Michael D. Higgins, Uachtarán na hÉireann

It is often a useful exercise, when reflecting on the historiography of a particular episode in history, to consider those figures of the time who have received less attention in the historical accounts and analyses than other, perhaps more well-known, figures. It is useful, too, to consider why this has been the case and for what purpose. In doing so, we may rectify past mistakes and omissions, provide useful alternative viewpoints, shed some new light and insights on important events from our past.

One such figure is Andrew Joseph Kettle. In most accounts of Ireland’s Land War (1879-82), A. J. Kettle, as he was usually known, is overshadowed by his compatriots – Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Davitt, and others – who have received their just place in the history of Ireland. However, as the memoirs published in this revised and updated book show, and historians increasingly confirm, Kettle played a crucial part in the Land War, what historians Moody and Martin described as “the greatest mass movement in modern Ireland.”

It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that Kettle’s memoirs receive far greater visibility, helping us, as they do, to understand more comprehensively the story of the Land War.

For decades, A. J. Kettle worked tirelessly and campaigned for ordinary tenant farmers and agricultural labourers of Ireland, and for a just agrarian system across the country. This often negatively impacted his family life, his health, and his farming business. A leading Irish nationalist politician, progressive farmer, and agrarian agitator, A. J. Kettle was one of the founding members of the Irish Tenants movement and a founding member of the Irish National Land League with Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell, amongst others.

A. J. Kettle is perhaps most remembered for his work mobilising tenant farmers across the country in support of the “Three Fs” (fair rent, fixity of tenure, free sale of interest). However, his role in increasing the number and effectiveness of Home Rule MPs played a major part in land-reform agitation. His influence can be seen as one that facilitated the non-violent, mass, passive resistance of tenants, specifically in the form of a rent strike that would have significant consequences on land reform in Ireland.

Kettle was keenly aware of the need for an institutional means of advancing his aims. He did this by establishing the County Dublin Tenants’ Defence Association in 1873, followed by the Central Tenants’ Defence Association, an all-Ireland advocacy network, which he co-founded in 1875-76, and, later, by leading the tenant right movement into the fold of the Irish National Land League in 1879.

He played a key role in his capacity as one of Parnell’s most trusted confidants, influencing Parnell’s chosen course of action and being pivotal to the execution of the plans and strategies of the Land War. This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in Kettle’s leading of the delegation that persuaded Parnell to run for parliament.

Kettle, too, played an important part in persuading Parnell and Davitt to commit to a more radical course of action than they originally contemplated – a “policy of concentration” (Home Rule MPs staging a strong vocal protest against coercion in the Westminster parliament) as opposed to a “policy of dispersal” (whereby Parnell and others would go to the United States to mobilise support and raise funds).

This policy would result ultimately in Kettle’s downfall, with he and most of the Land League being imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail. After his early release from prison owing to declining health in December 1881, he stepped back from activism, but remained committed to the cause of land reform, making several interventions which influenced the context of agrarian and parliamentary activism throughout the 1880s and 1890s in small but significant ways.

Historical biographies, factual and historical accounts, and memoir publications are a vital source of the historiography. We must bring them further into the history curriculum, providing, as they do, an engaging first-hand experience, often “from below,” of critical events of historical importance as they occurred, enabling students to relate to true-life accounts and biographies of how historical events affected both ordinary and extraordinary people across time and avoiding the confinement of the study of history to brief passages and statistical lists of dates and times.

With the ongoing debate on whether history should be compulsory up to Junior Certificate level, it is imperative that we strive for history to remain at the forefront of our education system and its curriculum for fear of it being lost forever in the minds of current and future generations. We must as a nation understand where we have come from as a people if we have any hope of transacting our history, coming to terms with it, in order to build a sustainable, peaceful future on our shared island.

That the reception of The Material for Victory appears to have been positive and traversed the political spectrum of the day speaks of the quality and importance of these closely observed accounts, memoirs that now form an essential part of Ireland’s political microhistory.

It is my hope that these memoirs are read widely and that Kettle’s important role in Ireland’s long struggle for independence be given its correct place in the historiography that is so clearly merits.

Michael D. Higgins
Uachtarán na hÉireann
March 2023


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The Material for Victory: The Memoirs of Andrew J. Kettle Copyright © 2023 by Michael D. Higgins, Uachtarán na hÉireann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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