Tom Kettle

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Thomas Kettle BL. in 1905

Thomas Michael "Tom" Kettle (9 February 1880 – 9 September 1916) was an Irish economist, journalist, barrister, writer, poet, soldier 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 the British Army, with which he was killed in action on the Western Front in the Autumn of 1916. He was a much admired old comrade of James Joyce,[1] who considered him to be his best friend in Ireland,[2] as well as the likes of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Oliver St. John Gogarty and Robert Wilson Lynd.

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. 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.[3]

As G. K. Chesterton surmised, "Thomas Michael Kettle was perhaps the greatest example of that greatness of spirit which was so ill rewarded on both sides of the channel [...] He was a wit, a scholar, an orator, a man ambitious in all the arts of peace; and he fell fighting the barbarians because he was too good a European to use the barbarians against England, as England a hundred years before has used the barbarians against Ireland".[4]

Family background[edit]

Thomas Kettle was born in Artane, Dublin,[5] the seventh of twelve children of Andrew J. Kettle (1833–1916), a leading Irish nationalist politician, progressive farmer, agrarian agitator and founding member of the Irish Land League,[6] and his wife, Margaret (née McCourt). One of his brothers was the industrial pioneer, Laurence Kettle.

Andrew Kettle influenced his son considerably through his political activities, having been involved from an early age in the constitutional movement to achieve Home Rule. Andrew joined Michael Davitt in the foundation of the Irish Land League and was one of the signatories of the "No Rent Manifesto". He had adhered to Parnell in the 1890 crisis, and stood for election as a nationalist candidate on several occasions.[7]

Early life[edit]

Thomas was raised in comfortable rural surroundings. Like his brothers he was educated at the Christian Brothers' O'Connell School at Richmond Street, Dublin, where he excelled. In 1894 he went to study with the Jesuits at Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare, known as a wit and a good debater. He enjoyed athletics, cricket and cycling and attained honours in English and French when leaving.

Thomas M. Kettle as a student at Clongowes Wood College

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, 1898-1899. His friends and contemporaries at UCD included Hugh Kennedy, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Oliver St. John Gogarty and James Joyce.[8]

Tom Kettle distributed pro-Boer leaflets during the early months of the South African Second Boer War, and protested against the Irish Literary Theatre production of Yeats' The Countess Cathleen in 1899 over its irreligious story of an unlikely kind-hearted aristocrat who sells her soul to save her tenants. Due to illness he interrupted his studies in 1900, his health always being 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.[citation needed]


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 Home Rule-seeking 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."[9]

Academic career[edit]

Thomas Michael Kettle

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. He was friends with Thomas MacDonagh, and wrote for his magazine The Irish Review. In 1911, he helped to establish the Legal & Economic Society of the university along with his fellow professor J.G. Swift MacNeill. In September 1909 he married Mary Sheehy, a fellow graduate who had been the muse of the adolescent James Joyce and is the model for the lead female character in Joyce's story Araby from his collection Dubliners, as well as Miss Ivors in his story The Dead from the same collection.[10]

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, this veto being the last obstacle to Home Rule. 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.

Irish Volunteers[edit]

During the 1913 Dublin strike and lockout, unlike other contemporary upper-class commentators, he supported the locked out 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 Irish Volunteers, a group arming for the fight for Irish independence, which he joined in 1913 spurred 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-buying mission to Belgium 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,[11] warning against the dire threat to Europe of Prussian militarism. Kettle 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."[12]

World War I service[edit]

With Ireland having become embroiled in the Great War Kettle returned to Dublin. On arrival back home he sided with the National Volunteers in a split between those for whom Irish independence was all, and those who chose Redmond's constitutional road in believing in His Majesty's Government's undertaking of a restoration self-government to Ireland in its domestic affairs, temporarily deferred in 1914 until the war's end, and who were also concerned about matters beyond Ireland's shores alone with the fate of Europe's future in the 20th Century now being decided.

He volunteered for active service with one of the Irish regiments, but was at first refused a commission on the grounds of fragile health. He subsequently received one with the rank of lieutenant, but restricted to voluntary recruiting duties throughout Ireland and England. He applied to be an Irish Parliamentary Party candidate for a by-election in East Galway, and though not selected his support for the party did not abate, continuing to advocate both home rule and voluntary enlistment with the British Arms, maintaining that Irishmen had a moral duty to join the allied stand against the tyranny of the II Reich. He asserted that "Having broken like an armed burglar into Belgium, Germany was thereby guilty of a systematic campaign of murder, pillage, outrage, and destruction, planned and ordered by her military and intellectual leaders."[13]

By 1916 Kettle 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 at times melancholy at the war's immense escalating intensity across Europe, consuming ever more men and causing destruction to its nations, he continued to apply to be sent to the Western Front on active service, until, with his health somewhat improved, he was offered a commission into the 9th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, amidst the 16th (Irish) Division, becoming a close acquaintance of Emmet Dalton serving at the front in the same battalion.[14]

The appalling conditions in the trenches broke his health again. He was also beginning to rely too heavily on alcohol in this period as a psychological palliative.[15] Whilst back in Dublin briefly for a spell of sick leave he rejected offers of a permanent staff position, and insisted on returning to his Battalion in the line. Before he finally left Ireland on 14 July 1916 he predicted that the Easter revolutionaries of 1916 would be lionized as patriots in the near future of Ireland's history, whilst those who had fought with the British Arms in the World War 1 would be condemned. Kettle was irate with the political actions of Fenian Revolutionary faction who had staged the failed revolt at Easter in Dublin, feeling that they were marring Constitutional Nationalism's long worked for strategy of the rebirth of a sovereign Irish state finding its place amidst the nations in a civilized fashion, with good spirit amidst its neighbours of the British Isles. However, according to his wife, "what really seared his heart was the fearful retribution that fell on the leaders of the rebellion."[16] "I would have died for Thomas MacDonagh!" he is said to have stated on his last day in Ireland.[17]

Thomas Kettle Memorial

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";[18] 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."[19]

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."[20]


Kettle was killed in action with 'B' Company of the 9th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in an attack on German lines on 9 September 1916, near the village of Ginchy during the Somme Offensive in France. During the advance Kettle was felled when the Dublin Fusiliers were 'struck with a tempest of fire', and having risen from the initial blow, he was struck again and killed outright.[21] His body was buried in a battlefield grave by the Welsh Guards, but the grave was subsequently lost trace of.[22] His name is etched on the monumental arched gateway for the missing of the Somme at Thiepval. He was in his 36th year.

The poet, George William Russell, wrote about Kettle, comparing his sacrifice with those who led the 1916 Rising:

You proved by death as true as they,
In mightier conflicts played your part,
Equal your sacrifice may weigh
Dear Kettle of the generous heart.[23]


The erection of a commemorative bronze bust of Kettle in Dublin was beset by controversy due to the antipathy of the State authorities post-Independence towards Irishmen who had fought in World War 1, but it was finally raised, albeit without an official unveiling, in St. Stephen's Green.[24][25] A stone tablet commemorates him in the Island of Ireland Peace Park, at 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. Kettle is commemorated on Panel 1 of the Parliamentary War Memorial in Westminster Hall, one of 22 MPs that died during World War I to be named on that memorial.[26][27] A further act of commemoration came with the unveiling in 1932 of a manuscript-style illuminated book of remembrance for the House of Commons, which includes a short biographical account of the life and death of Kettle.[28][29]

The Literary and Historical Society (University College Dublin) has historically held an annual wreath-laying ceremony at the bust in St. Stephen's Green.[30]

The UCD Economics Society has also named their life membership award in memory of Thomas Kettle. Notable recipients include Irish Central Bank Governor Patrick Honohan and Peter Sutherland former Director-General of The World Trade Organisation

The 153rd session of the Literary and Historical Society UCD remembering their fallen auditor

At the time of his death a tribute to him appeared in the French journal L'Opinion:

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.[31]


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. Tom and Mary Kettle had one child, a daughter, Elisabeth ("Betty"), who was born in 1913.[citation needed]

Tom Kettle was also the brother-in-law (by his wife, the former Mary Sheehy) of both Francis Skeffington and the journalist 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 a priest, president of the local branch of the Irish National Land League at Kilmallock and founder member of the Gaelic Athletic Association.[citation needed]


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."[32] 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."[33]

Dublin Four Courts Plaque inscribed: In Memory of the Irish Barristers who fell in the Great War 1914-1918. The list includes the name of Thomas Kettle
House of Commons London panel commemoration Thomas M. Kettle killed


  1. ^ Joyce and Company By David Pierce (London:2006) p152
  2. ^ Conor, Volume I: A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien: Volume I ..., Volume 2 By Donald Harman Akenson (Canada:1994) p49
  3. ^ A Dictionary of Irish History since 1800, D. J. Hickey & J. E. Doherty , Gill & MacMillan (1980)
  4. ^ Walking Like A Queen - Irish Impressions By G. K. Chesterton (2008 Tradibooks edition, France) p90.
  5. ^ One of several sources which give Artane as Tom Kettle's place of birth; accessed 16 June 2014.
  6. ^ Callinan, Frank (4 September 2006). "An Irish nationalist and our first European". The Irish Times. 
  7. ^ Cork Examiner, 25 September 1916: from Andrew Kettle's obituary (text in full in article on the latter)
  8. ^
  9. ^ The Ways of War, Memoir p.4, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle, T. M. Kettle.
  10. ^
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ The Ways of War, "Why Ireland fought" p. 72, T. M. Kettle.
  13. ^ The Ways of War "Why Ireland fought" p. 69, T. M. Kettle
  14. ^ Turtle Bunbury, The Glorious Madness, Tales of The Irish and The Great War, Tom Kettle and Emmet Dalton;
    Mad Guns and Invisible Wands, p.105, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin 12 (2014) ISBN 978 0717 16234 5
  15. ^
  16. ^ The Ways of War Memoir p.31, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle
  17. ^ The Enigma of Tom Kettle by John Benignus Lyons
  18. ^ The Ways of War Memoir, pp. 3, 4, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle
  19. ^ The Ways of War "Why Ireland fought" p. 71, T. M. Kettle
  20. ^ The Ways of War Memoir p. 34, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle
  21. ^ 'Tom Kettle, the death of an Irish Nationalist & British Soldier', 'Century Ireland' website.
  22. ^ 'Tom Kettle, in memory, 100 years after death at the Somme', 'The Irish Times', 9 September 1916.
  23. ^ Ambassador Mulhall's lecture at the University of Cardiff (2015) -
  24. ^ 'Tom Kettle: In memory, 100 years after death at the Somme', 'The Irish Times', 9 September 2016.
  25. ^ Burke, Tom (Autumn 2004). "In Memory of Lieutenant Tom Kettle, 'B' Company, 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers". Dublin Historical Record. 57 (2): 164–173. JSTOR 30101500. 
  26. ^ "Recording Angel memorial Panel 1". Recording Angel memorial, Westminster Hall. UK Parliament ( Retrieved 31 August 2016. 
  27. ^ "List of names on the Recording Angel memorial, Westminster Hall" (pdf). Recording Angel memorial, Westminster Hall. UK Parliament ( Retrieved 31 August 2016. 
  28. ^ "House of Commons War Memorial: Final Volumes Unveiled by The Speaker". The Times (46050). London. 6 February 1932. p. 7. 
  29. ^ Moss-Blundell, Edward Whitaker, ed. (1931). The House of Commons Book of Remembrance 1914–1918. E. Mathews & Marrot. 
  30. ^ See The Literary and Historical Society 1955-2005, ed. Frank Callanan, pub. A&A Farmar, (picture inset 16)
  31. ^ The Way of War (memoir) by Mary (Sheehy) Kettle, p. 33
  32. ^ Jim Haughey, The First World War in Irish Poetry, Bucknell University Press, 2002, p. 102
  33. ^ 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


Great War memorials[edit]

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Patrick Doogan
Member of Parliament for East Tyrone
1906December 1910
Succeeded by
William Redmond