[First posted on MyT]
Thomas Kettle was an Irish poet, politician and journalist who was killed in the Battle of the Somme on 9 September 1916. I thought of him yesterday when Sebastian Barry’s novel Secret Scripture was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (exactly 92 years after Kettle’s death) – the title comes from one of Kettle’s poems.
Kettle was a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party (which favoured Home Rule), and MP for East Tyrone 1906–1910. He joined the more militant Irish Volunteers in 1913; the next year, while on an arms-buying mission in Belgium, he witnessed German atrocities against Belgian civilians. The Irish Volunteers split into two factions – for and against the British war effort. On his return to Dublin, Kettle joined the British Army. At first, as his health precluded active service, he was involved in recruiting.
The 1916 Easter Rising, carried out by the other faction of the Volunteers, came as a great surprise and disappointment to Kettle … he said it spoiled his dream of a free, united Ireland in a free Europe. He asked to be sent to France, and was killed in action while leading a company of men ‘with conspicuous gallantry’. There is a memorial to him in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin.
Kettle wrote the following poem five days before his death.
To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God
by Thomas Michael Kettle
dated ‘In the field, before Guillemont, Somme, Sept. 4, 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.