Tom Kettle – poet, writer, war correspondent, visionary and barrister. The preface to his posthumously published book ‘The Ways of War’ states ‘Kettle was one of the most brilliant figures both in the Young Ireland and Young Europe of his time.’
Kettle was one of thousands of Irishmen who joined the British Army to fight for the freedom of small nations, but he had little time for England’s role in Ireland. As a student, he protested the playing of God Save the Queen at the conferring of Degrees. During the Boer War where many Irish died, he distributed anti-recruiting leaflets for a war that as so often happened saw Irish fight Irish.
In 1912, he was an early member of the fledgling Irish Volunteers and was in Belgium attempting to source arms for the nationalist cause when war broke out. His reaction to the German atrocities he witnessed inflamed him.
He wrote in August 1914 “This war is without parallel. Britain, France, Russia, enter it, purged from their past sins of domination. France is right now as she was wrong in 1870, England is right now as she was wrong in the Boer War, Russia is right now as she was wrong on Bloody Sunday.”
Kettle was also a visionary and one who saw Ireland not in a narrow nationalistic role as de Valera would try to define it, but one whose “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.” That truly was (unfortunately) a revolutionary concept when he wrote it in 1916.
“There is a vision of Ireland,” he wrote in 1915, “better than that which sees in it only a cockpit, or eternal skull-cracking Donnybrook Fair–a vision that sees the real enemies of the nation to be ignorance, poverty, disease; and turning away from the ashes of dead hatreds, sets out to accomplish the defeat of these real enemies. Out of this disastrous war, we may pluck, as France and Belgium have plucked, the precious gift of national unity.”
Kettle was a superb orator and political wit sometimes. During a second reading of one of the numerous Women’s Suffrage Bills, ‘Mr. Speaker,’ he said in his rich Dublin accent and almost drawling intonation, ‘they say that if we admit women here as members, the House will lose in mental power.’ He flung a finger round the packed benches: ‘Mr. Speaker,’ he continued, ‘it is impossible.’
One of his political opponents was a “brilliant calamity.”
In a beautiful tribute to him in a French journal, L’Opinion, the writer says: “All parties bowed in sorrow over his grave, for in 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.”
Just days before his death, Kettle wrote ‘The Gift of Love’, a poem for his infant daughter that he never saw.
‘The Gift of Love’
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 breast that was your baby’s throne
To dice with death, and, oh! They’ll give you rhyme
And reason; one will call the thing sublime,
And one 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.
Kettle is memorialised at the Island of Ireland Peace Park, Messine Belgium. A stone tablet features one of his quotes “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 sacred scripture of the poor.”
Photo: Tom Kettle Memorial, St Stephens Green, Dublin