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Irish Poets of the First World War - Tom Kettle

By Sarah Grochala

Tom Kettle (1880-1916)

Thomas Michael “Tom” Kettle was an Irish poet, journalist, barrister, economist and Home Rule politician.

He was born in Dublin in 1880 and was the son of leading Irish Nationalist politician  Andrew J. Kettle.

After studying mental and moral sciences at University College Dublin, Tom Kettle was admitted to the Irish Law Bar in 1903 and qualified as a barrister in 1905. He spent much of his time, however, writing political journalism. From 1904, he edited a pro-Irish newspaper, The Nationist. He stepped down as editor, however, in 1905, after controversy over an article that allegedly criticised the church.

In 1906, Kettle became MP for Tyrone East and took up a seat on behalf of the Irish Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons.  

In 1908, he was appointed Professor of National Economics at University College Dublin. Unlike many of his upper class contemporaries, Kettle was concerned about the state of the working classes in Ireland. In 1913, he supported the Dublin strike and lock out by publishing  articles that revealed the appalling working and living conditions of the Irish poor.

In 1909, he married Mary Sheehy, a suffragist and fellow graduate of University College Dublin. Their daughter Betty was born in 1913.

Although Kettle stepped down as an MP in 1910, he remained a staunch supporter of Home Rule. He joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and in 1914 went on a gun buying mission for them to Belgium.

Whilst in Belgium, he witnessed the outbreak of the First World War. During August and September 1914, he travelled through out Belgium and France reporting on the war for the London Daily News. He was horrified by what he witnessed, particularly the German army’s treatment of the local civilian population.

He returned to Dublin, intending to join the National Volunteers. He was in favour of suspending the campaign for Home Rule until the war was over. He was initially rejected from active service on the grounds of fragile health and instead become a recruiting officer, travelling all over both Ireland and the UK maintaining that Irish men had a moral duty to join the allied stand against Germany.  In order to become Irish, he argued, Ireland must first become European.

During this time, he continued to apply for active service and in 1916 joined the 9th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.  He left Ireland for France in July 1916.

He was killed on 9 September 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. In a farewell letter to his fellow politician Joseph Devlin,  he 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’.

To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God

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.

Tom Kettle