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Ireland in 1916: a tale of two Thomases, MacDonagh and Kettle

The Easter Rising has produced its fair share of fine writing and none better than Yeats's great history poem, Easter 1916, which provides a fascinating insight into this seminal moment in Irish history. Yeats was not a cheerleader for the Rising. He had his doubts about it, but was moved by the valour of its leaders and recognised that the Rising had transformed Ireland.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

I write it out in a verse -

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.


- WB Yeats, Easter 1916


W.B. Yeats was right! Ireland was 'changed utterly' by the events of 1916 - at Easter in Dublin, which paved the way for Irish independence, and at the battle of the Somme later in the year, which became a rite of passage for Ulster unionism whose memory still resonates.

A centenary commemoration provides an opportunity for a comprehensive, inclusive remembering unencumbered by the memories of those who lived through those times. The success of the Northern Ireland peace process and the exchange of State Visits between the UK and Ireland mean that we are now in a position to view our overlapping past through a wide-angled lens, noticing nuances and complexities that the passage of time and changed political perspectives have made visible. 

This year's commemorations of the Easter Rising have gone very well. The formal State commemoration was conducted with impressive dignity and Easter Monday's 'Reflecting the Rising', probably the largest public event in the history of our state, brought some 500,000 people into Dublin to attend hundreds of events at which all aspects of the Rising and its legacy were recreated, discussed and analysed. Irish people clearly wanted to embrace their history in all of its complexity.

When thinking about how to capture the spirit of 1916, I looked, as I often do, to the Irish literary world for some insightful testimony. I found it in two lesser-known Irish writers from that period. It seemed to me that the nuanced complexities of that era were well illustrated by the parallel lives of two Irishmen named Thomas who both met violent deaths during that fateful year a century ago.

They were born within two years of each other, in 1878 and 1880. Thomas MacDonagh grew up in a middle-class family in County Tipperary. His parents were both school teachers and were, like most people I suppose, devoid of any active political engagement. He went to Rockwell College, a  top school in his area before training as a teacher and working in schools in Kilkenny and Cork.

Thomas Kettle came from a leading nationalist family. His father had been a strong supporter of the leading Irish nationalist parliamentarian of the late 19th century, Charles Stewart Parnell. The younger Kettle was viewed as an outstanding talent at school, where James Joyce was one of his contemporaries at Clongowes College, and at university, where he excelled as a debater.  When he was elected to parliament in 1906, as MP for East Tyrone, he looked set for a long and distinguished political career, but stepped down from parliament in 1910 to pursue an academic career.

Both men were involved in editing nationalist periodicals, The Irish Review in MacDonagh's case, and The Nationist for Kettle, and strongly supported the cause of votes for women. They both sympathised with Dublin's trade unionists during the seismic industrial dispute of 1913 and were part of an unsuccessful initiative aimed at brokering a settlement between the workers and the employers.

By 1916, MacDonagh and Kettle had each become published authors as well as colleagues and friends at University College Dublin, where they held academic posts in literature and economics respectively.  They both wrote poems dedicated to their daughters, Barbara and Betty. In normal times, MacDonagh could perhaps have risen to become a University President and Kettle, the First Minister of a Home Rule Ireland. But theirs were not normal times!

MacDonagh, one of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, was executed in Kilmainham Jail on the 3rd of May 1916, alongside his friend and fellow poet, Patrick Pearse. Four months later, on the 9th of September, Thomas Kettle, then serving as an officer with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was killed at Ginchy during the Battle of the Somme.

How was it that two such similar individuals could end up on different sides of history? The answer is that they were part of what the historian, Keith Jeffery, has termed the 'seamless robe' of Irish experience during this period.

The Home Rule crisis of 1912-1914 unsettled Ireland, leading to the emergence of two rival militias representing Ulster unionist and nationalist Ireland. The two UCD academics found themselves in prominent positions within the nationalist Irish Volunteers, set up in 1913 to counter the influence of the Ulster Volunteers which was opposed to Irish Home Rule.

 The outbreak of war in August 1914 sundered the unity of nationalist Ireland. At the time, Kettle was in Belgium on an arms-purchasing mission for the Irish Volunteers and was horrified by Germany's harsh treatment of Belgium during the conflict's opening weeks.

On return to Ireland, he sided with the majority of Irish nationalists who were willing to support the war effort in order to prove Ireland's fitness for self-government. Kettle's decision was shaped by his loyalty to the Irish Party, whose leader, John Redmond, in August 1914 had urged his followers to support the British war effort in support of small nations, notably catholic Belgium.

The resistance to Home Rule, in Britain as well as in Ulster, caused MacDonagh to lose faith in parliamentary politics.  This led him to join the more radical minority within the Irish Volunteers, who opposed enlistment and saw the war as an opportunity to strike a blow for Irish independence while London was preoccupied with continental commitments. MacDonagh became one of the leading figures in the volunteers which, although a fraction of the size of the united, pre-war body, still had a membership of some 15,000 who spent the period before the Rising preparing for a possible future confrontation.

Kettle's decision was shaped by his loyalty to the Irish Party. On the back of his experiences in Belgium, he viewed the war as a struggle for precious European values under threat from German militarism.  He threw himself enthusiastically into the recruitment drive, travelling around Ireland urging young men to rally to the defence of catholic Belgium.

For his part, MacDonagh was radicalised by the cultural politics of the early 20th century, which created an enhanced sense of Irish identity. Key to this was his membership of the Gaelic League and his commitment to the revival of the Irish language.  He later referred to the League as a 'baptism in nationalism.'

There was an irony in this for he was a talented writer in English and once described himself as the 'best west Britisher in Ireland' such was his enthusiasm for English literature. He wrote his MA thesis on Elizabethan poetry. It is notable that four of the seven signatories of the Proclamation entered public life through the gateway of the language movement, as did Eamon de Valera, another 1916 combatant who became probably the most successful Irish politician of the 20th century.

As a leading advocate of recruitment, Kettle clashed heavily with those who opposed Irish participation in the war. He believed that for Ireland to become deeply Irish, she must become more European, a sentiment that would have pleased his school-friend, James Joyce, but went against the grain of those who aspired to the creation of an Irish Ireland.

During the Easter Rising, Kettle’s brother-in-law, the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (who was also a friend of MacDonagh's and of James Joyce's - he is McCann in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), was summarily executed by a British officer. Kettle went to the front fearing that MacDonagh and others who had rebelled in Dublin would come to be viewed as heroes and martyrs while he would be derided as 'a bloody British officer.'

During the Rising, MacDonagh commanded the contingent of Irish Volunteers that took over Jacobs' biscuit factory, where John MacBride, veteran of the Boer War and former husband of Maud Gonne who obsessed Yeats throughout his life, was his second-in-command.

Just days before his death Kettle wrote an extraordinary poem for his daughter, Betty, 'the gift of God' in which he explains his reasons going to war. Its closing lines can stand comparison with the best of war poetry.

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.

MacDonagh wrote a poem for his daughter, Barbara, urging her to 'be one with the Gael' and promising that, even when the cities of Europe fade, In Ireland still the mystic rose Will shine as it of old has shone.

Ultimately, the loyalties of Kettle and MacDonagh diverged, but it was part of a complicated fissure within nationalist Ireland during a turbulent era.

The poet George Russell (AE) put it well when he wrote of Kettle:

You proved by death as true as they,

In mightier conflicts played your part,

Equal your sacrifice may weigh,

Dear Kettle, of the generous heart.

Kettle features on two memorials. He is listed on the war memorial on the stairs at the far end of Westminster's Great Hall and in Dublin's St, Stephen's Green, where he stands on a plinth where his nearest neighbour is Constance Markievicz, dedicated Irish republicans and the first women ever to be elected to the Westminster Parliament, although she refused to take her seat there.

Yeats included MacDonagh among the 'vivid faces' that people his great history poem, Easter 1916

This other his helper and friend

Was coming into his force;

He might have won fame in the end,

So sensitive his nature seemed,

So daring and sweet his thought.

George Russell, less brilliant but perhaps more judicious than his lifelong friend, WB Yeats, also elegised MacDonagh as one whose 'high talk' seemed idle, but whose words 'grew to nobleness by death redeemed.' Russell reminds us of the lofty aims that drove Kettle and MacDonagh along their respective paths, and of the price they paid for the pursuit of their ideals.

MacDonagh was also eulogised by another Irish poet, Francis Ledwidge, who, in a further enigmatic irony, was killed in 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres.

He shall not hear the bittern cry

In the wild sky where he is lain,

Nor voices of the sweeter birds

Above the wailing of the rain.

As we commemorate a momentous year that shaped Ireland, these literary lives remind us that it was not a time of simple nationalist-unionist or British-Irish dichotomies, but, in George Russell's words, a ‘confluence of dreams

That clashed together in our night,

One River, born of many streams,

Roll in one blaze of blinding light.’

The importance of that ‘confluence of dreams’ explains why I am commemorating 1916 with pride and admiration for the men and women of that talented, tragic, idealistic generation and the legacy they bequeathed to Ireland.


Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London.