anna Parnell and the Ladies’ Land League is also a striking example of his politics. He concludes that she had “a better knowledge of… the real economic conditions of the country and of the social and political forces which had to be acted upon to work out the freedom of Ireland than any person, man or women” that he had ever met. In the context of a visit that Kettle and Parnell made to Ballaghadereen, Co Roscommon, where they met with Anne Deane, a businesswoman and co-founder of the Ladies’ Land League, Kettle observed that Deane was a “remarkable woman… at the head of a business that looked like the centre not of a town… but of a province”. These favourable accounts of women holding prominent roles in public life suggest a progressive attitude that distinguishes Kettle, along with Davitt, from the otherwise highly patriarchal Land League leaders.
The Material for Victory was first edited and published by Andrew’s son Laurence J Kettle in 1958. Laurence recalls how he received the manuscript after his father died in 1916, “written on very small sheets of ordinary note paper, rolled up and tied in small bundles”. His father intended that Laurence’s brother, Tom Kettle, who was killed in the Great War, would edit the memoirs, which was not to be. Laurence’s introduction recounts poignantly how he did not “even open” the bundles in 1916, believing that “little interest would be taken in the memoirs” following the revolutionary turn in 1916. He was probably right. In 1958, however, the memoirs were well-received across the political spectrum of the day, including being serialised in the Irish Press, under the title “Parnell’s right-hand man”, signalling an openness to revisiting the legacy of Parnell and the Land War as part of a longer history of Ireland’s struggle for self-determination.
Now, the reissue of The Material for Victory in 2023 gives a new generation the opportunity to revisit the extraordinary grassroots and political organising efforts of the late 19th century, which achieved systemic socio-economic change on a grand scale. As Laurence Kettle notes, by the time the Free State was established, land Acts put in train by the Land War had resulted in 11 million acres being purchased by tenants comprising 316,000 holdings. Today, Ireland faces comparably large-scale challenges in relation to housing inequalities, the imperative to address climate change justly, and the prospect of constitutional change in the relationship between North and South in an increasingly diverse Ireland. In meeting these challenges, The Material for Victory is a reminder of the necessity for continuous democratic renewal, the public use of reason, progressive grassroots mobilisation, and to have leaders with the capacity to be disinterested, long-haul visionaries who never give up.
Niamh Reilly is established professor of political science and sociology at the University of Galway and a great-great-granddaughter of Andrew J Kettle. Her new, annotated edition of The Material for Victory: The Memoirs of Andrew J Kettle published by the Open Press at the University of Galway is available online at: https://openpress.universityofgalway.ie/materialforvictory/