04 November 2010

A dream, born in a herdsman’s shed

Tom Kettle’s monument in Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin © 2008, Pilise Gábor

Patrick Comerford

We held our Remembrance Day Service this morning … a little early, perhaps, but a moving occasion, sensitively organised and planned.

It was an honour to have been asked by the co-ordinator of this service to read Tom Kettle’s poem, ‘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.

The poem is dated: “In the field, before Guillemont, Somme, Sept. 4, 1916.”

The poet died four days later, on 9 September 1916.

Thomas Michael Kettle (1880-1916) was a journalist, barrister, writer, poet, soldier, economist and constitutional nationalist, and as a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, he was MP for East Tyrone (1906-1910).

He was one of the leading intellectuals in Irish politics at the beginning of the last century, and a gifted speaker with an incisive mind and devastating wit. As a student at UCD, he was a friend and contemporary of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Oliver St John Gogarty and James Joyce.

He qualified as a barrister in 1905, but practiced at the bar only sporadically, devoting most of his time to political journalism, debates and editing a college newspaper.

He was known doe liberal and often controversial views on a wide range of issues, including education, women’s rights and workers’ rights.

As a constitutional nationalist, he supported the Irish Party, but had a wider vision for Ireland’s place in Europe: “My only counsel to Ireland is, that to become deeply Irish, she must become European.”

In 1908, he was appointed the first Professor of National Economics but found it difficult to combine academic work with his work as MP for East Tyrone.

At the outbreak of World War I, he became a war correspondent for the London Daily News, and travelling through France and Belgium he was horrified by the German atrocities against the local civilian population.

Eventually, he was commissioned as a captain in the 9th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He was killed leading a company of his men – for whom he was “our Captain Tom” – on 9 September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, having said only a few days earlier that he preferred to die out there for Ireland with his “Dubliners.”

He has no known grave, and his death at the height of World War I was a great loss to the political and intellectual life of Ireland.

I wore a poppy this morning, and thought of my grandfather who had also signed up for the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. But he was sent home in 1916, suffering from malaria he had contracted in Thessaloniki. Tom Kettle never again saw his wife or the daughter to whom this poem was addressed. On the other hand, because my grandfather was sent back to Ireland that year, my father was born in 1918.

My grandfather died as a consequence of the malaria he picked up in Greece. He too was one of the forgotten war dead remembered this morning, as we recalled those “tired men” who “sigh[ed] with mud for couch and floor.”

1 comment:

Brian Duffy said...

Many know not what that dream was but I thank you for your Remembrance, of Kettle and all he served.