It was not the type of book which would normally attract my attention but for whatever reason I picked it off the shelf in a secondhand bookshop. The name inscribed by a previous owner on the title page immediately caught my eye. ‘Andrew J. Kettle’ was that name and the book was a book of poetry published in 1876.
Andrew Joseph Kettle was 43 years old when the book first appeared for sale in the Dublin bookshops. A prosperous farmer from Swords, Co. Dublin he was a confidant of Isaac Butt and claimed to have encouraged Butt to support tenant rights. As an advocate of Irish tenants Kettle organised a Tenants Defence Association in north County Dublin in the early 1870s and acted as Secretary for the National Organisation of Tenant Associations throughout the country, including Athy’s group of Tenant activists. Andrew Kettle became closely associated with Charles S. Parnell following Parnell’s election as Member of Parliament for County Meath in 1875. In October 1879 Kettle and his colleagues agreed to the merger of the Tenants Defence Associations with the newly established Irish National Land League and Kettle became its General Secretary.
Kettle, whose memoirs under the title ‘Material for Victory’ was published in 1958 wrote of the political shenanigans which marked the 1880 General Election in the Kildare constituency.
‘We went to Kildare on a midday train, and had a rare scene with Alderman Harris in the carriage going down. The Alderman was one of the candidates for Kildare, and he begged and prayed Mr. Parnell to get him adopted with a fanatical fervour I shall never forget. When we got to Athy, which was the nomination place, we found that Father Farrelly and young Kavanagh had a candidate ready in the person of Mr. James Leahy who represented it for years afterwards. Mr. Parnell turned to me and said: “This fat man will be no use. He will fall asleep in the House. I must propose you.” I never meant to go to Parliament if I could help it, and said: “He will do very well. You may want me somewhere else.” He was not half satisfied, and he cross-examined Mr. Leahy as to how he would be able to attend and sit up at night, but the candidate said “Yes” to everything. So, as his friends were insistent, he had to take him. Father Nolan of Kildare Town was holding a Harris Meldon meeting at the Market House when we came out, but Mike Boyton moved somebody else to another chair and started a Leahy meeting on the same platform, so after a little Father Nolan said he would not play second fiddle to anyone, so he bid us good-bye and left.’
Kettle was arrested in June 1881 for encouraging the withholding of rents and spent two weeks in Naas Jail before being transferred to Kilmainham where he was detained for almost six months. He continued to support Parnell after the Parnell split and stood unsuccessfully as a Parnellite in the April 1891 by-election in Carlow. He died in September 1916, just a little over two weeks after his son Thomas Kettle was killed in France.
It is Thomas Kettle more so than his father Andrew who is best remembered today. A Barrister by profession he edited for a time the Irish Parliamentary Party paper ‘The Nationist’. He also served as a Member of Parliament for four years before securing the professorship of National Economics at Dublin’s National University. A writer and orator of note, he was described by the essayist Robert Lynd as ‘the most brilliant Irish man of his generation.’
Involved with the Irish Volunteers, as was his brother Laurence, Thomas Kettle travelled to Belgium in July 1914 to procure arms for the Irish cause. On his return to Dublin he enlisted to fight in France, believing as many others did that by doing so he was helping the Home Rule cause which had dominated Irish political life for decades previously.
Kettle was killed while commanding a company of Dublin Fusiliers at Ginchy on 9th September 1916. He was buried while the battle still continued, a most unusual occurrence as it was forbidden by Army regulations. Subsequent shelling obliterated the burial place and it could never again be found. Five days before he was killed Thomas Kettle wrote a sonnet to his 3 year old daughter Betty which ranks as one of the finest and most oft quoted poems of the 1914-18 war.
‘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.
A bust of the poet and patriot Thomas Kettle can be found in St. Stephen’s Green Dublin. His niece Josephine Kettle was the mother of our Parish Priest, Fr. Gerry Tanham.