‘The best friend I have in Ireland, I think’ – An Irishman’s Diary on James Joyce and Tom Kettle
Tom Kettle reviewed Joyce’s first published volume, Chamber Music, in the Freeman’s Journal on June 1st, 1907. It begins: “Those who remember University College life of some years back will have many memories of Mr Joyce.” It goes on to describe him as “wilful, fastidious, a lover of elfish paradoxes”.
Among the many who were grieved to learn of the futile death of Thomas Kettle at the Somme on September 9th, 1916, was James Joyce in Zurich. Kettle and he had been at one time close friends; although from 1912 on Joyce’s feelings towards him had changed considerably, there was still enough warmth there to induce him to write a letter of sympathy to Kettle’s widow, Mary Sheehy. Joyce knew Mary very well; at one time he was romantically interested in her, and the Sheehy family were reportedly relieved when she turned instead to the apparently more solid and reliable Kettle.
Joyce and Kettle probably first encountered each other during Joyce’s brief spell at the CBS O’Connell school in North Richmond Street in the early 1890s (Joyce’s letter refers to him as “my old school fellow”). But their first genuine interaction was at UCD, where both were prominent in the Literary and Historical Society. Kettle’s Catholicism was less repugnant to Joyce than that of many others, being much more intellectually based – they shared a strong interest in Aquinas. There were other affinities: Kettle’s strong European orientation would certainly have appealed to Joyce. And Kettle’s equally strong literary interests (he was himself a fine poet) naturally brought the two together.
Kettle reviewed Joyce’s first published volume, Chamber Music, in the Freeman’s Journal on June 1st, 1907. It begins: “Those who remember University College life of some years back will have many memories of Mr Joyce.” It goes on to describe him as “wilful, fastidious, a lover of elfish paradoxes”.
This reflects the general view of Joyce among his fellow students – he was known as “the Hatter”, after the Mad Hatter of Lewis Carroll. Joyce used phrases from this review, including the opening sentence, in the editorial that the ultimately treacherous journalist Robert Hand writes about the returned exile Richard Rowan in his play, Exiles, which may suggest a perception on his part of a certain edge to Kettle’s generally courteous and friendly assessment.
While Kettle and Joyce did not correspond much during Joyce’s time in Italy, they met on Joyce’s two trips back to Dublin in 1909 and again in 1912. Joyce’s visit of September 1909 represents probably the high point of their relationship. Joyce wrote back to Nora: “He [Kettle] is the best friend I have in Ireland, I think.” (Note that “I think”).
They had talked for four hours and there was a plan that Kettle, who had just got married, would visit Joyce in Trieste with his bride (this did not happen). There was also a possibility that Kettle, who by then was lecturing in UCD, might help Joyce gain a lectureship or examinership in Italian: this also came to nothing, though echoes of it persist in Exiles. The inevitable break came over the publication of Dubliners. During Joyce’s last, disastrous 1912 visit to Ireland, he became entangled in a bitter row with George Roberts of the firm of Maunsel, which had undertaken several years previously to publish the book. Now Roberts was digging his heels in and making multiple objections to the work as it stood. Every change Joyce very reluctantly offered was followed by a new demand.
In this crisis, he turned to Kettle for help, having good reason to believe that his old friend would have some influence with the recalcitrant publisher. Unfortunately, Kettle turned against the book with some vehemence. “I will slate that book,” he allegedly said, not an idle threat since Kettle was a very influential reviewer. He particularly objected to “An Encounter”, understanding the implications of the boy’s meeting with the elderly man straight away. Apparently when Joyce asked him if he was saying that he had never come across such a person, Kettle replied: “We have all met him” but this did not lessen his objections to the story. We have only Joyce’s side of the confrontation, but it does seem that some visceral dislike that these largely innocuous stories often seemed to occasion was aroused in the case of this sensitive, intellectual, patriotic barrister and academic also. As JB Lyons speculates, perhaps it was the Dublin setting of these sometimes seedy narratives that really upset him.