Thomas Michael Kettle: an enduring legacy
The myth and memory of Thomas Michael Kettle, steeped in both the Great Warand the Easter Rising, live on
Tom Kettle, Irish Patriot, Essayist, Poet and British Soldier.
Thomas Michael Kettle (1880-1916) is a person of another time. His memory is shrouded in the fog of the Great War in which he lost his life, and of whom our view is occluded by the iconostasis of the rising of 1916. Yet his myth and memory has been enduring.
The beleaguered Irish party ran the memory of Kettle, and that of William Redmond, the brother of the leader of the party, as martyrs of the war in unavailing opposition to the rapidly emerging cult of the executed leaders of the rising. His myth became in the new State the vessel of discreet nationalist middle class dissent, less from the rising than its sacralisation.
It was infused by the romance of Kettle’s persona and his lost promise. Terence de Vere White, reviewing the Centenary History of the Literary and Historical Society of UCD of which Kettle had been auditor in this paper in 1957 wrote that “I always saw Kettle through a golden haze”.
Kettle’s promise was in fact forfeit well before the outbreak of the war, and the rising which represented for him a culminating catastrophe, political and personal. Considered in University College a prospective prime minister of a home rule Ireland, Kettle remained insistently loyal to the idea of home rule as support for the Irish party began to fall away.
The first world war was the doom of the Irish party. Part of the fascination of Kettle is that while the struggle against Germany did in one aspect present itself to him as a moral and spiritual affirmation of the democratic pursuit of home rule, his support of the allied cause was finally independent of the promotion of home rule or conventional Anglophilia. He had written long before, in his most famous lines, “my only counsel to Ireland is, that in order to become deeply Irish, she must become European”.
Kettle, the Irish-European, Francophile but steeped in German culture, believed Germany had to be defeated. This intensity of intellectual engagement found expression in his renunciation of Nietzsche (“This ‘big blonde brute’ stepped from the pages of Nietzsche out on to the plains about Liege”), his condemnation of Trietschke and “the babbling savants”, and even of “the cloudy intoxication of Hegel”.
Kettle had a famous public encounter with Patrick Pearse at a Thomas Davis centenary meeting on November 20th 1915, held in the Ancient Concert Rooms when Mahaffy as vice-provost of Trinity banned it taking place there on account of the proposed presence of “a man called Pearse”. Kettle, in army uniform, arrived a little late, and in Desmond Ryan’s phrase “gloriously drunk”.
Yet the person with whom Kettle had the most perfect symmetry in disagreement was Roger Casement. They did meet, and the memory of the meeting rankled with Casement and he referred to it bitterly in his copious writings in prison. Casement was executed a little over a month before Kettle fell in battle. If a play was to written in the Tom Stoppard manner on conflicting views on the European war in Ireland, it might feature Kettle and Casement.
Thomas Michael Kettle was born on February 9th 1880. His father Andrew Kettle farmed at St Margaret’s in north Dublin. Prominent in the Dublin Tenants Defence Association, he entered Parnell’s orbit. Andrew Kettle was independent-minded, and remained staunch to Parnell in the split, having first characteristically told Parnell he disapproved of his relations with Katharine O’Shea. He was Parnell’s candidate in Carlow in the last election Parnell fought. He died at St. Margaret’s on September 22nd 1916, within a fortnight of the death of his son.
Tom Kettle was sent to the O’Connell School in Richmond Street, and thereafter to Clongowes. He arrived in University College in 1897, and quickly won a glittering reputation. He was however prone to episodes of depression, and travelled and spent a year in the University of Innsbruck before taking his degree in 1902. Called to the bar in 1903, he practised briefly, before turning to journalism.
In November 1904 Kettle, along with Francis Skeffington and Frank Cruise O’Brien, founded the Young Ireland Branch (the “Yibs”) of the United Irish League, the organisation of the Irish parliamentary party. All three were to marry daughters of David Sheehy, a member of the Irish party close to John Dillon: Kettle’s marriage to Mary Sheehy took place in September 1909.
The Yibs advocated a more single-minded pursuit of home rule, without much impact on the leadership of the Irish party.Kettle was elected by a slender margin for East Tyrone at a by-election in July 1906. He had a successful if brief parliamentary career, coining the lethal aphorism that “when in office, the Liberals forget their principles, and the Conservatives remember their friends”.
In October 1909, he was appointed Professor of National Economics at the newly constituted University College Dublin, in what was seen as an act of patronage, though Kettle read widely and acquired a certain fluency in the idiom of economics. He held his seat in the first election of 1910, but did not contest the second.
He remained a public figure. He continued to write on home rule, and published essays of remarkable poise and plangent intelligence collected as The Day’s Burden (1910). In his writings on home rule finance, he was drawn into increasing controversy with Arthur Griffith, with whose policies he had professed a highly qualified sympathy in an article in the New Ireland Review in February 1905, which was a predictably unsuccessful attempt to draw the more nationalistic of his generation towards support of the Irish party. A graceful essayist, Kettle was a poor controversialist.
Kettle’s depressive streak was now accentuated by heavy drinking (it was said that he did not drink until prevailed upon to do so after dining as a student of the King’s Inns). Kettle, who had unsuccessfully sought to broker a settlement of the 1913 lock-out through a peace committee, became involved in the formation of the Irish Volunteers later that year in response to the Ulster Volunteer Force.
Of all the publicists of the Irish party he was perhaps the most extravagantly dismissive of Ulster loyalism. He was in Belgium procuring arms for the Irish Volunteers when the war broke out. Some of the journalism he wrote, and later reflections, were collected in the posthumously published The Ways of War (1917). In Brussels “on Tuesday, August 4th, we came aware that some terrible darkness had come upon the sun”.
Nobody who was there will ever forget the torrential and swirling crowds before the Gare du Nord, the fierce cheers and the foreboding silence. Honour and the law of Europe had summoned Belgium into the red ways of war; she went singing and unafraid, but the vision of blood was not hidden from her or from us. As we stood on the cafe tables roaring “La Brabançconne” we knew that there was a midnight to traverse before the dawn. But we did not know that the upbuilding of three generations of human labour was to be broken by three months of scientific brutality. We did not know that Belgium was passing into her Gethsemane.”
Thus Kettle in Brussels had found a second cause, that converged with his first, which was home rule. In Ireland he threw himself into support of the war. He was first denied a commission on health grounds, but finally granted the rank of lieutenant, and given recruiting responsibilities. He became a target of obloquy among Sinn Fein supporters and republicans.
His priggishly progressive brother-in-law Francis Sheehy Skeffington, from whom he was now politically estranged, deplored “Kettle’s contemptible selling of himself”, and accepted the notion that “a bullet at the front” would be ‘the best end for him’.
Kettle’s drinking was increasingly out of control, as Senia Paseta’s trawl of the military records for her Thomas Kettle establishes. A target for taunts that he was “a platform soldier”, he was desperate to gain active service. A terrible measure of Kettle’s crisis is that his brother Larry was driven to write to Gen Hammond, the Chief Staff Officer of the 16th (Irish) Division, in April 1916 that “Tom’s one chance of putting himself right and starting a new page is to remain in the army and go out to the front with his men”.
Finally Hammond, whom Kettle assured he had ceased drinking (a course to which he appears to have held), agreed to send him on active duty with the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
Kettle was in Ireland, first in the barracks in Newbridge, and then with his family in Dublin, when the rising broke out. What Kettle regarded as a political calamity was touched by personal tragedy, in the killing of his brother in law Francis Skeffington in Portobello barracks. Kettle wrote of the pacifist, non-combatant Skeffington: “This brave and honourable man died to the rattle of musketry; his name will be recalled to the ruffle of drums”.
If Kettle was implacably opposed to the rising, he was quick to grasp the implications of the rising and of the government’s response. He gave evidence in favour of Eoin MacNeill at the latter’s court martial. In his Political Testament he wrote: “Had I lived I had meant to call my next book on the relations of Ireland and England: The Two Fools: A Tragedy of Errors. It has needed all the folly of England and all the folly of Ireland to produce the situation in which our unhappy country is now involved.”
On 14 July 1916 Kettle sailed for France, destined to partake in the battle of the Somme. If he had advocated enlistment, and more uncertainly conscription, he was under no illusion about the atrociousness of the Great War for which the governments of Germany and Austria - “the Blood-and-Ironmongers” - bore responsibility:
“Nations are at war on land and sea, and under and above both usque ad coelum et infernum. Millions of men have been marched to this Assize of Blood to be torn with shells and bullets, gutted with bayonets, tortured with vermin, to dig themselves into holes and grovel there in mud and fragments of the flesh of their comrades, to rot with disease, to go mad, and in the most merciful case to die.”
It is this intimation of barbarism that renders it apt that Patrick Healy’s translation of The Last Days of Mankind, the vast apocalyptic play by the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, published earlier this year in Amsterdam, should be dedicated to Lieut Kettle.
His contemporary Arthur Clery, quick to compare Kettle unfavourably to the executed leaders of the rising, wrote of him a few months after his death that “the idea of final sacrifice was as much a haunting desire with him as it was with Patrick Pearse”.
Kettle had no death-wish. He did have a marked presentiment he would not come back. In Dublin he made his adieux, and despatched further valedictions from the front. In his last letter to his brother Larry he wrote “I am calm and happy but desperately anxious to live”; he asked that his wife would write a memoir of him to serve as a preface to his war book.
What attests to Kettle’s strength of character was not simply his gallantry in combat, and the love he bore his men, which was mutual: “I have never seen anything in my life so beautiful as the clean and so to say radiant valour of my Dublin Fusiliers”. It is the incorrigible serenity of his prose in The Ways of War. In the most grotesque situation, he never ceased imaginatively to muse, and to write with a pathos edged with wit and self-irony. Of the phase of the war he termed “the Long Endurance”, he wrote of the trenches : “But this nibbling process works both ways. We nibble; they nibble. They are nibbled; we are nibbled. A few casualties every turn, another grating of the saw teeth of death and disease, and before very long a strong unit is weak”. The metaphor is carried forward in “Rhapsody on Rats”:
“You lie in your dug-out, famished, not for food (that goes without saying), but for sleep, and hear them scurrying up and down their shafts, nibbling at what they find, dragging scraps of old newspapers along, with intolerable cracklings, to bed themselves. They scurry across your blankets and your very face. Nothing suppresses their numbers...
“Men die and rats increase. I see just one defence that they can make: it is not they who invaded our kingdom, but we who invaded theirs. We descended, we even dug ourselves down to their level.”
Kettle deferred acceptance of a position back from the frontline. On December 8th he was ordered to take up position with his men opposite Ginchy, a village on a height of 500 feet near Delville Wood. He wrote that day to his brother: “Somewhere the Choosers of the Slain are touching, as in our Norse story they used to touch, with invisible wands those who are to die”.
The offensive began at five o’clock on the afternoon of September 9th 1916. Within 30 yards of Ginchy, which was successfully taken, Kettle was hit by a bullet that struck him in the upper chest, and possibly a second bullet as he tried to rise. He was buried by Welsh Guards in an unmarked grave.