REPUTATIONS: Tom Kettle—a reappraisal

Published in Features, Issue 1 (January/February 2021), Volume 29

In recent years, Tom Kettle has featured prominently in public discourse as an exemplar of the ‘forgotten’ Irish who died in the Great War. But what did he stand for?

By Niamh Reilly

After he was killed in the Battle of the Somme, Tom Kettle (1880–1916) was widely and effusively eulogised as ‘the most brilliant Irishman of his generation’. Margaret O’Callaghan notes that ‘through his range and connections, fame and brilliance, [Kettle] knew everyone of significance in nationalist Ireland’, while Senia Pašeta observes that he was associated ‘with almost every major political and cultural development’ in his lifetime. Kettle came from a prominent Parnellite family, steeped in a tradition of agrarian agitation and Home Rule activism. While still in his twenties, he earned a reputation as a gifted public intellectual, orator and wit, essayist, journalist, nationalist parliamentarian and campaigner for social causes. He was also a poet, a professor and a reluctant barrister. After the 1916 Rising and Ireland’s decisive turn to separatism, Kettle slipped into the margins of post-independence Irish historiography for most of the twentieth century.

Above: Banner of a suffrage newspaper from 1911. Kettle supported the Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill (1910). (LSE)

In President Higgins’s speech to the Westminster parliament in 2014, Kettle was invoked in broader terms, as a unique bridging figure—symbolically reconciling Ireland and England, nationalism and unionism, and recalling the bonds between ‘these islands’ and Europe. This, however, is just the beginning of a full reappraisal of his legacy. Summations of Kettle’s life have typically been framed in terms of unfulfilled promise (often with reference to the bouts of depression and alcoholism from which he suffered). Willie Dawson, Kettle’s contemporary, disputed the legitimacy of this lens. In 1916 Dawson urged that, now that ‘the orator is silent, the brilliant wit has ceased to sparkle, and the skilful pen will ply no more’, it is more apt ‘to write of his performance’ as someone who ‘crowded into 36 years more than most … achieve in twice that span’.

Taken as a whole, Kettle’s writings and speeches express an original and coherent framework of thought which warrants comprehensive analysis and interpretation. In addition to illuminating Ireland’s intellectual history in the decade before 1916, such a mapping of Kettle’s ideas reveals him to be a distinctive, egalitarian and progressive Irish thinker whose actions appear less enigmatic than previously imagined and whose ideas and vision of Ireland remain salient today.

Range of writings

Above: Tom Kettle was a reluctant barrister, primarily owing to the ‘classism’ of the profession. He took on only a few cases, mostly involving the defence of ‘cattle drivers’, before quitting. Mary Sheehy Kettle recalled that when he was a law student, during a King’s Inns dinner attended by students and invited wealthy businessmen, one of the latter ‘was holding forth very earnestly on the rights of property and the amount of violence a householder is entitled to display toward a burglar’ when Kettle stunned him into silence with the query: ‘Have you thought about this question from the point of view of the burglar?’

One often-repeated misapprehension is that Kettle did not produce much published work. At the time Kettle died, Arthur Clery, his UCD colleague and a professional rival, expressed the influential view that Kettle’s literary output was ‘small’. Dawson later questioned the basis for the notion that Kettle had left little literary work behind. He observed:

‘In … [Kettle’s] day he must have written a great number of “leading articles”, and that in a period when those informing and guiding commentaries on affairs were taken more seriously than is now the case. The essay, however, was his particular machine. The art of condensation is essential to the essay, and Kettle was a master of this art. He could say in a sentence what many other writers would pan out over a page.’

Seán O’Faoláin also recognised Kettle’s place as a leading Irish essayist along with Yeats, Robert Lynd, Stephen Gwynn and ‘AE’. Most recently, Kettle’s second biographer stressed the enormous untapped value of Kettle’s numerous articles, essays and reviews as a source of political ideas circulating in turn-of-the-century Ireland.

Kettle’s essays were written for a general audience; they are deceptively accessible and frequently humorous. Yet most also indicate a deep engagement with ideas in philosophical, historical, literary and/or social science literatures. Kettle, who was fluent in French and German, drew on a wide range of thinkers (from Lucretius and Aquinas to Kant, Goethe, Burke, Mill, Marx and Bergson) to make sense of twentieth-century Ireland in all of its aspects—political, social, economic and cultural—and to posit new ways of thinking about and responding concretely to the big problems facing Ireland in the decade before 1916. Kettle’s essay collections, including three revised editions of The day’s burden and The ways of war, along with introductions to major works translated or edited by Kettle, and his known published pamphlets, journal articles and editorials together account for at least a hundred unique pieces authored by him. The open secret and Home Rule finance: an experiment in justice are short books that showcase his forward thinking on political, economic and social issues. Moreover, there are 235 recorded questions, comments or interventions by Kettle in Westminster during his four years as an MP (1906–10), including several substantial speeches. Kettle’s complete output, understood in this way, is very substantial, especially given that it was produced over a period of about twelve years.

Irish nationalism

Above: Kettle regularly addressed Ireland’s pressing social inequalities and the plight of labour, although he rejected calls for the abolition of private property. (Limerick Chronicle)

From Kettle’s perspective, nationalism was tied to the imperative of Ireland’s democratic self-determination as a modern nation rather than to a claim emanating from mythic notions of Ireland’s past. He asserts that ‘Nationality and Democracy’ were ‘the two supreme facts’ and ‘shaping forces’ of the nineteenth century and, in this regard, ‘Ireland is in the mainstream of European history’:

‘If you read any one of the treatises on politics … [you will find] not a single test of nationality that Ireland does not satisfy. A distinctive language, a characteristic national temperament and outlook on life, a history, a sentiment of unity in the present, common memories, common interests, a geographical area large enough to constitute an independent state—is there not a single one of these elements that we do not possess?’

In the struggle for Ireland’s self-determination as Kettle saw it, building links across all hues of nationalism was vitally important. For example, although critical of the content of Arthur Griffith’s The resurrection of Hungary: a parallel for Ireland (1904), which proposed, among other things, the withdrawal of Irish Parliamentary Party MPs from Westminster, Kettle had genuinely welcomed the ‘brilliant pamphlet’ as a potential source of common ground between ‘constitutional’ and ‘separatist’ nationalists. He lauded ‘separatists’ for ‘promoting language, literature and industries … [and] keeping alive the idea of absolute independence’. Moreover, Kettle rejected as ‘illusory and misleading’ the notion of Home Rule as a ‘final settlement’, insisting that ‘Life is growth; growth is change; and the one thing of which we are certain is that society must keep moving on’.

British colonialism and empire

The open secret (1912) is Kettle’s addition to a series of books in support of Home Rule. In friendly but darkly humorous tones, the book addresses an English audience:

‘There has never yet been an invader who did not … lie abundantly respecting the people whose country he had invaded … [T]o legitimise his own position, [the invader must] prove that the “natives” are savages, living in a morass of nastiness and ignorance. All facts must be adapted to this conclusion.’

Nevertheless, wishing to counter the use of this history to mobilise animosity against England, Kettle urges that ‘dead centuries should [not] be summoned back to wake old bitterness that also should be dead’ and that we must ‘hand history over to the scholars’.

In contrast to Irish-Ireland rhetoric at the time, Kettle aims to assert Ireland’s nationhood not by emphasising its history of oppression by England but by highlighting Irish resilience and questioning Britain’s inflated sense of its power and importance at the start of the twentieth century. Anticipating contemporary post-colonial critique, Kettle’s tack is to problematise the idea of the British Empire, unsettle its symbolic power and call into question its de facto power. He posits that, ‘On the whole, the most remarkable thing about the British Empire is that there is no British Empire’. Kettle continues:

‘Those areas of the globe, coloured red on the maps, may have all the resources requisite for a great, self-sufficing, economic unit of a new order. Their peoples may desire that new order. But until it is achieved [by consent], you must remember that the British Empire belongs to the region of dream and not to that of fact.’

As a parliamentarian, Kettle often challenged British colonial rule around the world. On one occasion he addressed the interrelationship of colonisation and sexism in a response to the position of another MP who opposed votes for women in the Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill (1910):

‘Two-thirds of the case of the hon gentleman … was this, that Hindus have not got votes, and that consequently you must not have them governed by a Government with which women have anything to do. That seems to me to be an extraordinary feeble attitude to adopt. Personally, I think that not only ought women to have political autonomy, but India should have political autonomy, and to say that you must oppress women in order to be strong enough to oppress India is not an argument which carries much conviction to me.’

Social justice

Kettle’s writings regularly address Ireland’s pressing social inequalities and the plight of labour, including three essays written specifically in response to the 1913 Lockout. In ‘Labour: War or Peace’ he satirises ‘the exaggerations of our modern fear’ of ‘unspeakable … agitators, hideously devoted to the hideous cult of Syndicalism’, which are found in the ‘transcripts of the railway train, the club smoking room, and the golf-links, that is to say, of the three foci of middle-class civilization’:

‘People ask indignantly: Why is Labour discontented? But how could it be anything else? The condition of the workers of these islands is not such as either to command or deserve permanence. Thirty per cent of them, more than twelve million human beings, count themselves fortunate if they are able to hold their places in the dim borderland where destitution merges into mere poverty.’

In ‘Labour and Civilization’ Kettle asserts: ‘The function of the economic system is to feed, clothe, and shelter, in a human way, its human units. Since ours does not accomplish this, we must amend it that it shall do so.’ He does not underestimate the challenge involved in ‘amending’ the system of distribution, noting: ‘The business world as we have inherited it … was not framed on any high ethical model’. At the same time, Kettle’s dispute with radical socialism is clear. He rejects calls for the abolition of private property but urges that ‘Every voluntary and every State proposal that tends to broaden the basis of property—co-operation, co-partnership, prosperity sharing, manufacturing guilds, taxation of unproductive surpluses—ought to be welcomed by us’.

War and militarism

Kettle was in Belgium when it was invaded by Germany in August 1914. Accounts of atrocities against civilians and cultural sites prompted him to stay for several weeks as a Daily News correspondent, to investigate and document what unfolded. Kettle was a scholar of Enlightenment thought and an early critic of Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ philosophy. From this perspective, he viewed Germany’s actions as an existential threat to every aspiring small nation and a harbinger of an alarming retrogression for all of Europe. Writing that ‘it is impossible any longer to be passive’, Kettle joined the British Army. According to his wife, Mary Sheehy Kettle, ‘it was as an Irish soldier in the army of Europe and civilisation that he entered the war’. As a high-profile nationalist in this role Kettle became a prime target of vilification in Ireland’s advanced nationalist press. He was aggrieved by the pro-German stance of some nationalists and their dismissal of accounts of the atrocities in Belgium, which he had carefully documented, as imperialist propaganda. Kettle’s correspondence from the war front indicates that he never doubted the necessity to support the war effort as he did. Nonetheless, his final essays contain searing critiques of British war policy and the treatment of Ireland: ‘England goes to fight for liberty in Europe and for Junkerdom in Ireland’. The following quotation from The ways of war captures the blend of pessimism, optimism and dark humour that suffuses Kettle’s writings on war and militarism:

‘Truly the scourge of war is more terrible, more Apocalyptic in its horror, than even the most active imagination could have pictured. When the time comes to write down in every country a plain record of it, with its wounds and weariness, and flesh-stabbing, and bone-pulverising, and lunacies, and rats and lice and maggots, and all the crawling festerment of battle-fields, two landmarks in human progress will be reached. The world will for the first time understand the nobility, beyond all phrase, of soldiers, and it will understand also the foulness, beyond all phrase, of those who compel them into war.’


It is time for a fuller and more considered appraisal of Tom Kettle’s legacy as a distinctive early twentieth-century thinker whose ideas and analyses remain salient today. The delay in doing so is partly explained by the confluence of ideological biases in deciding what matters in Irish history, an underestimation of the volume, depth and quality of Kettle’s writings, and a tendency to overplay the significance of his personal problems linked to a narrative of unfulfilled promise. Greater engagement with Kettle’s writings and ideas and how they shaped his projects and interactions with other leading contemporaries is the first step towards such a reappraisal.


Niamh Reilly is Established Professor of Political Science and Sociology at NUI Galway.



T. Burke, ‘In memory of Lieutenant Tom Kettle, “B” Company, 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers’, Dublin Historical Record 57 (2) (2004).

J.B. Lyons, The enigma of Tom Kettle: Irish patriot, essayist, poet, British soldier, 1880–1916 (Dublin, 1983).

M. O’Callaghan, ‘Political formations in pre-First World War Ireland: the politics of the Lost Generation and the cult of Tom Kettle’, in C. Nic Dháibhéid and C. Reid (eds), From Parnell to Paisley: constitutional and revolutionary politics in modern Ireland (Newbridge, 2010).

S. Pašeta, Thomas Kettle (Dublin, 2008).



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