Friday, November 18, 2016


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There are a few things to be said about St. Mary's church, Haddington Rd.

It is a beautiful church.

It is the only Roman Catholic church in Dublin, and perhaps in the country, that has a quality plaque on the wall commemorating parishioners who died in WWI. We are used to seeing a profusion of these in Protestant churches but this is different.

The church is also host to a series of very high quality lectures, sometimes on church related topics and sometimes less so. They are part of the "Patrick Finn Lecture Series", so named after the, now sadly deceased, enlightened Parish Priest who instituted them.

Tonight (17/11/2016), it was fitting that the talk was about Tom Kettle, who was one of those parishioners who fell at the Somme on 9 September 1916.

And it was also fitting that the talk was given by Maurice Manning, who, incidentally, was one of my tutors in UCD in the 1960s. I have him to thank for giving me access to what was then a restricted access book by Paul Blanchard. Thanks Maurice.

Maurice has a deep understanding of, and empathy with, the history of this country, and in the course of his talk he also demonstrated a nuanced appreciation of this complicated man, Tom Kettle.

There is a fine bust of Kettle in St. Stephen's Green and that is where I first came across him many years ago. I didn't really know anything about him but assumed he was one of our heroes as a result of something or other. In fact, there was very little talk about him since until more recent times when the country started having to come to terms with the twin legacies of the 1916 Rising and WWI.

I am very aware of this as I was brought up on the Rising only to find, in more recent times, that I had an uncle killed on the Somme in the same year as the Rising.

It is this ambiguity that plagued Kettle in the final years of his life. He was essentially a nationalist and had been sent to Belgium to buy guns for the Volunteers. But the German atrocities he saw there convinced him that there was a wider cause to be supported if civilisation was to be preserved, and this is what motivated him to join the British army.

Initially denied the chance to go to the front, for health reasons, he embarked on an intensive campaign of recruiting for the British Army on the home front. For this he was frequently vilified and on one occasion badly beaten up.

He was jeered at for asking others to do what he himself did not, and this stung. So much so that, despite his abhorrence at the British reaction to the Rising, he contrived to get to the Western Front, and died in this, to him, greater cause.

He did his best not to be misunderstood and, as a result we have as part of his legacy, his poem explaining himself to his newly born daughter at home.

The final lines of the poem have by now become a cliché, but Maurice made the point that the earlier lines are a thing of beauty and to prove it he read the whole poem.
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.

As to the rest of his personal life and his career. He was apparently both brilliant and good company. He became professor of political economy at UCD, a component college of the newly established National University. He didn't necessarily know any much economics but had an enquiring mind and an enthusiasm that inspired his students.

He became an MP in the UK parliament but found that a bore. He mixed in London intellectual and literary circles. And then he took to the drink which sadly crucified him and his wife Mary from there on in. This flower of Irish youth was reduced to a serial promiser to quit the booze, again. So sad, and a part of his life that has been downplayed by the nationalist tradition. But it was part of him, and Maurice faced it full on. But he also reminded us that he rose above it, hence the quotation of the full poem.

So let us honour him in his full complexity and that of the times he lived in.

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