Saturday, July 27, 2013

A very special journey with a remarkable book of poetry: Tom Kettle: 1880-1916

Tom Kettle's Poems & Parodies
In an antiquarian bookshop in Paris — stocked with books written in English — my eyes scanned the shelves of the poetry section with the hope of making a wonderful discovery. Among the poetry titles I longed to see a book entitled Poems and Parodies. First published just over one hundred years ago in 1912, the book comprises a small collection of verse written by Thomas Michael Kettle, a first cousin in my maternal line. My search was in vain, but the propriétaire was very accommodating, and patiently listened as I told her about Thomas Kettle and his connection to France. She assured me the book would be brought into her shop should she ever encounter it. In the end I was able to find a copy online, and had it sent to me from a bookshop in Galway, Ireland.

For a while I had been searching for this edition of the book. It was published in 1916 in the months just after Tom was killed on the Somme, and so there is an introduction commemorating his death. As well, within its pages is the dedicatory poem which he wrote for his wife Mary, along with the very last poem Tom wrote and dedicated to their little girl, Elizabeth Dorothy, a poem entitled To my daughter Betty, the gift of God. There are a few of his early poems included in the book, as well as some political and war poems.

Surely there would have been a kind of magic at work if I had found the book of poems in Paris. Tom Kettle loved the city of Paris, and when he was killed in the advance on Ginchy, 9 September 1916, Tom was less than one hundred miles north of the great metropolis. If he had survived the war I have to believe he would have travelled to Paris again, perhaps with his beloved Mary and their precious girl Betty. I can imagine the three of them on a breezy Spring afternoon, strolling hand in hand along the River Seine or through the shady tree-lined paths of the Jardin des Tuileries.

When we travelled up into northern France, just past the village of Guillemont, and the fields of Ginchy, the words of Tom's poems played on my mind. From the east storm clouds were approaching, a deep growling emanating from within them like the sound of bombardment, a mnemonic powering memories of a past, distant and cruel.

So here, while the mad guns curse 
And tired men sigh with mud for couch 
and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman's
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.[1]

All along the roads on which we travelled were small patches of beautiful vermilion-coloured poppies, their faces turned up to the expanse of chalky grey skies. Then from the roadway I saw the most extraordinary sight, and we stopped so I could photograph it.

There, a long line of poppies cleaves a farmer's field in two. This stunning natural pathway brought to mind the thousands of young soldiers, just like Tom, who had marched through these fields of northern France and many others across Europe. At the bidding of the enemy's weapons, they fell upon those fields and drew their last breath there. Now it is as though each one of these poppies sways in the breeze in memory of each one of those souls.

As the sun died in blood, and hill and sea
Grew to an altar, red with mystery,
One came who knew me 
(it may be over-much)
Seeking the cynical and staining touch,
But I, against the great sun's burial
Thought only of bayonet-flash and bugle-call...[2]

We paused for a moment and stood in silent gratitude thinking about the history those poppies called forth to us. Stepping back into the car we continued along the roadway toward Pozieres, Thiepval, Lille, and on into Belgium. Dozens of military graveyards dot the countryside keeping the history alive for us, and Tom's words were ever present, whispering in my ear of the ultimate sacrifice made by so many Irish for the freedom of Europe.

Count me the price in blood that we have
not squandered.
Spendthrifts of blood from our cradle,
wastefully true,
Name me the sinister fields where the
Wild Geese wandered,
Lille and Cremona and ...[3]


Thomas Michael Kettle is commemorated in France on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing (Pier and Face 16C).

The quotations included are from poems which appear in
Kettle, T.M., Poems and Parodies.
The Talbot Press, Dublin, 1916.
These poems are:
1. To my daughter Betty, the gift of God
2. On Leaving Ireland
3. A Nation's Freedom
4. Tom Kettle is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing because he has no known grave. Serving as a temporary Lieutenant with the 9th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Tom was killed 9 Sept. 1916, in the advance on Ginchy. Tom's body was interred by the Welsh Guards when they relieved the RDF some 24 hours after the RDF took the ground that was Ginchy; however, subsequent shelling destroyed the gravesite and it was never recovered. (NAUK, WO/339 and Kettle papers UCD, LA34)
5. The words of Tom's last poem to his daughter are carved in stone at Island of Ireland Peace Park in Belgium. He is also commemorated on a plaque in the Four Courts, Dublin, and on the WW1 plaque at St. Mary's Church, Haddington Road, Dublin, incidentally the only World War one commemoration to be found in a Catholic church in the Republic.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

The French connection, and keeping it light for a little while

It's definitely summer here in the northern hemisphere. The air conditioning is working at full bore and the humidity has given my curly Irish hair an untamed life of its own. For the last few weeks I have been 'virtually' absent, spending time away in the world of people and places, travelling to England, to France, and to Belgium.

Since 2008 the focus of much of my time spent in Ireland and England has been for my history work, as well as family history research, but this summer I decided to change it up a bit, and enjoy some holiday time with my husband. Family history fit neatly on the bill on this trip as well, and is in fact one of the principal reasons for our travelling out of Paris and into northern France and Belgium. My history work also figured into the plan, but that is a story for another day.

In the course of my travels there have been a number of weighty stories to contemplate, but for now and in honour of summer, for the next little while I am going to keep it light.

So... for your viewing pleasure here are some French sights with an Irish connection.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame
You may be wondering what connection the Cathedral of Notre Dame could possibly have to Ireland. The connection to Ireland has to do with the Great Liberator, Daniel O'Connell.

As a student Daniel O'Connell bore witness to the Revolution in France. He fervently believed in the ideals of liberty, fraternity, and democracy which drove the Revolution, but saw the terrible violence of that time as an untenable route to democracy. O'Connell shared the ideals with Irish Catholics, telling them he believed Ireland could achieve true democracy without the kind of violence which had marked the French Revolution. O'Connell was deeply admired by many in France, and following his death in Genoa, Italy, in May of 1847, French Catholic activists organized a requiem mass for the Great Liberator at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. At that mass on 10 February 1848, the famous French preacher and liberal, Henri Lacordaire, delivered a lengthy funeral sermon for Daniel O’Connell, saying of him, "Your glory is not only Irish, it is Catholic."

Café De La Paix
Established in May of 1862, it is located directly across from the Paris Opera House.
Following his release from Wandsworth Prison in England in May of 1897, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde fled to Paris where he spent the rest of his days. According to the history of the long standing Paris institution, Café De La Paix, Oscar Wilde spent many happy hours in the café gazing across at the Opera House.

In fact, the history of the café holds that on a beautiful and very hot summer afternoon in 1898, regular customer Oscar Wilde, witnessed a strange phenomenon when he looked out the window from the perspective of his favourite table. The street had just been watered down on Place de L'Opera, and a light mist was rising from the ground. Suddenly, within the fog forming across the square, Oscar Wilde saw a large golden angel appear, an angel who seemed to keep growing in size. This sighting caused quite an uproar on the premises. It is said that women fainted and tables were knocked over. What was this extraordinary phenomenon? It was actually the reflection of the sun's rays against one of the gold leaf statues which stands atop the Opera house. As the sun's rays reflected into the mist, it made it appear as though the angel was floating in the middle of the square.
The Palais Garnier Paris Opera House.
Those angels in gold leaf.
Not only was Irish playwright Oscar Wilde inspired by the Palais Garnier, so too was Irish writer James Joyce, who attended performances at the Opera House on a number of occasions during his years in Paris.
Tomb of Oscar Wilde, Irish playwright extraordinaire.
Oscar Wilde died in Paris on 30 November 1900, and was initially interred in the Cimetière Parisien de Bagneux, just outside the city of Paris. In 1909 his remains were exhumed and he was reinterred, this time in the famed Cimetiére Pére LaChaise beneath this fabulous stone. As you can see, the tomb is now surrounded by plexiglass in order to prevent enthusiastic fans from marking the tomb with a lipstick-stained kiss, a practice which was slowly eroding the stone. It appears the plexiglass proved to be not enough of a deterrent, so the tomb is now also surrounded by a metal fence.

Shakespeare and Company Bookshop
This bookshop, originally named Le Mistral, was opened in 1951 by George Whitman. He renamed the shop Shakespeare and Company in honour of Sylvia Beach, who opened a bookshop by that name on 17 November 1919 at 8 Rue Dupuytren. Sylvia Beach's shop was a touchstone for some of the greatest writers of the 20th century, including James Joyce, who frequented the bookshop in the late afternoon several times a week when he lived in Paris. In fact, Sylvia Beach was the first publisher of Joyce's landmark novel Ulysses. Beach's shop was closed in 1940, during the German occupation of Paris, and was never re-opened. Today George Whitman's Shakespeare and Company is operated by his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, and the shelves are still filled with the work of Joyce and many other writers who once called Paris home.

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