One hundred years ago, Mary Sheehy Kettle was immersed in the promotion of her late husband's recently published posthumous collection of essays, The Ways of War (1917), featuring 21 essays by Tom Kettle and "a memoir by his wife Mary S. Kettle".
The story of The Ways of War illuminates the couple's little-known enduring partnership.
It also offers a glimpse of a remarkable Irishwoman as she endeavoured to vindicate the reputation of her husband and assert herself in her own right in post-1916 Ireland.
In Tom Kettle’s last letter to Mary Sheehy Kettle before he was killed in action in France, he changed his will to name his “dear wife and comrade” sole controller and beneficiary of any future publications of his writing – “as a compliment to her intellect as well as her love”. He sent her a hastily written note describing a volume of war essays he wished to be published, comprising new and previously published pieces.
Mary Sheehy (1884-1967) was from a prominent nationalist family – her father was elder Irish Party MP David Sheehy, and her sister was suffragist and Sinn Féin activist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington.
In 1909, Mary married Tom Kettle (1880-1916), then seen by many as a “rising star” – a young Irish Party MP (1906-1910), gifted journalist, essayist, orator and vocal advocate on social issues. Both belonged to an emerging, university-educated generation of progressive Catholics who looked forward to playing a leading role in the “new Ireland”.
While Ireland’s revolutionary turn gathered momentum they remained resolute adherents of constitutional nationalism.
Following news of her husband’s death, Mary Kettle spent many weeks seeking information and assistance in locating his remains, which ultimately proved impossible. She also sought involvement in the initiative to create a memorial to Tom Kettle, which would become mired in delays.
At the same time, she contacted Kettle's long-time friend, Robert Lynd, to begin the process of publication of The Ways of War. Literary editor at the Daily News, Lynd was most likely Mary's collaborator in assembling Tom's writing for the collection and author of the preface to the book.
Another writer and editor, Shane Leslie, a friend of Kettle's from his time as MP, strongly supported Mary's role as Kettle's literary executor. He wrote to her enthusiastically, "I hope that you will put together a memoir from his papers", and later negotiated the agreement to distribute The Ways of War in the US.
The lengthy “memoir” by Mary Kettle became a centrepiece of the publishers’ promotion of the book and attracted much praise at the time. She uses it to reassert her husband’s identity in post-1916 Ireland as a nationalist and “irrevocably and immutably Irish”.
She writes: “Tom Kettle’s idea was an Ireland identified with the life of Europe” and “England and English thought had nothing to do with his attitude to the war”.
In an interview in 1964, she reiterated that her husband “was a soldier in the European army, fighting for the freedom of small nations”.
Mary Kettle was a political protagonist in her own right. Two actions she took shortly after her husband was killed are revealing in this regard. In his last days, Kettle wrote a “Political Testament”, which he had asked to be widely disseminated. It contained a final plea for “home rule in Ireland”, an end to “martial law” and “amnesty for all Sinn Féin prisoners”. Mary wrote to dozens of newspapers asking them to publish it with her cover note. This assertive act of public alignment with a political position against the separatist tide contrasts with her second action.
On October 31st, 1916, The Irish Times reproduced Tom Kettle's poem "To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God". Two days later, the paper carried an apology to Mary Kettle, who had not given permission to print the poem, citing its "private character". The incident reveals how women are often required to assert their authority in order for it to be recognised; in this case, in relation to copyright. But it also suggests that, regardless of her personal feelings about the poem, possibly, she did not wish to be defined in public life by its gendered tropes as "abandoned" and a grieving widow.
Over her lifetime, Mary Kettle became a recognised public figure in Ireland, as a leading women's movement activist and determined champion of social and economic justice, especially on behalf of women and children. She served as an independent Dublin city councillor and was elected its first woman "chairman" in 1928. She was involved in the leading feminist organisations of her time, serving as chair of the Joint Committee of Women's Societies and Social Workers for over 25 years until 1961. The ongoing decade of centenaries is an apt time to recall and recognise the efforts of Mary Sheehy Kettle in building a more equal and democratic Ireland. Niamh Reilly is Established Professor of Political Science and Sociology at NUI Galway. Supported by the Irish Research Council New Foundations scheme 2017