The Material for Victory: The Memoirs of Andrew J. Kettle, Laurence J Kettle (ed), introduction and additional biographical note by Niamh Reilly and annotations by Niamh Reilly and Jane O’Brien, The Open Press at the University of Galway, 300 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-1911690146 (paperback), 978-1911690153 (ebook)
Andrew J Kettle (1833 – 1916) can lay just claim to be the ‘third man’, along with Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt, of the triumvirate based in Ireland that instigated the momentous ‘New Departure’ in the late 1870s. This brought together for the first time the social question of the Land War and the national question of Home Rule in a formidable political combination that left a mark not only on Irish politics but on wider economic questions, particularly the orthodoxies of the day relating to private property and free market ideology.
As early as 1874, Kettle led the delegation that first persuaded Parnell to stand for parliament, and it was Kettle, following his long involvement with earlier tenant right movements under Isaac Butt, who urged Parnell to take a leadership role with Michael Davitt in the Irish National Land League, on its founding, with Kettle as chair, in 1879.
In a rare flash of humour, Parnell declared that by his name alone, Kettle was destined to become a household name in Ireland but it was not to be, as the Land War and the campaign for Home Rule receded from popular memory with the demise of the Irish Parliamentary Party following the Easter Rising of 1916. Indeed it did not take too much imagination for Kettle’s enemies after the disastrous Parnell spilt in 1890-1 to turn his name against him, not least when, standing as a pro-Parnell candidate in Carlow, he was shouted down as Parnell’s ‘utensil’ and his speeches drowned out, as the valuable notes in this edition recount, ‘by the din of kettles’. Empty kettles, we might say, make most noise.
Much of the retrieval of Kettle’s reputation is due to this memoir, The Material for Victory, not published in his lifetime but brought into print over forty years afterwards, in 1958, by his son Laurence J Kettle, a key figure in Sean Lemass’s industrialisation policy in Ireland. In this republication of the classic memoir, the original text is framed by instructive background and biographical essays by Niamh Reilly, to which are added extensive, informative annotations by both Niamh Reilly and Jane O’Brien.
Kettle was born in 1833 into a tenant farmer family engaged in tillage in north County Dublin. The evocative account of his early childhood provides rare glimpses of this stratum of society in pre-Famine Ireland, stretching back to a graphic account of the destruction wrought by the night of the ‘Big Wind’ in 1839. But the Great Famine left a trail of destruction that extended over many years, instilling in the young Kettle a lifelong determination to place the social question of food and material needs at the heart of political struggle. The influence of his mother, Alice Kavanagh, who had family ties to the 1798 rebellion, is striking here, her condemnations of the catastrophe, as he recalls them, containing what may be the first use of the foundational human rights phrase ‘crimes against humanity’. He gives his mother’s words verbatim, including New Testament quotes: ‘Remember that the human race will be judged on the doctrine of humanity: “I was hungry and you gave Me to eat. I was naked and you clothed Me.” The crimes against humanity are seldom forgiven.’
This is where the dating of the work is pertinent. Even if Kettle attributed the phrase to his mother in retrospect, it was still highly unusual at the time he wrote in the early 1900s. Roger Casement uses the term, but only in his unpublished Amazon Diary. Coincidentally, the first published use would appear to be in the 1870s journalism of the then New York Herald war correspondent, James J O’Kelly, who later became a Parnellite MP for Roscommon and, along with Kettle, one of the deposed leader’s most steadfast supporters after the split.
As one of Parnell’s closest associates, Kettle travelled extensively with the leader, and much of his memoir recounts conversations and exchanges on such journeys. In what could be a scene from the theatre of the absurd, he recalls visiting Cork in early 1880 on the eve of an election in which Parnell, without their knowledge, had been nominated as a candidate. Their surprise was even greater when they discovered it was Tories who had nominated him, wishing to split the nationalist vote. With characteristic energy, Parnell undertook a whirlwind tour of Douglas and Blackrock, and returned to the city to find a crowd of 30,000 waiting for his speech. He was duly elected – the beginning of the epic parliamentary campaigns of the 1880s.
Of the many rewarding insights in the memoir on issues that divided the Home Rule/Land League alliance, not least was the contentious – but strangely, seldom discussed – question of land nationalisation. This policy was promoted by Michael Davitt, Thomas Brennan and John Ferguson among others, and gained additional impetus under the influence of the renowned social reformer Henry George, who covered events for the New York-based Irish World newspaper during an extended stay in Ireland. Kettle recounts a startling exchange when he met Parnell unexpectedly before breakfast in the New Railway Hotel at Mallow in 1880 (the conversational tone is a novelistic feature throughout the memoir).
‘Do you know, Kettle, what I have been thinking about for the last few minutes?’
‘Well, I give it up, so you may as well tell us.’
‘Why, the land does not belong to the landlords at all.’
I answered, ‘Is it only now you found that out?’
‘Yes, just within the last hour.’
‘Why,’ I said, ‘I called them the head stewards of the National Property years before I heard of Davitt or Henry George. In addition, they are unjust stewards who want to confiscate what the people put in and on the land.’
‘Yes,’ he says, ‘the Irish Land system seems to be bad all through.’
The concept of ‘National Property’ (not just national territory) underpinned the call of ‘the land for the people’, and while Davitt and George did not win the case for nationalisation, the Irish land question, as has been pointed out by many commentators, made substantial dents in the myths of absolute property rights, market mechanisms and laissez-faire capitalism. ‘Peasant proprietorship’ is often seen as capitalism in miniature, but it was envisaged by the Queen’s University Galway economist John Elliot Cairnes, and through him the influential authority of John Stuart Mill, as preventing the development of unbridled agrarian capitalism along English lines in Ireland.
On this dominant model, extensive farms, maximising economies of scale, would be worked entirely as business ‘machines’ (the economist Nassau Senior’s term) by farm/wage labourers. As a correspondent of David Ricardo’s wrote as early as 1822: ‘[N]o permanent or substantial good can be done till all small farms are got rid of. They are the curse of Ireland. They are calculated to destroy the wholesome dependence of the lower upon the upper classes which is one of the master links of society … The two deficiencies of Ireland are want of capital and want of industry [i.e. work ethic]. By destroying small tenancies, you obtain both.’ This, to some extent, represented the trajectory of Irish agriculture after the drastic clearances of the Great Famine, as grazing and ‘ranching’ took over from smallholdings based on tillage and, to a lesser extent, dairying, and imminent threats of famine and destitution began to appear once more on the Western periphery in the late 1870s.
In the face of these developments, the case for peasant proprietorship in the Land War was not made in terms of capitalist orthodoxy or abstract exchange value but derived, as Gladstone conceded, from extra-economic forces to do with subsistence rights, historical claims of occupancy, and specific national circumstances. For the landlord, by contrast, land was still primarily a commodity measured in absolute property rights, even if its possession was decked out in the aristocratic garb of the Ascendancy. Ironically, it was the hauteur of the Big House, in turn, that drew attention to the fact that its levelled lawns were not acquired on the open market but also through extra-economic modes of coercion under colonialism.
The weak link in Davitt’s espousal of nationalisation was whether it could be undertaken by the British state, thus obviating the need for Home Rule – Henry George, moreover, not helping matters when he proclaimed ‘Let them be Land Leaguers first, and Irish men afterwards.’ But, in fact, by inscribing the national question on the struggle for land, ‘National Property’ in Kettle’s words, had ineluctably placed the idea of state intervention in the so-called free market economy, thus establishing a pattern that would persist into the twentieth century.
That peasant proprietorship required substantive state intervention was the ultimate political affront to supporters of free market ideology. In the face of the prospect of famine and disease breaking out again on a mass scale in the West in the late 1870s, it was clear that philanthropy, private charity and ‘benevolent’ landlords could no longer compensate for the pitiless logic of free market capitalism, particularly as it applied to the Irish countryside. In this, the main activists in the Land War were supported by developments in rethinking the land question, spearheaded by George Campbell and George Sigerson, as commentators (many of them in the Irish ‘historical school’ of economics represented by J Kells Ingram, T Cliff Leslie and others) began to question the nostrums of classical political economy.
John Stuart Mill, rethinking his earlier economic views in the light of conditions in Ireland, argued that the small farm, basing production on the family or household unit, made for higher production and standards of living, as could be seen already in the wider European experience. Overseen by state provision, responsibility was thus assumed for the social questions of land distribution, food, and accommodation – instituting in the 1880s, for example, the first public housing schemes on these islands, as well as laying the basis for land distribution schemes in ‘congested districts’ and elsewhere. Market mechanisms had to be adjusted to local circumstances or ‘topographies of capital’ (to adapt Caitlín Doherty’s phrase): there was no universal science, no iron laws of economic necessity.
Peasant proprietorship is thus better understood as a move away from classical liberal individualism, prefiguring the modern welfare state, and was underscored by the collective nature of the struggle which, as Mill and later commentators such as Max Weber envisaged, would also require the building of co-operative movements to compete against large scale enterprises. Reversing the standard model of a progressive metropolitan centre modernising a backward rural periphery, struggles in the Irish countryside ushered in the modern, but with a notable difference: instead of producing ‘economic man’ or homo economicus, the ‘land for the people,’ in the eyes of figures such as Kettle, redefined proprietorship itself as part of a wider, collective political project of national self-determination.
A constant suspicion runs through Kettle’s memoir, however, that political machinations would distract from the social question and mark a shift towards London and the clutches of the Parliamentary Party – a suspicion that proved to be well-founded. His early advocacy of a ‘walk out’ from parliament in response to the Coercion Acts in 1881 was an early form of abstentionism, just as his proposal of a No Rent strike was a precursor of national strikes as political weapons during the War of Independence.
This progressive strand, attending to the social question, provided much of the material basis of the Cultural Revival, and was still evident in the primacy accorded to the public interest over private property in the constitution of the Second Dáil. Such classical republican tenets did not prevail in the settlement of the Treaty, however, as confessional politics and conservative retrenchment defined the parameters of the new Free State.
An unresolved issue, however, carried over from the Land War, still ensured that ‘National Property’ was to be conceived of in concrete historical terms rather than abstract market exchange. This concerned the campaign against land annuities, paying back the British government for land that was considered to have been confiscated in the first place. Instituted by Peadar O’Donnell in Donegal in the mid-1920s, this policy was appropriated by de Valera’s Fianna Fáil party and was instrumental in unseating the Cumann na nGaedheal government in 1931/32.
Kettle’s ‘back-stage’ access to the divisions and rancorous disagreements concealed behind a show of unity in the Irish Parliamentary Party bears out Conor Cruise O’Brien’s observation that the different factions seemed to be held together by little more than the force of Parnell’s imperturbable personality. This is affirmed time and again: in his conversations with John Redmond about reactivating Home Rule in the ‘Round Table’ negotiations at the turn of the century, Kettle writes that Redmond ‘admitted he did not feel strong enough to adopt that line, that it would take a man like Parnell to carry out such a policy, that he could only lead on his own lines’ (emphasis added).
Similar views were echoed by no less a political thinker than Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses when he compares the next new man on the scene, Arthur Griffith, to the lost leader: ‘You must have a certain fascination: Parnell. Arthur Griffith is a squareheaded fellow but he has no go in him for the mob.’ As hinted by Bloom, it was not just the party but the country on which Parnell kept a firm grip. Kettle remarks that during the leader’s heyday, ‘there was no necessity for pronounced agitation as long as Parnell was guarding the watchtower’, the implication being, as Parnell himself warned, that once he was sent to prison, Captain Moonlight would take his place.
All this does not make for hero worship of Parnell on Kettle’s part but, in fact, the opposite: as Hegel famously remarked, ‘no man is a hero to his valet’. Kettle was no valet but still enjoyed privileged access to Parnell in his unguarded moments. One of the enigmas of a figure like Parnell – or indeed Napoleon, as represented in Ridley Scott’s recent film – is whether those closest to them, in private life or domestic relationships, got to know the ‘real’ individual. The paradox of ‘Parnell’s faithful few’, as Kettle shows, is that it was those who saw him warts and all, and who were exposed to his caprice and fragility, who gave him their undying loyalty. ‘He always so compelled my respect that I could never fairly criticize his policy in public,’ Kettle writes, though he recounts frequent disagreements, and even fallings out, in private.
It was in fact the failure to negotiate the porous boundaries between private and public life that brought about Parnell’s downfall. As Katherine O’Shea pointed out, her relationship with Parnell was widely known, not least by Gladstone, and it was the exploitation of it for opportunistic reasons rather than the actions or information themselves that provided the pretext for the moral grandstanding of the divorce crisis. Andrew Kettle’s distinguished son, Tom Kettle, went on to write The Open Secret of Ireland, and one of the recurrent concerns in his father’s memoir is distortions of the information flow, and the intimate connections between power and knowledge.
Kettle first became aware of Katherine O’Shea as early as 1881, when Parnell read from a long speech drawing back from steps that might have helped to settle the land question. At this point, John Dillon whispered to him: ‘“It was Kitty wrote that. Parnell never wrote a line of it.” This was the first I ever heard of that unfortunate, unlucky political adventuress, and English governmental agent.’ This put-down of Katharine O’Shea as an agent or spy working on behalf of the British to depose Parnell was part of a whispering campaign at the time. Certainly, as the Pigott forgeries and the infiltration by Le Caron show, there was no shortage of orchestral manoeuvres in the dark, but they had more to do in Parnell’s case with Captain O’Shea and the opportunities he gave to the British establishment, in league with conservative Irish factions, to check the increasing rise of nationalist movements and embark on a constructive unionist regime of ‘killing Home Rule with kindness’.
Notwithstanding this, one of the notable aspects of the account of the Land League is Kettle’s unstinting praise for the Ladies Land League, under the leadership of Anna Parnell who, in his eyes, was a better reader of the Irish land situation than her brother. His account of her is worth quoting at length, reverting as it does to the political outlook of his mother:
When I had an opportunity of making Miss Anna Parnell’s acquaintance, I became even more enthusiastic about [her] than Mr. Davitt. I found she had a better knowledge of the lights and shades of Irish peasant life, of the real economic conditions of the country, and of the social and political forces which had to be acted upon to work out the freedom of Ireland than any person, man or woman, I have ever met. It was a knowledge that reminded me very much of that of my own mother. It was simple, masterful, and profound. Ignorance of the ethics of the real condition of Ireland has, in my opinion, been the chief cause of the failure of all our movements and our leaders in their efforts to work out the redemption of the country. Anna Parnell would have worked the Land League revolution to a much better conclusion than her great brother.
One of the distinctive virtues of Kettle’s memoir in the last instance is the resonant narrative voice it brings to bear on accounts of events such as this. It is not just a dry record but reads almost as if the events are unfolding at the time, with all the uncertainties of what is to come. With a novelist’s eye for detail and the telling phrase, there is much filling in of what takes place off-stage or behind the scenes, the possibilities of roads not taken, or options closed off, because of pressures or unforeseen circumstances. This is what the editors bring to the re-publication of the text as well, making its reissue all the more welcome in the present day when wars of dispossession again dominate the news, evictions once more are the order of the day, and the most vulnerable of asylum-seekers risk being burned out of their meagre accommodation. As the book title suggests, material for victory, material issues and needs, still define social questions when economic power and control remain in the hands of the few.
(The Material for Victory is available free to download at: https://openpress.universityofgalway.ie/materialforvictory/; print copies can be ordered at cost + postage by contacting: [email protected])
Luke Gibbons’s most recent book is James Joyce and the Irish Revolution (2023).