FEATURE: Tom Kettle’s words of war
By Ed Mulhall
‘Tom Kettle was horrified first by the Rising and then by the executions which followed the Rising. When he came to meet his beloved daughter, she fled from his presence. He was wearing his British uniform and soldiers wearing that uniform had searched Betty's home and sharply interrogated her. Tom, plunged in deep grief by all this, felt bound to resume his command in France. He clearly wished for death and he soon found it at Ginchy, in France.’
Conor Cruise O'Brien, then 89, was speaking to a crowded House of Lords chamber in College Green, Dublin on 7 September 2006. His story, told from family recollections, brought together in human terms the great conflict of many Irish nationalists in 1916. The occasion, a seminar on Tom Kettle, was organised by the RTÉ journalist Gerald Barry and the barrister and historian Frank Callanan. They both felt Kettle a neglected figure in Irish history and short papers by O'Brien, Brendan Walsh, Margaret O'Callaghan, Patrick Maume and by Callanan himself sought to open a discussion on how a study of Kettle’s life and work could contribute to showing that his importance was not just about the manner in which his life ended. The level of attendance was, Barry said ‘a mark of the living respect for a fascinating man whose flaws were easily outweighed by his remarkable gifts.’ A message to the meeting from President MacAleese put the study of Kettle in the context of a more mature Ireland, that works to resolve conflicts and where there can be ‘a culture of understanding and respect both for those who went away to fight in that war as well as those who fought in the War of Independence at home.’ She also quoted from Kettle's final poem to his daughter Betty, written on the battlefield, whose poignancy and moral justification of his sacrifice, ‘not for King nor Kaiser’, became his main legacy. But for all the condensed emotion of that parting gift, Kettle, in his final weeks, sought in other ways to bring meaning to his life's work, by word and deed, for the family he loved and the ideals he believed in.
By April 1916 Tom Kettle was a frustrated figure. He had been a brilliant student, a classmate of James Joyce and Francis Sheehy Skeffington, a friend of Padraig Colum and Patrick Pearse. He had become a barrister, an MP for the Irish Party, a professor of Economics in UCD and he worked as journalist and writer. In marrying Mary Sheehy he had joined the family of MP David Sheehy, with Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Margaret Culhane and Kathleen Cruise O’Brien as sisters-in-law. He had been actively involved in the suffrage movement, a part of the peace committee formed to solve the 1913 Lockout, a founding member of the Irish Volunteers and a strong proponent of Home Rule. A renowned debater, he was regularly involved in major political controversies challenging, on the one hand Carson and Ulster Unionism, and on the other Patrick Pearse and militant nationalism. Both his public career and his family life were challenged by his often erratic behavior due to a problem with alcohol. When the First World War began, he was in Belgium buying arms for the Irish Volunteers. What he witnessed there - he later wrote of the atrocities committed by German forces as they invaded - made him an ardent supporter of John Redmond's decision to support the war.
His support for the war was a moral one but he also saw it as serving a political purpose for Ireland. He came to the war with a European perspective and did not see it as support for England. Before the war he had written: ‘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.’ This was a European cause. He was burning with indignation against Prussia after what he had seen in Belgium. But when the war began and with Carson and Redmond putting aside their differences over Home Rule to support Britain, he saw it as an opportunity for Ireland too: ‘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.’
He joined the army becoming a lieutenant in the Dublin Fusiliers and was assigned to recruiting duties in England and Ireland where he often clashed with those opposed to recruitment including his brother-in-law the pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington and those in the Irish Volunteers who had split from Redmond and who were led by Eoin MacNeill. Despite his convictions and visits to the battlefield as a war journalist he was not deemed fit for active duty - in all probability due to alcohol difficulties.
In 1916, he had considered retiring from the Army on health grounds but instead sought to deal with his health issues in a determined way and to seek an active posting. Both he and many on his behalf engaged in correspondence with his superior officer Colonel Hammond, assuring him of Kettle's determination to be a successful field officer. Kettle’s brother Lawrence made a last appeal to Hammond on 4 April 1916. This time he was successful and Kettle learned he would be commissioned for overseas duty. He was home in Newtown St Margaret’s (though officially stationed in Newbridge Co. Kildare) when he got the news and he wrote back to Colonel Hammond on 24 April: ‘I cannot easily express the thanks that I owe you. You have treated me with extraordinary kindness. You will see that your kindness was not squandered on a fool who couldn’t or wouldn’t profit. I have got so clear of the vice that had me at the point of ruin that I do not even understand how it all happened. At all events I have taken a total abstinence pledge and have been keeping it. I would be grateful if you could convey my sincere thanks to General Friend but I recognise of course that it is to you that I am primarily indebted and I will never forget it.’ It was Easter Monday and in another part of the city the Rising had begun.
It is clear that the Rising stunned Kettle. A remark attributed to him by his friend W.G. Fallon on the Easter Tuesday has him uncertain: ‘the circumstances of this rebellion are so peculiar that one does not know which side one ought to join.’ Another friend, Robert Lynd, who talked with him during the following weeks, is more emphatic: ‘He was aghast at the insurrection; he fought in the streets of Dublin to suppress it. But he was equally aghast at the manner of its suppression.’ It seems unlikely that Kettle was involved in any fighting during Easter week. His letter to Col. Hammond on the Monday says that he has an injured foot and will not be able to go to barracks until the following Friday. Eugene Sheehy, Mary’s brother in the army, was involved and Kettle’s brother Laurence was held prisoner for a time during the week by the Citizen Army. Lynd continued: ‘He spoke at one moment with indignation and mockery of those whom he had fought as enemies and the next with a curious reverence of men who had died with so unflinching a heroism. He was bitter that they had murdered his dream of Ireland peopled not only by good Irishmen but by good Europeans.’ Kettle knew many of the rebels, including the main leaders. He was friends with Pearse and had hotly debated nationalism with him. (Most notably in 1915 at a Thomas Davis centenary meeting, which had been banned and moved from Trinity College, where he dressed in his military uniform had debated with Pearse and Yeats) The execution of his UCD colleague Thomas MacDonagh moved him greatly. When Arthur Clery met him ‘his whole conversation was of MacDonagh and the others who had been put to death and the fortitude that they showed. He felt very bitterly and spoke of their fate with wistfulness.’ He said of MacDonagh to Lynd: ‘I would gladly have given my life for him.’
His wife Mary Kettle was in no doubt as to his attitude: ‘With the rebellion he had no sympathy - indeed it made him furious. He used to say bitterly that they had spoiled it all - spoiled his dream of a free united Ireland in a free Europe. But what really seared his heart was the fearful retribution that fell on the leaders of the rebellion…the only thing madder than the insurrection was the manner of its suppression…my husband felt after the disaster of Easter week more than ever committed to the attitude that he had taken up.’
But the death that most affected him that week was the murder of his college friend and Mary’s brother-in-law, Francis Sheehy Skeffington. The death consumed the family. Mary was out with her sisters searching for news for days after his execution and the family was united in seeking a full investigation. Mary and her other sister Margaret were briefly arrested by Captain Colthurst when they went to Portobello barracks. Mary later described Colthurst as having the ‘cold cruel look that goes with an unimaginative nature.’ Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s widow’s house was raided by soldiers on two occasions. It was the aftermath of these raids that prompted the story recalled by Conor Cruise O’Brien. In another account he makes clear that Kettle’s daughter Betty was playing with Sheehy Skeffington’s son Owen at Hanna’s house when Tom Kettle arrived. Owen had been present for the first and most violent raid. Betty stayed regularly in Hanna’s house. Both children had fled from Tom Kettle in his soldier’s uniform. Lynd said the murder of Skeffington ‘has especially sunk into his soul as a monstrous and incredible cruelty.’ Mary felt the death placed a ‘deep gloom on his spirit’. Kettle wrote an obituary notice while in camp where he said the clouds would never lift:
‘He was to me the good comrade of many hopes, and though the ways of this scurvy and disastrous world led us apart, he remained to me an inextinguishable flame. This agitator, this public menace, this disturber was wholly emancipated from egoism, and incapable of personal hatred. …Strangest of all, he who turned away from soldiers left to all soldiers an example of courage in death to which there are not many parallels. This brave and honourable man died to the rattle of musketry, his name will be recalled to the ruffle of drums.’
Kettle, though now preparing to leave, was involved in some significant events which followed the rising. He gave evidence on Eoin MacNeill’s behalf at his court-martial. Eoin MacNéill was a colleague of Kettle’s from UCD and Kettle had assisted in drawing up the manifesto of the Irish Volunteers. In fact it was the text attributed to Kettle that was read out in the charge sheet at the court martial. Kettle appeared at the military court, which was chaired by Colonel Blackadder. He said of MacNeill that ‘he was the last man in the world that one would associate with anything revolutionary.’ Kettle who appeared in military uniform, had an uncomfortable cross-examination from Blackadder and William Wylie, who was prosecuting, and MacNeill who had been charged with inciting disaffection amongst the population, was declared guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Kettle attended important meetings of the Irish Party and its supporters called to ratify the agreement of the Party to proposals made by the Government to implement Home Rule. These had arisen from discussions between Lloyd George and the main party leaders in the aftermath of the Rising. The proposals, which were accepted reluctantly by Carson and Redmond, were that Home Rule be enacted for 26 counties with the 6 remaining under direct Westminster rule, with parliamentary representation retained and the situation to be reviewed after the war. The proposals were put to Unionist and Nationalist meetings in July before eventually failing due to opposition by southern Ireland Unionists led by Lord Lansdowne. Kettle spoke on 3 July at the National Directory of the National Irish League in favor of acceptance. John J. Horgan met him there: ‘The tragedy of the Rebellion was still with him. He told me he was on leave in Dublin from the Curragh when it broke out, and how he felt the horror of his position as an Irish soldier. That horror was intensified through the brutal murder of his wife’s brother in law.’ Kettle, ever the economist, used a financial analogy: ‘if a very needy and somewhat dishonest individual owed you £32 and when you proceeded to sue him found that he had squared the judge and packed the jury, but at the last moment had offered you £26 on account, what ought you do? I am but a poor lawyer but I should strongly advise you to accept the money without prejudice.’ It was his last political speech; he left for France on 14 July. Just before he left he spoke with friends at the sea-side in Bettystown saying of the Rebellion: ‘These men will go down to history as heroes and martyrs and I will go down - if I go down at all - as a bloody British soldier.’ His parting words to friends James O’Brien and Louis Courtney outside the Gresham Hotel on the eve of departure were ‘I go, never to return.’
From his departure to his death, Tom Kettle, in a remarkable series of letters, charted his experience of war, his premonition of death and his hope for his legacy. On the ship as he left Ireland for France he wrote:
‘However amusing the comedy may have been, wrote Pascal, there is always blood in the fifth act. They scatter a little dust in your face and then it is all over for ever’. Blood there may be but blood does not necessarily mean tragedy. The wisdom of humility bids us pray that in the fifth act we may have good lines and a timely exit’ but fine and feeble, there is a comfort in breaking the parting word into two significant halves, a Dieu. Since life has been a constant slipping from one good-bye to another, why should we fear that sole good-bye which promises to cancel all its forerunners?’
In France there was not much time to settle in. The Battle of the Somme which had begun on 1 July 1916 had already seen massive casualties amongst the Irish Regiments and little progress. However, the courage and calibre of the men he was with impressed Kettle from the beginning. He wrote to Colonel Hammond:
‘What has moved and impressed me most, I think, is the spirit of the men and their confidence in their commander. Courage or rather heroism is the commonest commonplace to them. If I live longer with them I shall begin to get near their standard. It is an amazing experience this living on a lease renewable from hour to hour or even minute to minute. If I come through, which in my individual case is doubtful enough I will assuredly face life in a new way.’
He wrote home to his wife on 19 July: ’It is a grim and awful job, and no man can feel up to it the waste- the science of waste and bloodshed! How my heart loathes it and yet it is God’s only way to Justice…
The following week he moved forward into the fire trenches. He wrote to Mary on 24 July:
‘…This is the afternoon of my second day in the fire trench. My ears are becoming a little more accustomed to the diabolism of sound, but it remains terrible beyond belief. This morning as I was shaving, the enemy began to find us and dropped aerial torpedoes, shells and a mine right on top of our dug-out. Nobody was hurt, thank God. The strain is terrible. It continues from hour to hour and minute to minute. It is indeed an ordeal to which human nature itself is hardly equal.
What impresses and moves me above all is the amazing faith, patience and courage of the men. To me it is not a sort of looking down on but rather a looking up to appreciation of them. I pray and pray and am afraid! - they go quietly and heroically on. God bless them and make me less inferior to them.’
He wrote to Colonel Hammond again on 29 July about his role as an officer:
‘There are a great many things I do not know and a great many qualities I lack but I can get on with Irishmen and keep them in good temper. ...Am happy too in a sort of way that knowing what was ahead, I had the grace, I won’t say the courage, to do my duty. You will never know, being an instructor and old soldier, how hard it is for a man of my temperament and - lest you think that my nerves are exaggerating that random way in which death comes - I should say that two young officers in the lines in which we are this afternoon have already been killed… ‘
But his thoughts were also with the Ireland he has left:
‘For myself I am certain that unless Justice comes to Ireland, England will not win this war, and it is not worthy to win it. I have always thought, too, that the tone of some of the English papers, and the attempt to transform this from a war for honour into a war for trade were unholy things. Our Irish comrades at any rate did not die that new Birminghams might rise.’
Still in the trenches on 4 August he wrote home to a friend with a scrap of paper instructing that his will be changed and his wife Mary made his literary executer. He asked that a book be republished and dedicated to her: ‘Mary, my wife and comrade’. And to the friend J.J. O’Meara he gave a graphic description of life in the trenches:
‘Would you mind separating the above from the sheet and adding it to my will which you already have? I came from Westland Row practically directly to the front line and have been there ever since. Anybody who tells you he likes it may be fit to sign an affidavit but the truth is not in him. Chalk, lime, condensed milk, diabolical torturing’s of the air with unimaginable noise, and blood - too much of it - enforce my main experience. We sleep on sandbags and four ammunition boxes each. And the accompaniments, 'the bedfellows', the neighbours of sleepless nights! Like France I am an invaded country. The Royal Wurtenberg machine gun corps of mosquitos co-operate in a vigorous offensive with the Silesian Line and the the Third Division Frankfurt Ants, while the Prussian Rats Guards of the Imperial Austrian Mouserangers lent for the occasion distinguish themselves by sporadic raids. I hear one of my colleagues chanting softly to himself a composition of mine:
Take me from the dim of conflict
To some green and quiet shore’
He moved out of the front line on 7 August and into the reserve trenches. Writing to a friend H.L. McLaughlin who had sent him some provisions he reflected on the situation at home and how close they came to agreement on the Lloyd George plan:
‘About things in Ireland. You may not be entirely happy in the consciousness that you and I did exactly the right thing. The Sinn Féin nightmare upset me a little, but then if you tickle the ear of a short tempered Elephant with a pop-gun, and he walks on you that is a natural concentration of events. We took the side of justice, we did the right thing, we helped to bring the North and South together, you made your sacrifices and I mine, and __our work remains__. If I return I count on doing some little work in exactly the direction you have in mind. The superb work of the Ulster Division and the changed attitude of Sir Ed. C.fills me with cheerfulness. Does it not seem exactly as if the right thing happened at last, as if English Statesmanship had thrown down its cards, and left the two great Irish Parties to come to a settlement? Your Brother's blood is heavy sacrifice enough, and I meet here at every turn men who would not be here but for the labours of you and the organisation you created.
I myself am quite extraordinarily happy. If it should come my way to die I shall sleep well in the France I have always loved, and shall know that I have done something towards bringing to birth the Ireland one has dreamed of. ‘
He wrote to his wife on 10 August:
‘If God spares me I shall accept it as a special mission to preach love and peace for the rest of my life. If he does not, I know now in my heart that for anyone who is dead but who has loved enough, there is provided some way of piercing the veils of death and abiding close to those whom he has loved till that end which is the beginning. I want to live, too, to use all my powers of thinking, writing and working to drive out of civilization this foul thing called war and to put in its place understanding and comradeship…’
As the month of August wore on the conditions and pressure of life in the trenches began to take their toll on his health:
‘Physically I am having a heavy time, I am doing my best but I see better men than me dropping out day by day and wonder if I shall ever have the luck or grace to come home.’
‘The heat is bad and the insects and the rats, but the moral strain is positively terrible. It is not that I am not happy in a way - a poor way- but my heart does long for a chance to come home.’
He wrote to his colleague the MP Joe Devlin:
‘as you know the character of the fighting has charged; it is no longer a question of serving one’s apprenticeship in a trench with intermittent bursts of leaving cover and pushing right on. It is Mons backwards with endless new obstacles to cross. Consequently, our offensive must go on without a break. This means of course the usual extraction in blood. You will have noticed by now how high the price is and all Irish Regiments have front places at the performance. So you see I have no certainty in coming back. I passed through as everyone of sense does, a sharp agony of separation. If I were an English poet like Rupert Brook I should call it, no doubt, the Gethsemane before the climb up the Windy Hill, but phrase making seems now a very dead thing to me - but now it is almost over and I feel calm. I hope to come back. If not, I believe that to sleep here in the France I have loved is no harsh fate, and that so passing out into the silence, I shall help toward the Irish settlement. Give my love to my colleagues- the Irish people have no need of it.’
The Royal Dublin Fusiliers were now moved to the north of the Somme and the battles to gain Guillemont and Ginchy. The battle for Guillemont began with a massive shelling bombardment on 3 September; the main attack began at 12 o’clock. Guillemont was secured by the following morning. Lieutenant Tom Kettle fought through the battle. Dated on the morning of 3 September, ‘in the field’, Kettle wrote a list of those to whom he wanted final messages to be sent, friends, political colleagues, family. He wrote under the heading ‘Literary’ instructions for his literary estate: his wish that a book of his writings be published called The Ways of War and instructions as to what it should contain; that his verse be published in a ‘separate little volume’ and that his re-publications should contain chapters of his previous books especially An Open Secret. But he wanted its circulation to be better organised as ‘I have friends in any town land in Ireland who do not usually buy books but would buy mine’.
He wrote a political statement he wished to be published in the newspapers after his death titled ‘Political’. It read in full:
‘Had I lived I had meant to call my next book on the situation of Ireland and England: The Two Fools, A Tragedy of Errors. It has needed all the folly of England and all the folly of Ireland to produce the situation in which our unhappy country is now involved.
I have mixed much with Englishmen and with Protestant Ulstermen and I know that there is no real or abiding reason for the gulf, salter than the sea, that now dismembers the natural alliance of both of them with us Irish Nationalists. It needs only a Fiat Lux of a kind very easily compressed to replace the unnatural by the natural.
In the name, and by the seal, of the blood given in the last two years I ask for Colonial Home Rule for Ireland. A thing essential in itself, and essential as a prologue to the reconstruction of the Empire. Ulster will agree.
And I ask for the immediate withdrawal of martial law in Ireland and an amnesty for all Sinn Féin Prisoners. If this war has taught us anything it is that great things can be done only in a great way.’
Finally, in the field on 3 September he wrote to his wife, a letter cluttered with instructions at top and bottom, but containing his own plea for redemption:
(Note on top)
‘I am leaving somewhere in this book a political testament which I want published and directions as to the publication of the things I wrote you a long detailed advice earlier but you do not seem to have got it.
To Mrs.M.S. Kettle, 119 Upper Leeson St. Dublin.
My Dearest Wife
The long expected is now close at hand. I was at Mass & Communion this morning at 6.00, the camp is broken up, and the column is about to move. It is no longer indiscreet to say we are to take part in one of the biggest attacks of the war. Many will not come back. Should that be God's design for me you will not receive this letter until afterwards. I want to thank you for the love and kindness you spent and all but wasted on me. There was never in all the world a dearer woman or a more perfect wife and adorable mother. My heart cries for you and Betty who I may never see again. I think even that it is perhaps both that I should not see you again. God bless and help you! If the last sacrifice is ordained think that in the end I wiped out all the old stains. Tell Betty her daddy was a soldier and died as one. My love, now at last clean will find a way to you.
Ever your husband Tom
In the Field Sept. 3 1916
(Note on end)
I withdraw the assignation of Prof. Magenniss with my wife in the publication of any of my writings. I leave all to her as a compliment to her intellect as well as her love. T M Kettle 9/RDubFus.
(Witnesses) MH Boyle Jas Carrick LSN’
The following day, 4 September, in a field before Guillemont, after the previous day’s battle, he left a poem for his daughter. In his papers it comes in two forms. A handwritten one has this extract:
To my daughter Betty
In wiser days when you my rose-bud blown
Is rose as perfect as your mother's prime
Learn my desertion, leaving you alone,
And how I broke our life before our time,
You will ask of my madness: ‘Wherefore thus?’
There is a possibility that the shorter piece could have been drafted with the other letters the previous day. There is no doubt about the second, complete poem in a typed format and dated:
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 you baby's one
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 man 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.
In the field before Guillemont,
Sept. 4, 1916.
In the following days Kettle moved with his unit from Guillemont to Trores Wood and prepared for their next advance which would be at Ginchy. He wrote to his brother John on 8 September 1916. He asked that he wife should write a short memoir of him for the book he planned paying tribute to her intellect and skill. He continued:
‘if I live I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace. I have seen war and faced modern artillery, and know what an outrage it is against simple men. We are moving tonight into the Battle of the Somme. The bombardment, destruction and bloodshed are beyond all imagination, nor did I ever think the valour of simple men could be quite as beautiful as that of my Dublin Fusiliers. I have had two chances of leaving them - one on sick leave and one to take a staff job. I have chosen to stay with my comrades.
I am calm and happy but desperately anxious to live…The big guns are coughing and smacking their shells, which sound for all the world like over-head express trains, at anything from 10 to 100 per minute on this sector; the men are grubbing and an odd one is writing home. Somewhere the Choosers of the Slain are touching, as in our Norse story they used to touch, with invisible wands those who are to die….’
On 19 September Mary Kettle received the following telegram: ‘19 Sept War Office Telegram. Deeply regret to inform you Lieut T M Kettle was killed in action sept 9 the army council express their sympathy.’ A letter from his commander Colonel Tackery followed three days later: ‘I am writing to console with you in great loss which you have sustained in the death of your husband. He met his death gallantly leading his company in a victorious attack on the Germans. He was hit by a bullet and his death was instantaneous. With my deepest sympathy in your great loss.’
Tom Kettle was 36 years old.
Over the next two months, Mary Kettle got more details of what happened to her husband. A staff officer gave this account to the Press Association of Tom Kettle at Guillemont and Ginchy:
‘He was in the thick of the hard fighting in the Guillemont-Ginchy region. I saw him at various stages of the fighting. He was enjoying it like any veteran though it cannot be denied that the trade of war, and the horrible business of killing one’s fellows was distasteful to a man with his sensitive mind and kindly disposition. In the Guillemont fighting I caught a glimpse of him for a brief spell. He was in the thick of a hard struggle, which had the object of dislodgment of the enemy from a redoubt they held close to the village. He was temporarily in command of the company and he was directing operations with a coolness and daring that marked him out as a born leader of men. He seemed always to know what was the right thing to do and he was always on the spot to order the doing of the right thing at the right moment. The men under his command on that occasion fought with a heroism worthy of their leader. They were assailed furiously on both flanks by the foe. They resisted all attempts to fight them back and at the right moment they pressed home a vigorous counterattack that swept the enemy off the field.
The next time I saw him his men were again in a tight corner. They were advancing against the strongest part of the enemy’s position in the region. Kettle kept them together wonderfully in spite of the terrible ordeal they had to go through, and they carried the enemies’ position in record time. It was in the hottest corner of Ginchy that he went down. He was leading his men with gallantry and judgment that would certainly have won him official recognition had he lived and may do so yet. His beloved Fusiliers were facing a deadly fire and were dashing forward irresistible to grapple with the foe. Their ranks were smitten with a tempest of fire. Men went down right and left - some never to rise again, Kettle was amongst the latter. He dropped to earth and made an effort to get up. I think he must have been hit again. Anyhow he collapsed completely. A wail of anquish went up from his men as soon as they saw their officer was down…’
Men who were with him wrote directly to Mary. His bat-man Robert Bingham told her Kettle had given him his watch as he was staying on and that on the eve of battle the officers were served with pieces of green cloth to be stitched to the back of their uniforms indicating that they belonged to the Irish brigade:
‘Tom touched his lovingly saying ‘Boy I am proud to die for Ireland, Christianity, Europe’; that is what he died for. He carried his pack for Ireland and Europe. Now pack carrying is over. He has held the line.’
J.A. Spiltes of the Munster Fusiliers wrote:
‘Our attack on Ginchy started at 4 pm. The shelling and machine guns fire was terrible and the advance had to be made from shell hole to shell hole. About 15 minutes later your husband while sheltering with a Corporal Gormyle of his own company in a shell hole was struck over the heart by a bullet. The only words he said were ‘Oh my God I am struck.’ He died within 10 minutes. An officer Mr Boyd who took possession of his papers was killed a few minutes later. Your husband was buried on the spot where he fell.’
One soldier wrote describing how Tom had rallied the men before their advance. The chaplain, Fr. Felix Burke, wrote to say that all officers had received absolution on the morning of the battle, adding: ‘We all looked up to him as a towering genius and storehouse of information.’
But the most intimate description of his final hours came from an officer known to Kettle and his wife from Dublin, Emmet Dalton. He wrote from a field hospital on 14 October apologising that he was unable to write sooner:
‘I met Tom Kettle for the first time in France on the 2/9/16 and having known him in Ireland before we became good friends. He was second in command of B (company). Well between the 2nd and the 5th I spent some very pleasant hours with him (in a place called Cratere). You see he was writing a book about the war and the Irish Division namely the 16th. Well on the night of the fifth we marched for three hours in the terrible rain on an awfully uneven road until we came to ‘Trores Wood’ which is opposite Guillemont. On the morning of the seventh we lost 200 men 7 officers by the Bosh shell fire. We returned to T. Wood and Tom took command. While I became 2nd in command of A (company). Well during the morning of the eighth Tom and I were discussing the losses we had sustained when an orderly arrived with a note for each of us saying ‘Be in readiness. Batt (Battalion) will take up a position in front of Ginchy tonight at 12 midnight.’ I was with Tom when we advanced to the position that night and the stench of the dead that covered our road was so awful that we both used some foot powder on our faces, when we reached our objective we dug ourselves in and then at 5 o'clock pm on the 9th we attacked Ginchy. I was just behind Tom when we went over the top, he was in a bent position and a bullet got over a steel waistcoat that he wore and entered his heart, Well he lasted about one minute and he had my crucifix in his hands. He also said ‘this is the 7th anniversary of my wedding’ (I forget whether 7 or 8) Well, Boyd then took all Toms papers and things out of his pockets in order to keep them for you but poor Boyd was blown to atoms in a few minutes and papers and all went. The Welsh guards buried Mr Kettle's remains.
Tom's death has been a big blow to the Regt. and I am afraid I could not put into words my feelings on the subject.
I am, dear Madame yours faithfully, J Emmet Dalton.’
Many messages of sympathy had by then come to Mary Sheehy and her family. One came from Zurich from Kettle’s college friend James Joyce on 25 September:
Dear Mrs. Kettle,
I have read this morning, with deep regret in The Times that my old school fellow and fellow student Lieutenant Kettle had been killed in action. I hope you will not deem it a stranger’s intrusion on your grief to accept from me a word of sincere condolence. I remember very gratefully his benevolent and courteous friendliness to me when I was in Ireland seven years ago. May I ask you also to convey to your sisters (whose addresses I do not know) my sympathy with them in the losses they have suffered. I am grieved to learn that so many misfortunes have fallen on your family in these evil days.
Mary Kettle fulfilled her husband’s wishes to have his work published. His political testimony was published in the Freeman’s Journal on 30 September. The poem to his daughter Betty was published in the Irish Times on 2 November (with an apology for not getting permission for an earlier publication in the Evening Mail.) His Poems and Parodies was published in December and in 1917, The Ways of War was published with a memoir by Mary Kettle as its introduction. She wrote reluctantly at his request: ‘I shall do my best to interpret the ‘soul-side’ with which he faced the world. I only bring to this task the vision of love. Since I first knew him, he loved to call himself a ‘capitain routier’ of freedom, and that is the alpha and omega of his whole personality. As Mr. Lynd has said he was not a nationalist through love of flag but through love of freedom.’
In her detailed exposition of his life and ideals she is forthright in defending his legacy. In particular, she takes aim at those who questioned his patriotism. She focused on a piece written by their friend and associate Padraic Colum then living in the US which drew sharp distinction between Kettle and the rebels of Easter week.
‘Mr. Padraic Colum in a memoir of my husband in the Irish American paper Ireland says ‘When the Germans broke into Belgium, he advised the Irish to join the British Army and to fight for the rights of small nationalities. Had death found him in those early days he would at least have died for a cause he believed in.’ I think Mr. Colum, if only for the sake of an old friendship, might have troubled to understand the idea for which Tom Kettle died, and in which he believed to the end. Does Mr. Colum mean to suggest that my husband no longer believed in the maintenance of the rights of small nationalities? Was his enthusiasm for Belgium quenched - Belgium the heroic who preferred to lose all that she might gain her own soul? Is not Belgium still an invaded country? And even if England juggles with Ireland’s liberty, is not the fight for truth and justice to go on? As my husband says in this volume ‘Ireland has a duty to herself but to the world. and whatever befell, the path taken by her must be the path of honour and justice’.
In one of my last letters from him, he speaks of his faith, even if it is a faith of a sad and burdened soul: ‘It is a grim and awful job, and no man can feel up to it. The waste the science of waste and bloodshed! How my heart loathes it and it is God’s only way to Justice.’
Mr. Colum proceeds ‘He knew by the dreams he remembered that his place should have been with those who died for the cause of Irish Nationality’. I postulate that Tom Kettle died for the cause of Irish Nationality, in dying for the cause of European honour.
Mr. Colum continues: ‘He knew she (Ireland) would not now take her eyes from the scroll that bears the names of Pearse and Plunkett and O’Rahilly and so many others, and yet, Thomas Kettle would have not grudged these men Ireland’s proud remembrance’. I think too Tom Kettle’s name will be entered on the scroll of Irish patriots, and that he has earned, and will have ‘Ireland’s proud remembrance’ quite as much as the rebel leaders whose valor and noble disinterestedness he honored but whose ideals he most emphatically did not share.’
It is this dialogue that informed the debate which Conor Cruise O’Brien addressed in the House of Lords chamber in 2006. O’Brien, who in his writings and politics struggled with these issues all his life, and gathered and preserved Kettle’s papers for posterity. It is this dialogue that echoes throughout the decade of commemoration. A dialogue which gives mutual respect to all traditions is facilitated by the end of conflict, informed by the European context and understands complexity. Padraic Colum himself was to recognise this saying in 1949 that Kettle if he had survived would have brought something ‘humane to the present generation’: ‘He was an Irish nationalist who knew that Ireland’s place was with Europe.’ Ireland he wrote awaits her Goethe, who will one day teach her that while a strong nation has herself for centre, she has the universe for circumference.’’
It is a dialogue that found some harmony in the 50th commemoration of 1966. Then in a year, more noted for its focus on recognising the veterans of the Rising and their place on the scroll of patriots, the composer Brian Boydell (with librettist Tomás Ó Súilleabháin) in his cantata A Terrible Beauty placed Kettle’s work beside that of Pearse, MacDonagh, Yeats and Ledwidge. The work, commissioned by RTÉ, was framed by Yeats' 'Easter 1916', with, according to Keith Jeffrey: ‘the climax of the piece comprised a setting for baritone and chorus of Kettle’s poem 'Cancel the Past' which envisioned the reconciliation of opposing Irish soldiers in a free Ireland.’ The extract used was also chosen by Mary Kettle in the final section of her memoir of her husband. It comes from a sequence called 'Reason in Rhyme', where each section begins with the refrain: Cancel the Past:
‘Bond from the toil of hate we may not cease:
Free, we are to be your friend.
And when you make your banquet, and we come
Soldier with equal soldier must we sit
Closing a battle, not forgetting it.
With not a name to hide
This mate and mother of valiant ‘rebels’ dead
Must come with all her history on her head.
We keep the past for pride:
No deepest peace shall strike our poets dumb;
No rawest squad of all Death’s volunteers,
No rudest men who died
To tear your flag down in the bitter years
But shall have praise and three times thrice again
When at the table men shall drink with men.’
This continuing dialogue is the legacy of Tom Kettle, soldier and writer, one of over 3,500 Irishmen estimated to have died at the Battle of the Somme.
1. J.B. Lyons, The Enigma of Tom Kettle (Dublin,1983)
2. Senia Paseta, Thomas Kettle (Dublin, 2008)
3. Gerald Barry (editor), Remembering Tom Kettle 1880-1916 (Dublin, 2007)
4. T.M. Kettle, The Ways of War: with Memoir by Mary S. Kettle (London,1917)
5. T.M. Kettle, Poems and Parodies (Dublin, 1916)
6. T.M. Kettle, compiled by Mary S. Sheehy, An Irishman’s Calender (Dublin 1938)
7. T.M. Kettle, The Days Burden and Other Essays, Dublin 1968 (1918,1937)
8. Terence Denman, Ireland's Unknown Soldiers (Dublin 1992)
9. Keith Jeffrey, Ireland and the Great War (Cambridge, 2000)
10. Robert Lynd, If the German conquered England and other essays (Dublin, 1917)
11. Conor Cruise O’Brien, States of Ireland (London 1972)
12. Michael Tierney, Eoin MacNeill (Oxford,1981)
13. John J. Horgan, Parnell to Pearse (Dublin,1949, 2009)
14. Roger McHugh, 'Tom Kettle and Francis Sheehy Skeffington', University Review, 1956
15. Padraic Colum, 'Tom Kettle, A memory', Dublin Magazine, 24,1949
16. Stuart Gilbert, Letters of James Joyce (London, 1957)
17. Laurence Housman, War Letters of Fallen Englishmen (New York/London,1930)