Tom Kettle (1880–1916)

[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.



Filed under Ireland, Poems

38 responses to “Tom Kettle (1880–1916)

  1. Hi Brendano
    Thanks for this. I was confused at first not having noticed it was a repost.
    I loved Secret Scripture, and the other Sebastian Barry books. I hadn’t realised the title came from this poem.

  2. Hi Isobel. Thank you. Sorry … a bit lazy of me to repost old stuff, but I’m very busy with work and other things and don’t have much time to write new stuff.

    I haven’t read any of Barry’s … my wife read a couple, including SS, and liked them a lot.

  3. You must read them. They are superb. The man is a poet.
    I am thinking of reposting from MyT as well. Pseu has copied over quite a few.

  4. Cymbeline

    Tom Kettle wrote to his daughter.

    My grandfather, who fought in the Somme aged 17, returned to Wales and did not want to have any children. He married late in life. He married youth, beauty and life, and yet he still did not want to have any children. My grandmother fought against his will. I never knew him. He died when my father was ten.

    Isobel. Thank you for the recommendation of Sebastian Barry’s work. I shall seek him out.

  5. Cymbeline

    As for posting old stuff – I do it all the time. Some people use a computer file. I prefer human memory.

  6. Cymbeline

    Great writing should be preserved – yes. Preserving crap, as this technological age allows us to do, simply blunts the mind.

  7. Thanks for those comments, Isobel and Cymbeline.

    Interesting about your grandfather, Cymbeline. Anthony Burgess would have been interested … he wrote about Welsh characters a lot, and your snippet is like something from Earthly Powers.

  8. Ike Jakson

    A lovely poem with a splendid story.

    Strangely enough we have an analogy in our history of the same time but in our case it involves a lot more people. It is still officially called the Rebellion of 1914.

    And you won’t believe that it had a “repeat performance” in 1940” when amongst others a guy called John Vorster who later became Prime Minister and in his final days President was interned during World War 11 for his “anti-war” activities. His side wanted to support Germany and did so; they even blew up Post Offices and Railway Stations in the process before the Government acted to lock them up

    But he wasn’t a poet. Keep these stories coming please.

  9. That’s interesting, Ike … thank you.

  10. Cymbeline

    I have not read that book. Looked it up, and see that one of the major themes is the fallibility of memory. Interesting.

  11. Hello Cymbeline. I’m sorry, I think the one with Welsh characters is called Any Old Iron … I read them around the same time, and mixed them up in my mind last night.

    Yes, Earthly Powers has an unreliable narrator … I remember wondering whether one factual error was Burgess’ or the narrator’s.

    Allegedly, Burgess was somewhat cavalier with his memoirs too, or so some author claimed in an entire book devoted to the subject. The memoirs are wonderfully vivid, though.

    As it happens, I’m writing something myself where fallibility of memory is the central theme.

  12. Cymbeline

    Fascinating subject. I have always thought that the mind knows how to protect itself. It is surely good that some events be forgotten, and others remembered in a non-factual way. That is a form of truth too, and it clears the mind for new experience.

    Always wondered about the wisdom of trying to bring deep embedded memories to the surface of consciousness. What do you think about that?

  13. Yes, I agree with that. There are truths other than linear, literal truth, and there can be truth in fiction. It’s true that the mind is very resilient, which can be a double-edged sword as it can make it inflexible – a rigid skyscraper would blow over in the wind. Stuff needs to bubble up from the unconscious mind and be integrated, I think. And a lot of things need to be unlearned.

    I think actively trying to bring deep embedded memories to the surface of consciousness could be dangerous and bad for the sanity!

  14. Cymbeline

    Yes. The bargepole is necessary for sanity.

  15. Cymbeline

    Not to be used as an excuse to refuse to face and acknowledge historical truth, of course. Memory and History are two very separate entities.

  16. Cymbeline

    There is a frenzied debate going on in France at the moment. De Gaulle’s memoirs have been put on the school literature syllabus. One faction is saying that the book is a history book, and should be treated as such; while the other faction agrees that the book can be studied as literature.

  17. Interesting. Such debates are worth having. It’s when debates aren’t occurring that there may be a problem, i.e. society may be overly controlled in one way or another.

  18. Cymbeline

    The French are very good at this sort of debate. They have very trained, logical minds. A delight.

  19. Presumably a result of the education system you outlined before, Cymbeline.

    Judging by the likes of MyT, the level of public debate in the UK may not be all that high. Too much chronic indignation. 🙂

  20. Cymbeline

    British chronic indignation can have a sort of energetic hilarity to it. All part of a tradition, along with fulmination and ranting. It is often a pantomime veneer, brilliantly hammed up. Beneath the veneer, there is often great tolerance, and a rather mild sort of chap. Very funny.

  21. Cymbeline

    Brilliant line from Adam Garrie the other day, talking about Stephen Fry :

    “This time he’s not banging on about compassion, understanding or any of the other things that have ruined the world …”

  22. Yes, it can be, Cymbeline. I have a lot of time for the British character (or characters).

  23. Adam certainly has his moments. I’ve sometimes wondered whether he’s real or a brilliant spoof. Not that it matters, of course.

  24. Cymbeline

    Adam Garrie is real.

    Shame that the new MyT format has suffocated, channelled and gagged so much energy. Deliberate, no doubt.

  25. Cymbeline

    There is not this sort of energy in France, mainly because newspapers are not read to the same extent. The British of all social classes are great newspaper-readers – this must date from the Industrial Revolution, and the transport of newspapers by train. British thought often fans out from a reported story.

    The French have been trained to think in a more conceptual way, and they look down on the ‘fait divers’. They have philosophers who write in newspapers, and they study philosophy at school. Different sort of energy.

  26. Cymbeline

    I was a post-graduate student in France, and was often criticized for what the French academics saw as a rambling, British style. Their writing is much tighter and structured.

  27. Yes, a shame about MyT. It had a great flow of energy in its heyday … now it’s virtually stagnant.

    Interesting comparison of the British and French … I wasn’t aware of that distinction. You’re well placed to see it.

    I suppose you know that France lost in the World Cup today.

  28. Cymbeline

    * much tighter and more structured

  29. Cymbeline

    No, I didn’t know about the World Cup. I do now though.

  30. Cymbeline

    Who won?

  31. Mexico, 2-0. France probably won’t qualify for the last 16.

    Must go to bed … goodnight, and thanks for the comments.

  32. Cymbeline

    Goodnight, and thank you for supplying a place for comments.

    Sogni d’oro.

  33. Sipu

    Good morning Brendano, I was wondering whether you felt a certain righteous satisfaction,or perhaps schadenfreude is a better term, at the loss by the ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’. I too was pleased to see them defeated, though I suppose we in South Africa would have preferred a 0-0 draw. I am fond of France and the French in many ways, and I like it when they do well in rugby, but somehow their success in football irritates me. Possibly that is because the majority of the team comes from North Africa. Am I really that shallow? Probably.

    Cymbeline, in your mention of De Gaulle’s memoirs, my eye hit on the word ‘faction’. I thought that was how you were going to describe his work. I am sure that is how some of his former allies would have perceived it.

  34. Good morning, Sipu. I can’t say I was sorry to see France lose, and not just because I like Mexico. I thought the ‘it should have been us’ feeling would have passed by now, but apparently it hasn’t. 🙂

    I don’t think the majority of the team comes from North Africa … the great days of Zidane and Djorkaeff have gone. (England is lucky that Algeria doesn’t have a Zidane of its own.) The multiethnic nature of the great France team of 1998/2000 appealed to me. That team alone achieved more than England has achieved in 60 years of trying.

    In rugby, France is generally my second-favourite country.

  35. Cymbeline

    Sipu – but only for a fraction of a second, eh?

  36. Cymbeline

    Thierry Henry – responsible for Brendano’s ‘it shoulda been us’ feeling is certainly not North African. Born in France to parents from the French Caribbean – a part of the world which has been French for longer than Nice and Savoy.

  37. This poetry is first class stuff Brendan. Amongst the best in my view. I felt it.

  38. That’s good, Nobby … I’m glad you liked it.

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