Tom Kettle

Last updated

Mary Sheehy
(m. 1909)
Tom Kettle
Tom Kettle.jpg
Thomas Kettle BL. in 1905
Member of Parliament
for East Tyrone
In office
5 July 1906 28 November 1910
Alma mater University College Dublin
Military service
Branch/service British Army
Years of service1914–1916
Rank Lieutenant
Unit Royal Dublin Fusiliers
Battles/wars First World War

Thomas Michael Kettle (9 February 1880 – 9 September 1916) was an Irish economist, journalist, barrister, writer, war poet, soldier and Home Rule politician. As a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, he was Member of Parliament (MP) for East Tyrone from 1906 to 1910 at Westminster. He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913, then on the outbreak of World War I in 1914 enlisted for service in the British Army, with which he was killed in action on the Western Front in the Autumn of 1916. He was a much admired old comrade of James Joyce, [1] who considered him to be his best friend in Ireland, [2] as well as the likes of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Oliver St. John Gogarty and Robert Wilson Lynd.


He was one of the leading figures of the generation who at the turn of the twentieth century gave new intellectual life to Irish party politics, and to the constitutional movement towards All-Ireland Home Rule. A gifted speaker with an incisive mind and devastating wit, his death was regarded as a great loss to Ireland's political and intellectual life. [3]

As G. K. Chesterton surmised, "Thomas Michael Kettle was perhaps the greatest example of that greatness of spirit which was so ill rewarded on both sides of the channel [...] He was a wit, a scholar, an orator, a man ambitious in all the arts of peace; and he fell fighting the barbarians because he was too good a European to use the barbarians against England, as England a hundred years before has used the barbarians against Ireland". [4]

Family background

Thomas Kettle was born in Malahide [5] or Artane, Dublin, [6] the seventh of twelve children of Andrew J. Kettle (1833–1916), a leading Irish nationalist politician, progressive farmer, agrarian agitator and founding member of the Irish Land League, [7] and his wife, Margaret (née McCourt). One of his brothers was the industrial pioneer, Laurence Kettle.

Andrew Kettle influenced his son considerably through his political activities, having been involved from an early age in the constitutional movement to achieve Home Rule. Andrew joined Michael Davitt in the foundation of the Irish Land League and was one of the signatories of the "No Rent Manifesto". He had adhered to Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1890 crisis, and stood for election as a nationalist candidate on several occasions. [8]

Early life

Thomas was raised in comfortable rural surroundings. Like his brothers he was educated at the Christian Brothers' O'Connell School at Richmond Street, Dublin, where he excelled. In 1894 he went to study with the Jesuits at Clongowes Wood College in County Kildare, known as a wit and a good debater. He enjoyed athletics, cricket and cycling and attained honours in English and French when leaving.

Thomas M. Kettle as a student at Clongowes Wood College Thomas M. Kettle as a student at Clongowes Wood College.jpg
Thomas M. Kettle as a student at Clongowes Wood College

Entering University College Dublin in 1897, he was regarded as a charismatic student. Surrounded by ambitious and politically minded young men he quickly established himself as a leading student politician and a brilliant scholar. He was elected to the prestigious position of auditor of the Literary and Historical Society, 1898–1899. His friends and contemporaries at UCD included Hugh Kennedy, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Oliver St. John Gogarty and James Joyce. [9]

Tom Kettle distributed pro-Boer leaflets during the early months of the South African Second Boer War, and protested against the Irish Literary Theatre production of Yeats' The Countess Cathleen in 1899 over its irreligious story of an unlikely kind-hearted aristocrat who sells her soul to save her tenants. Due to illness he interrupted his studies in 1900, his health always being fragile. He went abroad to renew his spirits by travelling on the continent, improving his German and French. Returning to Dublin he renewed his studies, and in 1902 took a BA in mental and moral science. [ citation needed ]


He then read law after admission to the Irish Law bar in 1903, qualifying as a barrister in 1905. He practiced sporadically, devoting most of his time to political journalism. He maintained his contacts to University College and his fellow students, participating in debates, contributing to and becoming editor of the college newspaper. He helped to found the Cui Bono Club, a discussion group for recent graduates.

A vocal supporter of the Home Rule-seeking Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), Kettle strengthened his links with the constitutional movement by co-founding and becoming president of the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League in 1904. He attracted the attention of the Irish Party leader John Redmond. Kettle declined the offer to stand for a parliamentary seat, instead edited a newspaper, The Nationist, an unconventional weekly journal. The paper pursued an extreme pro-Irish Party line, at the same time reflecting Kettle's liberal and often controversial views on a wide range of topics, education, women's rights, the Irish Literary Revival. He resigned his editorship in 1905 on the grounds of a controversy about an allegedly anti-clerical article.


After the death in 1906 of Patrick Doogan, the MP for East Tyrone, Kettle accepted the candidature for the vacant parliamentary seat at the resulting by-election. He won the seat by a narrow majority of 18 votes, becoming one of the few young men to gain admission to the aging Irish Party in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, during the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Lauded as a future party leader, in late 1906 he went to America, participating in a number of propaganda and fund-raising meetings. In the House of Commons at Westminster he was renowned as an amusing and often caustic speaker, as a staunch supporter of the Irish Party and its constitutional path to Home Rule, also engaging in debates for the provision of higher education for Irish Catholics and on Ireland's economic condition.

He was deeply steeped in European culture. Kettle's ideal was an Ireland identified with the life of Europe. In "Ireland" he wrote,"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." [10]

Academic career

Thomas Michael Kettle Thomas Michael Kettle.jpg
Thomas Michael Kettle

In 1908 he was the first Professor of National Economics at University College Dublin, a constituent college of the new National University of Ireland. One of its liveliest spirits and increasingly busy and in demand as a speaker, he had difficulty combining academic work with his work as an MP. He was a popular professor and his genuine interest in economics reflected in a number of publications concerning financial issues. He was friends with Thomas MacDonagh, and wrote for his magazine The Irish Review. In 1911, he helped to establish the Legal & Economic Society of the university along with his fellow professor J.G. Swift MacNeill. In September 1909 he married Mary Sheehy, a fellow graduate who had been the muse of the adolescent James Joyce and is the model for the lead female character in Joyce's story "Araby" and Miss Ivors in "The Dead", both collected in Dubliners . [11]

He retained his East Tyrone seat in the January 1910 general election but did not contest the second election in December. Even though out of parliament he remained an active IPP member publishing a number of essays reiterating his support for attaining Home Rule by constitutional means. He enthusiastically greeted the 1912 Home Rule Bill, likewise the removal of the veto power of the Lords, this veto being the last obstacle to Home Rule. On the other hand, he brusquely dismissed Unionist fears of the bill's possible effects, giving the cause of Home Rule prevalence before all other considerations. On 12 January 1912, he gave a talk to the National Liberal Club's Political and Economic Circle.


During the 1913 Dublin strike and lockout, unlike other contemporary upper-class commentators, Kettle supported the locked out workers and published a series of articles which revealed the terrible living and working conditions of Dublin's poor, and was involved in the formation of a peace committee which endeavoured to negotiate a settlement between workers and employers.

In 1913 Kettle also became involved with the paramilitary Irish Volunteers, a new Irish Nationalist militia that formed in response to the creation in the north of the Ulster Volunteers by Edward Carson to oppose the creation of an all-Ireland government based in Dublin via the passage in the British Parliament in London of the Government of Ireland Act 1914. In July 1914 he left Dublin and travelled to Belgium on behalf of the Irish Volunteers seeking to purchase rifles and ammunition for the organization's armoury. [12] Whilst he was in Belgium World War I broke out, and, finding this more interesting than militia arms procurement, he became an on the scene war correspondent for the Daily News , reporting on the opening moves of the armies of the II Reich as they marched Westwards. Travelling throughout Flanders in August and September 1914, he became increasingly alarmed by the punitive measures that he witnessed being implemented against the Belgian civilian population by the Imperial German Army against even the lightest civil resistance to the passage of its troop columns moving through that country heading into France. [13] Kettle perceived at this moment a threat to Europe's liberty from the nature of the II Reich, and began dispatching war reports from the Brussels warning against the dire threat to Europe from Prussian militarism, depicting the conflict as "A war of Civilization vs Barbarianism". [14]

World War I

With Ireland having become embroiled in the Great War Kettle returned to Dublin. On arrival back home he sided with the National Volunteers in a split within the Irish Volunteers nationalist militia's ranks between those for whom Irish independence was all, and were increasingly eying the possibility an armed confrontation with the British Government (with the threat of an armed insurrection against Irish Nationalism from Ulster having abated with the Ulster Volunteers having enlisted en masse into the British Army to fight in World War I), and those who followed John Redmond's constitutional lead in accepting the Government of the United Kingdom's public undertaking of a restoration of self-government to Ireland in its domestic affairs, temporarily deferred until the war's end, and who were also concerned about matters beyond Ireland's shores with Europe's future in the 20th Century now being decided. [15]

In consequence Kettle volunteered for active service with the 7th Battalion of the Leinster Regiment, [16] but was refused on the grounds of fragile health. He subsequently received a commission into the British Army with the rank of Lieutenant, restricted to garrison service at home.[ citation needed ]

He applied to be an Irish Parliamentary Party candidate for a by-election in East Galway, and though not selected his support for the party did not abate, continuing to advocate both home rule and voluntary enlistment with the British Arms, maintaining that Irishmen had a moral duty to join the allied stand against the displayed tyranny on the European continent of the II Reich. He asserted that "Having broken like an armed burglar into Belgium, Germany was thereby guilty of a systematic campaign of murder, pillage, outrage, and destruction, planned and ordered by her military and intellectual leaders." [17]

By 1916 Kettle had published more than ten books and pamphlets, contributed numerous articles to journals and newspapers on Irish politics, literary reviews, poetry and essays, philosophical treatises and translations from German and French. Although at times melancholy at the war's immense escalating intensity across Europe, consuming ever more men and causing destruction to its nations, he continued to apply to be sent to the Western Front on active service, until, with his health somewhat improved, he received a commission into the 9th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, amidst the 16th (Irish) Division, which in early 1916 he went to France with, serving alongside Emmet Dalton, a 19-year-old subaltern, whose family Kettle had known and frequented the Dublin home of pre-war. [18] [19]

The conditions in the trenches of the Western Front broke his health again, and he returned to Dublin shortly after the failure of the abortive Easter Revolution on sick leave, seeing the wreckage of the city's centre caused by the fighting that had occurred there. He was also beginning to rely too heavily on alcohol in this period as a psychological palliative to the stress of military active service. [20] Whilst in Dublin he rejected offers of a permanent staff position, and returned to rejoin the Battalion in the line. On leaving Ireland on 14 July 1916 he predicted that the Easter Revolutionaries of 1916 would be lionized as patriots in the near future of Ireland's history, whilst those who had fought with the British Arms in World War I would be condemned. Kettle was angered by actions of the Revolutionary faction that had staged the failed revolt, feeling that they were marring Constitutional Nationalism's long worked for strategy of the rebirth of a sovereign Irish state finding its place amidst the nations in a peaceful fashion, with good spirit amidst its neighbours in Britain. [21]

Thomas Kettle Memorial Thomas M. Kettle memorial in St. Stephen's Green park, Dublin, Ireland.jpg
Thomas Kettle Memorial

It was as an Irish soldier in a war in the defence of European civilisation that he entered the war. He was deeply steeped in Europe's cultures. Kettle's ambition for Ireland in the 20th century was a land and culture with the European continent as its polestar. He wrote: "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"; [22] and later, "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." [23]

In a letter, sent to his friend Joseph Devlin from France shortly before his death, Kettle wrote: "I hope to come back. If not, I believe that to sleep here in the France that I have loved is no harsh fate, and that so passing out into silence, I shall help towards the Irish settlement. Give my love to my colleagues – the Irish people have no need of it." [24]


Kettle was killed in action with 'B' Company of the 9th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in an attack on German lines on 9 September 1916, near the village of Ginchy during the Battle of the Somme. During the advance Kettle was felled when the Dublin Fusiliers were 'struck with a tempest of fire', and having risen from the initial blow, he was struck again and killed outright. [25] His body was buried in a battlefield grave by the Welsh Guards, but the grave was subsequently lost trace of. [26] His name is etched on the monumental arched gateway for the missing of the Somme at Thiepval. He was 36-years old.

The poet George William Russell wrote about Kettle, comparing his sacrifice with those who led the 1916 Easter Rising:

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. [27]


The erection of a commemorative bronze bust of Kettle in Dublin, commissioned from the sculptor Albert Power and finished in 1921, [28] was beset for almost twenty years by controversy and bureaucratic obstruction due to the antipathy of the State authorities post-Independence towards Irishmen who had fought in World War I. It was finally raised in 1937, without an unveiling ceremony, in St. Stephen's Green. [29] [30] A stone tablet commemorates him in the Island of Ireland Peace Park, at Messines, Belgium and he is listed on the bronze plaque in the Four Courts Dublin which commemorates the 26 Irish barristers killed in the Great War. Kettle is commemorated on Panel 1 of the Parliamentary War Memorial in Westminster Hall in London, one of 22 present and former Members of Parliament that lost their lives during World War I to be named on that memorial. [31] [32] A further act of commemoration came with the unveiling in 1932 of a manuscript-style illuminated book of remembrance for the House of Commons, which includes a short biographical account of the life and death of Kettle. [33] [34]

The Literary and Historical Society (University College Dublin) has historically held an annual wreath-laying ceremony at the bust in St. Stephen's Green. [35]

The UCD Economics Society has also named their life membership award in memory of Thomas Kettle. Notable recipients include Professor Joseph Stiglitz, Irish Central Bank Governor Patrick Honohan, and Peter Sutherland, former Director-General of The World Trade Organization. [36]

The 153rd session of the Literary and Historical Society UCD remembering their fallen auditor Literary and Historical Society UCD in remembrance.jpg
The 153rd session of the Literary and Historical Society UCD remembering their fallen auditor

At the time of his death a tribute to him appeared in the French journal L'Opinion:

All parties bowed in sorrow over his grave, for in the 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. [37]


On 8 September 1909, Kettle married Mary Sheehy (born 1884), a fellow graduate of the Royal University, a suffragist, and like Kettle a member of a well-known nationalist family. Her father, David Sheehy, was a nationalist MP. Tom and Mary Kettle had one child, a daughter, Elisabeth ("Betty"), who was born in 1913. [ citation needed ]

Tom Kettle was also the brother-in-law (by his wife, the former Mary Sheehy) of both Francis Skeffington and the journalist Frank Cruise O'Brien, father of the Labour TD and Irish government minister, later UK Unionist Party politician, Conor Cruise O'Brien. Father Eugene Sheehy, a brother of David Sheehy, was a priest, president of the local branch of the Irish National Land League at Kilmallock and founder member of the Gaelic Athletic Association. [ citation needed ]


Kettle's best known poem is a sonnet, "To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God", written just days before his death. The last lines are an answer to those who criticised Irishmen for fighting in the British Armed Forces saying that they "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." [38] A less well-known poem, "Reason in Rhyme", was said by Kettle's friend Robert Lynd to represent "his testament to England as his call to Europeanism is his testament to Ireland." [39]

Dublin Four Courts Plaque inscribed: In Memory of the Irish Barristers who fell in the Great War 1914-1918. The list includes the name of Thomas Kettle Great War Plaque, Four Courts Dublin.jpg
Dublin Four Courts Plaque inscribed: In Memory of the Irish Barristers who fell in the Great War 1914–1918. The list includes the name of Thomas Kettle
House of Commons London panel commemoration Thomas M. Kettle killed Kettle, Esmonde, WWI Memorial, House of Commons.JPG
House of Commons London panel commemoration Thomas M. Kettle killed


  1. Joyce and Company By David Pierce (London:2006) p152
  2. Conor, Volume I: A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien: Volume I ..., Volume 2 By Donald Harman Akenson (Canada:1994) p49
  3. A Dictionary of Irish History since 1800, D. J. Hickey & J. E. Doherty , Gill & MacMillan (1980)
  4. Walking Like A Queen – Irish Impressions By G. K. Chesterton (2008 Tradibooks edition, France) p90.
  5. Tom Kettle’s birthplace is sometimes given as Artane where the family also had a holding. However, Andrew Kettle, in his memoir “Material For Victory”, states his son’s birthplace as Millview House, Malahide.; accessed 19 April 2020.
  6. One of several sources which give Artane as Tom Kettle's place of birth; accessed 16 June 2014.
  7. Callinan, Frank (4 September 2006). "An Irish nationalist and our first European". The Irish Times.
  8. Cork Examiner , 25 September 1916: from Andrew Kettle's obituary (text in full in article on the latter)
  9. "James Joyce: Notes (6) – PeSkeleton bibliography in "Shakespeare and Company" > Appendix – as attachedople in Joyce [II]: Contemps. et al". Retrieved 10 June 2018.
  10. The Ways of War, Memoir p.4, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle, T. M. Kettle.
  11. Kershner, R. B. (10 June 1992). Joyce, Bakhtin, and Popular Literature: Chronicles of Disorder. UNC Press Books. ISBN   9780807843871.
  12. "BBC One - Voices 16 - Tom Kettle". BBC. Retrieved 29 August 2023.
  13. German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (1999) (2001) John Horne and Alan Kramer of D.U., Yale University Press ISBN   0-300-10791-9.
    Detailed researched account of German atrocities perpetrated on the Belgian and French civilian population in autumn 1914.
    Winner of the Fraenkel Prize for Contemporary History in 2000
  14. The Ways of War, "Why Ireland fought" p. 72, T. M. Kettle.
  15. "Thomas Michael Kettle: an enduring legacy". The Irish Times. Retrieved 29 August 2023.
  16. Bromyard News and Record, 28 January 1915
  17. The Ways of War "Why Ireland fought" p. 69, T. M. Kettle
  18. "Emmet Dalton Remembers". RTÉ Archives. Retrieved 29 August 2023.
  19. Turtle Bunbury, The Glorious Madness, Tales of The Irish and The Great War, Tom Kettle and Emmet Dalton;
    Mad Guns and Invisible Wands, p.105, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin 12 (2014) ISBN   978 0717 16234 5
  20. David Granville. "Thomas Kettle (Life and Times)". Retrieved 10 June 2018.
  21. The Enigma of Tom Kettle by John Benignus Lyons
  22. The Ways of War Memoir, pp. 3, 4, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle
  23. The Ways of War "Why Ireland fought" p. 71, T. M. Kettle
  24. The Ways of War Memoir p. 34, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle
  25. "Tom Kettle: the death of Irish nationalist and British soldier – Century Ireland". RTÉ.ie. Retrieved 10 June 2018.
  26. "Tom Kettle, in memory, 100 years after death at the Somme". The Irish Times . 9 September 1916.
  27. "Ambassador Mulhall's lecture at the University of Cardiff – Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade". Retrieved 10 June 2018.
  28. 'The Enigma of Tom Kettle', by J.B. Lyons (Glendale Press, 1983).
  29. 'Tom Kettle: In memory, 100 years after death at the Somme', 'The Irish Times', 9 September 2016.
  30. Burke, Tom (Autumn 2004). "In Memory of Lieutenant Tom Kettle, 'B' Company, 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers". Dublin Historical Record. 57 (2): 164–173. JSTOR   30101500.
  31. "Recording Angel memorial Panel 1". Recording Angel memorial, Westminster Hall. UK Parliament ( Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  32. "List of names on the Recording Angel memorial, Westminster Hall" (PDF). Recording Angel memorial, Westminster Hall. UK Parliament ( Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  33. "House of Commons War Memorial: Final Volumes Unveiled by The Speaker". The Times. No. 46050. London. 6 February 1932. p. 7.
  34. Moss-Blundell, Edward Whitaker, ed. (1931). The House of Commons Book of Remembrance 1914–1918. E. Mathews & Marrot.
  35. See The Literary and Historical Society 1955–2005, ed. Frank Callanan, pub. A&A Farmar, (picture inset 16)
  36. David, Kearns (20 April 2020). "Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz awarded honorary life membership of UCD Economics Society". University College Dublin. Retrieved 24 April 2020.
  37. The Way of War (memoir) by Mary (Sheehy) Kettle, p. 33
  38. Jim Haughey, The First World War in Irish Poetry, Bucknell University Press, 2002, p. 102
  39. The Ways of War Memoir p. 42, Mary (Sheehy) Kettle


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Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by Member of Parliament for East Tyrone
1906December 1910
Succeeded by