Tuesday, 5 August 2014

WWI: In Memoriam; Prof Tom Kettle and The Green Fields of France

The War to End Wars didn’t!

To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God
(Professor Lt Tom Kettle, 1880-1916)

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.

Thomas Michael Kettle (1880-1916) Irish nationalist poet, politician and soldier was born in Co. Dublin the son of one of the founders of the Land-League, Andrew J Kettle (1833-1916), and his wife Margaret McCourt. Tom was the seventh of 12 children. Andrew Kettle was a member of the Tenant Right League (founded by Charles Gavan Duffy and Frederick Lucas) in the 1850s and became a constitutional Irish Home Ruler in 1866 following the publication of Isaac Butt’s “Plea for the Celtic Race”. Later as a close associate of Michael Davitt — the “One Armed Fenian” who renounced his Irish Republican Brotherhood oath, took a seat in the House of Commons at Westminster and totally renounced violence as a means of advancing Irish Home Rule —was instrumental in persuading Charles Stewart Parnell to support the land agitation of the late 1870s. Kettle chaired the first meeting of the Land League in October of 1879. He was elected Secretary and Parnell was elected Presdient. Kettle was later imprisoned for his leading the opposition to the Coercion Laws.

Tom attended, as did his brothers, O’Connell School, Richmond Street, Dublin run by the Christian Brothers. A gifted pupil, he then went on to the Jesuit-run Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare. A prominent debater, with a greatly admired razor sharp wit, he excelled in both sports (especially athletics, cricket and cycling) and studies (especially English and French).

Going up to University College Dublin in 1897 much was expected of him. And he did not disappoint, although disappointingly his studies were interrupted by ill-health. A contemporary of Francis Sheehy- Skeffington, Oliver St John Gogarty and James Joyce, he became “auditor” of the Literary and Historical Society. This is a position essentially equivalent to Convener of Debates at a Scottish university — I held this position at Glasgow University Union in the early 1970s and my friend, Mgr Patrick Burke, held it at Saint Andrews in the 1980s — or President of Oxford, Cambridge or Durham University Unions.

Graduating BA in Mental and Moral Science (don’t ask, I don’t know!) in 1902, he then studied Law and was admitted to the Honorable (sic) Society of King’s Inns in 1903 before being called to the Bar in 1905. Of course, his interest in debating and politics did not falter and in 1904 he founded the Cui Bono Club within UCD as a debating forum for recent graduates and became editor of the College newspaper. In that same year he also co-founded and was elected President of the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League. Offered a parliamentary seat by John Redmond, he declined becoming editor of a weekly, “The Nationalist”, instead. However, in 1906 he became a Member of the Imperial Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland for East Tyrone at a bye-election caused by the death of Patrick Doogan.He remained an MP until the second election in 1910, in December, when he did not defend his seat due to pressure of other work.

In 1908 he had been appointed Professor of National Economics at his alma mater, UCD, now part of the new University of Ireland. He quickly became one of the most popular members of the faculty and was in geat demand as both lecturer and public speaker. In the year following, 1909, he married Mary Sheehy. Mary was a sister of the suffragette and member of the Irish Women Workers’ Union, Hanna (christened Johanna Mary) Sheehy who after marriage became Sheehy-Skeffington. Another sister, Kathleen, married Joseph O’Brien and became mother of the apostate nationalist Conor Cruise O’Brien (known hereabouts as Conor Full o’B*****it).

In the 1913 lockout he supported the strikers and helped form the peace committee to negotiate a just settlement. Having supported the Home Rule Bill of 1912 and seen the Unionists' successful attempts to wreck it, in 1913 he also joined the Irish Volunteers. In Europe in 1914 to try to raise arms (he spoke fluent French and German) he witnessed the outbreak of war and, because of the atrocities he had witnessed committed by the Germans against civilians in France and Belgium, abandoning his original mission became war correspondent for London’s Daily News.

In “The Ways of War: Why Ireland Fought”, he wrote (@p72): “The outbreak of war caught me in Belgium, where I was running arms for the Irish Volunteers, and on the 6th 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.”

Returning to Dublin, he joined Redmond’s National Volunteers. Repeatedly refused a commission into any Irish regiment because of his health status, at last he was commissioned into the 9th battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, part of the 16th (Irish) Division. Conditions in the trenches seriously affected his health and he was returned to Dublin for recuperation. Before leaving once more for the front on July 16, 1916, almost in despair at the brutal, merciless treatment of the leaders of the Easter Uprising, he said that they would be remembered as heroes while men like himself would be despised as traitors. And so it came to pass.

On September 9, 1916, at Guinchy, during the Battle of the Somme, leading his company of men, Lientenant Professor Tom Kettle died, victim of a sniper’s bullet to the upper chest “above a protective steel waistcoat”. Following behind,18 years old Lt Emmet Dalton, the “boy hero of Guinchy”, “was horrified to see him fall… (and) paused to press a crucifix into his hand… Kettle was obviously dying.”  Fr Felix Burke, Catholic Chaplain to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, wrote: “We all looked up to him as a towering genius and as a storehouse of information.”

Kettle had written to his brother: “I am calm and happy… but desperately anxious to live.” He was planning a book on the 16th (Irish) Division and looked forward after the war to dedicating himself to work in the interests of “perpetual peace.” The writer Tim Cross said that Kettle had a vision of “Ireland at parity with Britain as a free European nation” and quotes him as saying: “My only counsel to Ireland is that in order to become deeply Irish, she must become European.”

This deeply thinking, deeply religious Irish Catholic intellectual had got there long before that group of young intellectual Italians who, as students, had gathered around Don Battista Montini (the future Pope Paul VI) when he was Chaplain to the student section of Italian Catholic Action in the late 1920s and early 1930s (his formal title was Chaplain to the Federation of Italian Catholic University Students, FUCI), and even after he had been forced out, and were instrumental in creating the European Christian Democracy movement along with their German and French co-religionists. These were men such as Alcide De Gasperi and Aldo Moro (President of FUCI in the late 193os) whose vision was the European Union, but not as we know it, as a bureaucratic nightmare.

What a loss to Ireland. What a loss to Europe. What a loss to the Church.

Although it only appeared belatedly and begrudgingly and has never been formally unveiled by the Irish government, a memorial to Kettle by Francis W. Doyle-Jones stands in St. Stephen’s Green in  Dublin. It quotes the last four lines from the sonnet he penned to his daughter shortly before his death (To My Daughter Betty, see above):

“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.”

Session in the Forge Bar Dromore

This is a typical weekend evening in my friend Oliver West's local pub in Dromore, Co Tyrone. I must get over to see him soon!,