In December 1917, “AE”, the writer George Russell, wrote “Salutation”, a poem of lament for those who had died in the conflicts of the preceding years. In his lines dedicated “To the Memory of Some I Knew Who are Dead and Who Loved Ireland,” AE commemorates six men, three of whom died for their participation in the Easter Rising in 1916 and three of whom died in the Great War. Read the names of those AE remembers, Padraig Pearse, Alan Anderson, Thomas McDonagh,Tom Kettle, James Connolly, and Willie Redmond, and for most students of Irish history, four of the names are immediately familiar. Pearse, McDonagh and Connolly were leaders of the Easter Rising, their names are still spoken every day, they have railway stations, streets, buildings, sports grounds named after them. Willie Redmond is remembered as brother of John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Nationalist party in Parliament. Tom Kettle has no shopping centre, nor station, nor stadium to recall his name, but, in the stanza of the poem dedicated to Kettle, Russell acknowledges the equality of Kettle’s sacrifice:
You who have fought on fields afar,
That other Ireland did you wrong
Who said you shadowed Ireland’s star,
Nor gave you laurel wreath nor song.
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.
Tom Kettle embodied contradictions and complexities of Irish history. Born in Artane in Dublin in 1880 and educated at Clongowes Wood school and University College, Dublin, he was the son of Andrew Kettle, a leading Land League activist. He became a barrister in 1905 and was elected Nationalist MP for East Tyrone in 1906. He was re-elected in the first general election of 1910, but did not stand in the second election that year, having been appointed to the Professorship of National Economics in UCD in 1908 and finding the roles difficult to combine.
Tom Kettle was as committed a nationalist as those whose names are more readily remembered. He joined the nationalist Irish Volunteers on their formation in 1913 and was in Belgium to procure arms for the Volunteers when the First World War broke out. Moved by what he had witnessed, Tom Kettle joined the British army, accepting a commission in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He was to be dismayed by the Easter Rising and by the subsequent executions. Although in poor health and offered a staff post, Kettle sought active service and was sent to France. In the third month of the battle of the Somme, Tom Kettle died at Ginchy on 9th September 1916.
Kettle’s best known poem captures a sense of loss and of being misunderstood; it anticipates a version of the history of Ireland where he and those who fought in the Great War would be pushed to the margins of history. Kettle has a moment of prescience as he sits in a trench on 4th September 1916 and writes, “To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God”
In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime,
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To dice with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
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.