Thomas Michael "Tom" Kettle (9 February 1880 – 9 September 1916) was an Irish journalist, barrister, writer, poet, soldier, economist and Home Rule politician. As a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, he was Member of Parliament (MP) for East Tyrone from 1906 to 1910 at Westminster. He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913, then on the outbreak of World War I in 1914 enlisted for service in an Irish regiment where in 1916 he met his death on the Western Front.
He was one of the leading figures of the generation who at the turn of the twentieth century gave new intellectual life to Irish party politics, and to the constitutional movement towards All-Ireland Home Rule. The Great War brought both of these and his life to an end. A gifted speaker with an incisive mind and devastating wit, his death was regarded as a great loss to Ireland's political and intellectual life.
Thomas was the seventh of twelve children of Andrew J. Kettle (1833–1916) a progressive farmer, and founder of the Irish Land League, and his wife, Margaret, daughter of Laurence McCourt of St. Margaret’s Finglas, north co. Dublin, and was born in Clontarf, Dublin. His father was an exacting stern man, demanding and stubborn, influencing his son Thomas considerably through his political activities, having been involved from an early age in the constitutional movement to achieve Irish Home Rule. Andrew J. joined Michael Davitt in the foundation of the Irish Land League and was one of the signatories of the "No Rent Manifesto". He adhered to Parnell in his crisis of 1890, and stood for election as a nationalist candidate on several occasions.
Thomas was raised in comfortable rural surroundings. Like his brothers he was educated at the Christian Brothers O'Connell School at Richmond Street, Dublin. He excelled at school. Then from 1894 went to the Jesuits at Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare where he was mischievous, clever, quick-tempered and as “Tom”, known as a wit and a good debater. He enjoyed athletics, cricket and cycling and attained honours in English and French when leaving.
Entering University College Dublin in 1897, he was regarded as a charismatic student. Surrounded by ambitious and politically minded young men he quickly established himself as a leading student politician and a brilliant scholar. He was elected to the prestigious position of auditor of the Literary and Historical Society 1898-9. His friends and contemporaries at UCD included Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Oliver St. John Gogarty and James Joyce.
Very much an actionist, he distributed pro-Boer leaflets during the early months of the South African Second Boer War, and protested against the Irish Literary Theatre’s production of W.B. Yeats’ The Countess Kathleen in 1899. Due to illness he interrupted his studies in 1900, his health lifelong fragile. He went abroad to renew his spirits by travelling on the continent, improving his German and French. Returning to Dublin he renewed his studies, and in 1902 took a BA in mental and moral science.
He then read law after admission to the Irish Law bar in 1903, qualifying as a barrister in 1905. He practiced sporadically, devoting most of his time to political journalism. He maintained his contacts to University College and his fellow students, participating in debates, contributing to and becoming editor of the college newspaper. He helped to found the Cui Bono Club, a discussion group for recent graduates.
A vocal supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), Kettle strengthened his links with the constitutional movement by co-founding and becoming president of the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League in 1904. He attracted the attention of the Irish Party leader John Redmond. Kettle declined the offer to stand for a parliamentary seat, instead edited a newspaper, The Nationist, an unconventional weekly journal. The paper pursued an extreme pro-Irish Party line, at the same time reflecting Kettle’s liberal and often controversial views on a wide range of topics, education, women’s rights, the Irish Literary Revival. He resigned his editorship in 1905 on the grounds of a controversy about an allegedly anti-clerical article.
After the death in 1906 of Patrick Doogan, the MP for East Tyrone, Kettle accepted the candidature for the vacant parliamentary seat at the resulting by-election. He won the seat by a narrow majority of 18 votes, becoming one of the few young men to gain admission to the aging Irish Party in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, during the first two decades of the twentieth century.
Lauded as a future party leader, in late 1906 he went to America, participating in a number of propaganda and fund-raising meetings. In the House of Commons at Westminster he was renowned as an amusing and often caustic speaker, as a staunch supporter of the Irish Party and its constitutional path to Home Rule, also engaging in debates for the provision of higher education for Irish Catholics and on Ireland's economic condition.
He was deeply steeped in European culture. Kettle's ideal was an Ireland identified with the life of Europe. In "Ireland" he wrote,"My only programme for Ireland consists in equal parts of Home Rule and the Ten Commandments. My only counsel to Ireland is, that to become deeply Irish, she must become European."
In 1908 he was the first Professor of National Economics at University College Dublin, a constituent college of the new National University of Ireland. One of its liveliest spirits and increasingly busy and in demand as a speaker, he had difficulty combining academic work with his work as an MP. He was a popular professor and his genuine interest in economics reflected in a number of publications concerning financial issues. In 1911, he helped to establish the Legal & Economic Society of the University along with his fellow Professor Swift MacNeill. In September 1909 he married Mary Sheehy, a fellow graduate.
He retained his East Tyrone seat in the January 1910 general election but did not contest the second election in December. Even though out of parliament he remained an active IPP member publishing a number of essays reiterating his support for attaining Home Rule by constitutional means. He enthusiastically greeted the 1912 Home Rule Bill, likewise the removal of the veto power of the Lords. On the other hand he brusquely dismissed Unionist fears of the bill’s possible effects, giving the cause of Home Rule prevalence before all other considerations.
During the 1913 Dublin strike and lockout, unlike other contemporary middle-class commentators, he supported the striking workers and published a series of articles which revealed the terrible living and working conditions of Dublin’s poor, and was involved in the formation of a peace committee which endeavoured to negotiate a settlement between workers and employers.
At the same time he became deeply involved with the nationalist Irish Volunteers which he joined in 1913 spurned by Unionist resistance to Home Rule and their formation of the militant Ulster Volunteers. Kettle was sent by the Volunteers in 1914 on an arms raising mission to continental Europe where he witnessed at first hand the outbreak of World War I. He changed his assignment to being a war correspondent for the Daily News (London). Travelling through France and Belgium in August and September, he was horrified by the German atrocities against the local civilian population, warning against the dire threat to Europe of Prussian militarism. He wrote that "The outbreak of war caught me in Belgium, where I was running arms for the National Volunteers, and on the 6 of August 1914, I wrote from Brussels in the Daily News that it was a war of 'civilisation against barbarians'. I assisted for many weeks in the agony of the valiant Belgian nation."
With Ireland involved in the Great War he returned to Dublin and sided with Redmond’s National Volunteers, volunteering for active service with one of the Irish regiments, but was at first refused a commission on the grounds of fragile health. He received the rank of lieutenant restricted to voluntary recruiting throughout Ireland and England. He presented himself as an IPP candidate for a by-election in East Galway, though not selected his support for the party did not abate, continuing to advocate both home rule and voluntary recruitment, maintaining that Irishmen had a moral duty to join the allied stand against Germany. He asserted that "Having broken like an armed burglar into Belgium, Germany was there guilty of a systematic campaign of murder, pillage, outrage, and destruction, planned and ordered by her military and intellectual leaders."
By 1916 he had published more than ten books and pamphlets, contributed numerous articles to journals and newspapers on Irish politics, literary reviews, poetry and essays, philosophical treatises and translations from German and French. Although disillusioned with the way the war dragged on, he continued to apply to be sent to the Western Front on active service, when, with his health somewhat improved a commanding officer of the 16th (Irish) Division commissioned him into the 9th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
Appalling conditions in the trenches broke his health again. On sick leave in Dublin he refused offers of a permanent staff position and insisted on returning to his battalion. Before he finally left Ireland on 14 July 1916 he astutely prophesied that the Easter rebels of 1916 would be remembered as heroes while Irishmen serving in the European war would be deemed traitors. Kettle was furious with the rebels, feeling that they had spoiled his vision of an independent Ireland taking its proper place in Europe. But, according to his wife, "what really seared his heart was the fearful retribution that fell on the leaders of the rebellion."
It was as an Irish soldier in the army of Europe and civilisation that he entered the war. He was deeply steeped in European culture. Kettle’s ideal was an Ireland identified with the life in Europe ... he wrote "My only programme for Ireland consists in equal parts of Home Rule and the Ten Commandments. My only counsel to Ireland is, that to become deeply Irish, she must become European"; and later, "Used with the wisdom that is sown in tears and blood, this tragedy of Europe may be and must be the prologue to the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland, and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain."
In a farewell letter to his close friend Joseph Devlin he showed he had envisaged death and was ready: "I hope to come back. If not, I believe that to sleep here in the France that I have loved is no harsh fate, and that so passing out into silence, I shall help towards the Irish settlement. Give my love to my colleagues – the Irish people have no need of it."
He was killed leading a company of his men for whom he was "our Captain Tom", on 9 September 1916 at the hottest corner of the Ginchy fighting during the Battle of the Somme in France, having previously made the statement that he preferred to die out there for Ireland with his "Dubliners". He has no known grave.
He was widely acknowledged as the leading constitutional nationalist of his generation. But the radicalization of Irish politics and the denunciation of the men and women who had supported home rule and the war effort ensured that his fame faded together with the primacy of the constitutional agenda. An attempt to erect a commemorative portrait bust of Kettle was beset by controversy until it was finally placed – without official unveiling – in St. Stephen's Green Dublin. His name is inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial in France, a stone tablet commemorates him in the Island of Ireland Peace Park, Messines, Belgium, and he is listed on the bronze plaque in the Four Courts Dublin which commemorates the 26 Irish barristers killed in the Great War. Recently, the Literary and Historical Society (University College Dublin) have commenced an annual wreath laying ceremony to remember their fallen auditor.
At the time of his death a beautiful tribute to him appeared in the French journal L’Opinion, saying:
All parties bowed in sorrow over his grave, for in the last analysis they were all Irish, and they knew that in losing him, whether he was friend or enemy, they had lost a true son of Ireland. A son of Ireland? He was more. He was Ireland! He had fought for all the aspirations of his race, for Independence, for Home Rule, for the Celtic Renaissance, for a United Ireland, for the eternal Cause of Humanity . . . He died, a hero in the uniform of a British soldier, because he knew that the faults of a period or of a man should not prevail against the cause of right or liberty.
On 8 September 1909, Kettle married Mary Sheehy (born 1884), a fellow graduate of the Royal University, a suffragist, and like Kettle a member of a well known nationalist family (her father, David Sheehy, was a nationalist MP). Their daughter Elisabeth (Betty) was born in 1913.
Through his wife Mary's sisters he was connected by marriage to Francis Skeffington and Frank Cruise O'Brien, father of the Labour TD and Irish government minister, later UK Unionist Party politician, Conor Cruise O'Brien. Father Eugene Sheehy, a brother of David Sheehy, was the priest who educated Éamon de Valera in Limerick.
Kettle's best known poem is a sonnet, "To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God", written just days before his death. The last lines are an answer to those who criticised Irishmen for fighting in the British army saying that they "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." A less well-known poem, "Reason in Rhyme", was said by Kettle's friend, Robert Lynd, to represent "his testament to England as his call to Europeanism is his testament to Ireland."
- A Dictionary of Irish History since 1800, D. J. Hickey & J. E. Doherty , Gill & MacMillan (1980)
- Callinan SC, Frank (4 September 2006). "An Irish nationalist and our first European". The Irish Times.
- Cork Examiner 25 September 1916: from the Obituary of Tom Kettle's father Andrew Kettle, text in full in article on the latter
- The Ways of War, Memoir p.4, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle, T. M. Kettle.
- German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (1999) (2001) John Horne and Alan Kramer of D.U., Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-10791-9.
Detailed researched account of German atrocities perpetrated on the Belgian and French civilian population in Autumn 1914.
Winner of the Fraenkel Prize for Contemporary History in 2000
- The Ways of War, "Why Ireland fought" p. 72, T. M. Kettle.
- The Ways of War "Why Ireland fought" p. 69, T. M. Kettle
- The Ways of War Memoir p.31, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle
- The Ways of War Memoir, pp. 3, 4, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle
- The Ways of War "Why Ireland fought" p. 71, T. M. Kettle
- The Ways of War Memoir p. 34, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle
- The Way of War Memoir p. 33, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle
- Jim Haughey, The First World War in Irish Poetry, Bucknell University Press, 2002, p. 102
- The Ways of War Memoir p.42, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle
- The Day's Burden, Studies, Literary and Political (1910)
- Home Rule Finance. An Experiment in Justice (1911)
- Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science (1911
- The Open Secret of Ireland (1912)
- Poems and Parodies (1912)
- Irish Orators and Oratory (1915) editor
- Battle Songs of the Irish Brigades (1915)
- To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God (1916)
- The Ways of War (1917), reasons for serving in World War I (posthumous publication))
- An Irishman's Calendar, edited by Mary Kettle
- A Dictionary of Irish History since 1800, D. J. Hickey & J. E. Doherty, p. 279, Gill & MacMillan (1980)
- The enigma of Tom Kettle: Irish patriot, essayist, poet, British soldier J. B. Lyons (1983)
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography p. 459, Oxford University Press (2004). Oxford English Dictionary's official website
- Wigs and Guns, Irish Barristers and the Great War, Anthony B. Quinn, Four Courts Press (2005) ISBN 1-85182-935-0
Great War memorials
- Irish National War Memorial Gardens, Dublin.
- Island of Ireland Peace Park Messines, Belgium.
- Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval, France
- Menin Gate Memorial Ypres, Belgium.
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- Works by Thomas Kettle at Project Gutenberg
- Department of the Taoiseach: Irish Soldiers in the First World War
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
|Member of Parliament for East Tyrone
1906 – December 1910