Sally Richardson reviews Thomas Kettle by Senia Paseta (Life and Times New Series), UCD Press in association with the Historical Association of Ireland, ISBN 978-1-906359-13-3, €17 pbk
THOMAS KETTLE (1880-1916) has not had a biography to himself since J B Lyons published his appropriately named The Enigma of Tom Kettle in 1983 so Senia Paseta's new monograph on this strange and interesting figure is especially welcome.
Also welcome is the new series of the Historical Association of Ireland's Life and Times concise biographies, which started out some years ago under the Dundalgan Press imprint. It has now been taken over by the excellent UCD Press and given a makeover and smart new livery, keeping the bright blue colour scheme of the originals. The aim of the series is to provide scholarly and accessibly brief biographies of major figures in Irish history by experts in the field, suitable for Leaving Certificate, A level and undergraduate students but also for the general reader.
Paseta sets the 'Life' well within the context of the 'Times' and she has an in-depth knowledge of constitutional politics in Ireland before the Easter Rising.
Thomas Kettle was widely regarded as a towering intellect and was marked out for a glittering career while a student at University College Dublin, where he thrived and where his friends included Frank Sheehy Skeffington. He was a leading light and president of the Young Ireland Branch (YIB) of the United Irish League, a disparate but lively and unconventional grouping. Charming, popular and teeming with ideas, books, journalism and pamphlets poured out of him (Paseta has edited UCD's reprint of his Open Secret of Ireland).
Elected as MP for East Tyrone in 1906, he remained a staunch Home Ruler and constitutionalist even as progressive thought moved towards republicanism and physical force. However, Kettle deserves credit as one of very few Irish Party MPs who supported women's suffrage (Willie Redmond, also later to be killed in action in the First World War, was another). His devout Catholicism was resolutely anti-sectarian and he believed that the Catholic hierarchy should not put its finger in the policy-making pie.
He was critical of Irish-Irelanders who sought isolation as well as independence, and thought the Gaelic League insular. He wanted Ireland to take its place in the European mainstream, believing that "in order to become deeply Irish, (Ireland) must become European" and opposing protectionism. His conviction that Europe's war was Ireland's war too was behind his support for Irish involvement in World War I.
His undoubted commitment to the Allied cause was, however, only part of his decision to join the British army. Like Rupert Brooke, he thought a plunge into the bloodbath of the First World War would wash him clean of his personal problems.
Kettle was never to fulfil his early promise. Dogged by frequent bouts of depression, he succumbed to alcoholism, which hampered his career, and his public exhibitions of drunkenness made him an embarrassment to his friends.
Basically, he was yesterday's man. For all his brilliance, he was caught between an outdated constitutional movement that he was too progressive for and a revolutionary republican movement for which he was not progressive enough. The Easter Rising was the work of those who were determined to prevent Home Rule being implemented because it was no longer enough, and he had been left behind. His death on the Western Front in September 1916 was as brave and senseless as any.
It's an impressive start to the new series. Perhaps UCD should reprint some of the out-of-print biographies from the old series, especially J L Hyland's James Connolly (no better introduction to Connolly's life and work exists) and Thomas Bartlett's Theobald Wolfe Tone. Meanwhile, look out for John Mitchel by James Quinn and Denis Guiney by Peter Costello in the current series.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2009 Sally Richardson