On 11 November, together with Remembrance Day, many of us marked the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day — the day on which the agreement was signed between the Allies and Germany, effectively ending World War I.
Marking these anniversaries often brings us to the monuments erected to commemorate the lives of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, fighting for the freedom of others. Such monuments are considered by some to be sacred. Family members might visit these memorials, leave a flower or two, maybe a strand of rosary beads, perhaps even a token of memories. They might quietly pray at the site, or contemplate a life or lives that ended much too soon. Such is the case with the memorial monument erected to our Thomas Michael Kettle in St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin. In the past I have shared with you details of the other sites at which Tom’s life is commemorated; however, the constituent details in the history of this particular memorial are worth sharing because they are especially interesting. It is a history that is not without controversy.
Although the idea of such a memorial to Tom was conceived less than a month after he was killed in France, it did not come fully to fruition until more than twenty years after his death.
The T. M. Kettle Memorial Committee was formed by a group of Tom’s friends and family at a meeting in the Gresham Hotel, Dublin in October of 1916. The Committee comprised Dr. Denis J. Coffey, then President of University College Dublin (UCD), Mr. J. Devlin, M.P., Sir Henry McLaughlin, Mr. William Fallon, Lucius O’Callaghan and Oliver St. John Gogarty, along with Tom’s widow Mary Sheehy Kettle and Laurence J. Kettle, Tom’s eldest brother, as well as other friends who had best known Tom in life.1
The Committee resolved to have a portrait-bust of Tom Kettle erected in St. Stephen’s Green. To that end, a subscriptions list was created to fund the work, and an application was made to the Board of Works for a suitable place in the green. Sufficient monies were raised to allow for the selection of sculptor Albert George Power to complete the project. As well, it was decided that any unused balance from the subscription fund would be given to Mary Sheehy Kettle, to help defray the cost of publishing ’An Irishman's Calendar’ — quotations from the works of T.M.Kettle for every day of the year — and a new edition of Tom’s second book, ’The Day's Burden’.2
Albert Power worked the sculpture through a number of iterations before completing the portrait-bust in March of 1921. Letters flew back and forth between some of Tom's friends, who worried that the forehead in some of the models was much too high to resemble Tom's. However, Power assured them that all would be as it should before the final piece was cast in bronze. Also, not only did Power sculpt the bust, he crafted the pedestal, rather than leaving it to a stone mason. Once the portrait-bust and pedestal were complete, it appeared that all would be put into place on the site in Stephen’s Green. However, this was not to be the case.
In June of 1922, the Weekly Freeman’s Journal reported that a bronze bust of Tom Kettle was on exhibit at the National Gallery, a bust “of heroic proportions” that “may eventually be placed in Stephen’s Green”. In early 1927 the Board of Works allowed the pedestal alone to be erected in Stephen’s Green, and the only inscription upon it was ‘Thomas M Kettle 1880-1916’.
Both the T.M. Kettle Memorial Committee and the artist wondered when it was that the entire monument, pedestal and bust, would be put in place in Stephen's Green. Although all appeared to be in order in 1927, it did not come to pass, in part, because the Board of Works objected to the inscription of Tom’s lines from his poem ‘To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God’. It reads, “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”. In June and July articles appeared in newspapers in Derry, Kildare and Roscommon reporting that Board members objected because they believed the inscription would “cause contention, and possibly hostility to the memorial”.3
There were further objections to the planned engraving on the pedestal because it acknowledged Tom as a ‘Patriot’. It was argued that, yes, he was killed in 1916, but he was fighting in France for the freedom of Europe, not in the Easter Rising to free the Irish from British rule. It was claimed that the Commissioners on the Board of Works felt the lines of poetry and the label 'patriot' might offend the sensibilities of some Republicans.
Of course, there was no mention of the fact that, together with his brother Laurence, Tom had been a founding member of the Provisional Committee of the Irish Volunteers. Nor was mention made of the fact that, before he made the decision to volunteer for service in France, Tom had made speeches and participated in meetings encouraging young men to join the Irish Volunteers.4
Countess Markiewicz quickly disabused the Board of the notion that the planned engraving would offend anyone, adding that “she would bring all the Republicans in Dublin to the opening ceremony to see that honour was done to Tom’s memory”. The Board set that objection aside. However, it was not until 1934 that the Board of Works said they no longer had any objections to the inscriptions planned for the piece.
In fact, it would be almost sixteen years from the time of its 1921 creation until the portrait-bust of Tom Kettle was finally put in place atop the stone pedestal.
Over the course of those many years, the portrait-bust continued to be exhibited in the National Gallery in Dublin. Because of the significant passage of time, both Laurence J. Kettle and Mary Sheehy Kettle felt that the bust should be officially gifted to the National Gallery, and not be installed upon its pedestal in Stephen’s Green, as originally planned. In a November 1936 letter, Laurence wrote to Tom's friend, Chief Justice Hugh Kennedy, for advice on the matter:
"I suggested some years ago that as things had drifted for such a long time it appeared to me that the best thing to do would be to present Tom’s bust to the National Gallery, where it has been so long, to put the inscription on the pedestal in Stephen’s Green, and to do nothing further... I consulted Albert Power and he stated that the idea appealed very much to him but that he could not himself very well officially suggest divorcing one part of the monument from the other. He agreed, however, that the pedestal was sufficiently complete in itself from an artistic point of view to stand alone".5
Laurence and Mary Kettle, as well as many of Tom’s friends, agreed that keeping the bust separate from the pedestal would mean Tom would be memorialized in two places in Dublin — Stephen’s Green and the National Gallery.6 However, there was concern that some members of the Board of Works would justify entirely removing the pedestal from the green because having the pedestal stand alone deviated from the original plan.
Ultimately the decision was made to join the bust to its pedestal, as originally designed by Albert Power. In 1937, without any sort of official unveiling, the complete work was put together for viewing in Stephen’s Green, as it is today.
In 1960 the monument was once again in the news, but not for reasons you might expect. On the morning of 13 January 1960, the Daily Independent Newspaper reported that on the previous Monday, a passer-by in Stephen’s Green noticed the portrait-bust was missing from its pedestal. He reported the matter to the Board of Works. Gardai [Irish police] from Harcourt Terrace surmised that sometime during Monday night, the bust had been broken away from the iron spur that held it in place on the pedestal.
On the evening of 13 January, the Evening Herald reported that the bust had been thrown into the pond near the Grafton Street entrance to the Green. The pond was drained until the bust was sighted and it was retrieved. Footprints at the scene were examined and photographs taken, but nothing ever came of the investigation. Eventually the portrait-bust was returned to its pedestal, where it remains to this day.
Often, when I’m in Stephen’s Green, I pause and sit on the bench just to the left of Tom’s monument, or on the grass just across from him. Occasionally I have observed people stopping to admire the monument. There are those who read aloud the lines engraved on the pedestal, and talk about Tom and who he was. Some get it right; others not so much. With the passage of time, I dearly hope that people come to learn more about the very complex history of Tom Kettle, not the cipher ‘poet, orator, patriot’, but the real man, a complex human being, and as G. K. Chesterton described him, “…a man ambitious in all the arts of peace.”7
1. Per J.B. Lyons and L.J. Kettle
2. UCDA P4 The Hugh Kennedy Papers
3. The Kildare Observer 11 June 1927, p.6; Roscommon Messenger, 11 June 1927, p.3; The Derry Journal, 6 July 1927, p.4.
4. Among others the Drogheda Argus May 30, 1914 reported on Tom Kettle’s Irish Volunteers recruitment speech at Ardee, County Louth. The Weekly Freeman 20 June 1914, reported on Tom Kettle's of Irish Volunteers recruitment speeches at Portarlington, Queens County and at Maryboro, Co. Laois.
5. UCDA P4/1352 Letter from Laurence J. Kettle to Honorable Hugh Kennedy Chief Justice, 18 November 1936.
6. In Dublin, Thomas Michael Kettle is also commemorated in the Four Courts and in St. Mary’s Church, Haddington Road.
7. ‘Walking Like A Queen - Irish Impressions’ by G. K. Chesterton, 2008 Tradibooks edition, France, page 90.
©Jennifer Geraghty-Gorman 2018