New Introduction

Niamh Reilly

Andrew J. Kettle (1833-1916) wrote his memoirs during the latter years of a very eventful life, bookended by the devastation of the Great Famine, which inspired his land reform activism, and World War I, in which his son Tom Kettle (1880-1916) died. Some forty years later, another son, Laurence Kettle (1878-1960), edited the memoirs, which were published in 1958 by C. J. Fallon under the title The Material for Victory. The reception of The Material for Victory appears to have been positive and traversed the political spectrum of the day. It was the subject of at least four newspaper or journal reviews and a radio programme hosted by Dennis Gwynn (1893-1973), a writer, veteran of World War I, and UCC history professor. In addition, in September 1958, the Irish Press ran a prominent two-week series of daily, article-length extracts from the memoirs titled “Parnell’s Right-hand Man,” illustrated by photographs and sketches of protagonists and places relevant to the accounts.

Andrew J. Kettle was born at Drynam, Swords, Co. Dublin, in 1833. The second of six siblings, his family were relatively well-off tenant farmers of a 30-acre holding. As his memoirs show, Kettle took great pride in family stories of his grandparents Mary (O’Brien) and Billy Kavanagh’s support of the 1798 rebellion in north County Dublin, and in his multigenerational Kettle family roots in the area.[1] Educated at the local national school and self-educated thereafter, Kettle was greatly influenced by his mother, Alice (Kavanagh) Kettle, who encouraged him to take action whenever he could to further social and political justice. Kettle went on to become a nationally known champion of the rights of tenant farmers, land reform, and national self-determination. He was a co-founder of the Irish National Land League with Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell, a progressive farmer, and a prolific writer of letters to the editor of the Freeman’s Journal, the leading nationalist newspaper in nineteenth-century Ireland.

Despite Kettle’s often noted aversion to speaking in public and being a “front man,” Parnell was able to persuade him to run for election on two occasions – once in County Cork in the 1880 election and a second time in Carlow in 1891. Both times Kettle was unsuccessful. However, the significance of these episodes is not political but personal, demonstrating the longevity and depth of the association between Kettle and Parnell, which is captured in The Material for Victory. This 16-chapter memoir is a remarkable document of closely observed, political microhistory recounting Kettle’s involvement in and thoughts about events, especially leading up to, during, and after the Land War (1879-82).

Laurence Kettle’s introduction to the memoirs in 1958 puts them in context for mid-twentieth-century readers. As Laurence noted, most people “may never have heard of A. J. Kettle, although ‘Andy’ Kettle was known in every Irish home only 60 years ago as the right-hand man of Charles S. Parnell and the tenant’s ablest ally in his struggle for justice.”[2] The publication also contains two substantial pieces written by Laurence to provide further background − a “Biographical Note” about his father and the Kettle family and an appendix, titled “Irish Land War Legislation.” Twelve photographs of principal figures or relevant sites also feature in the book. A reproduction of a private letter from Parnell to Kettle written in 1886 conveys the closeness of the two men’s political relationship.

This new edition of The Material for Victory retains all of the original sections, chapters, and images contained in the 1958 publication. In addition, new detailed annotation of each of the 16 memoir chapters provides present-day readers with background information about the personalities and events referred to by A. J. Kettle to make the text accessible to contemporary audiences. The present edition also includes a new “Additional Biographical Note,” which provides further details about the lives and times of Kettle’s immediate large family more than a hundred years after Kettle first committed his memoirs to paper.

A. J. Kettle, without doubt, played a vital role in what historians T. W. Moody and F. X. Martin described as “the greatest mass movement in modern Ireland”[3] − a movement which ultimately “convinced British statesmen of both parties that the landlord system as it existed in Ireland was no longer defensible.”[4] In his account of the Land League, Michael Davitt gives the following appraisal of Kettle:

[I]t is no exaggeration to say that he has been one of the most loyal, energetic, and able advocates given by the gentleman farmer class of Ireland to the cause of tenant right and nationalism, from 1848 to the present time. He has been both a friend and lieutenant to every leader of the people in his long life of most useful service to his country, and was honored by each and all of them as his sterling qualities and conspicuous abilities entitled him to be.[5]

A contemporary review of The Material for Victory by journalist and former Irish Parliamentary Party activist W. G. Fallon declared that:

Andy Kettle, a farmer from north County Dublin, […] was an outstanding figure from about 1868 into the first decade of our [twentieth] century. His name must always remain inseparably associated with the protracted Land War: the outcome of which provided the most astonishing revolution in ownership the world has ever known. Indeed, he may be described, to borrow Dillon’s epitaph for Matt Harris, as “one of the men who went out to right a wrong or perish.”[6]

Another review in 1959 by historian Kevin B. Nowlan noted:

Kettle was well placed to observe the developments of the period. He was highly respected by Parnell and […] this shrewd farmer remained to the end a loyal though at times critical supporter of Parnell.[7]

Kettle’s major contribution during the 1870s was to work with Parnell’s forerunner, the Irish Home Rule parliamentarian Isaac Butt (1813-79), to develop and promote a three-pronged strategy that would:

  • Re-galvanise organisation and mobilisation of tenant farmers across the country in support of the “Three Fs” (fair rent, fixity of tenure, free sale of interest)
  • Purposively link land reform agitation to increasing the number and cohesiveness of Home Rule MPs
  • Create conditions of readiness to deploy non-violent, mass, passive resistance of tenants, specifically in the form of a “rent strike”

Kettle advanced these goals through the establishment of the County Dublin Tenants’ Defence Association in 1873, followed by the Central Tenants’ Defence Association (CTDA), an all-Ireland advocacy network, which he co-founded in 1875-76, and, finally, by leading the tenant right movement into the fold of the Irish National Land League in 1879.

Building on this work, The Material for Victory records several critical turning points in which A. J. Kettle played a key role in his capacity as Parnell’s trusted confidant “on the ground,” either in influencing Parnell’s chosen course of action or being central to the execution of particular political plans and strategies of the Land War. To begin with, Kettle led the delegation that persuaded Parnell to run for parliament, which Parnell did, initially unsuccessfully as a candidate for Dublin in the 1874 general election. As historian Paul Bew notes: “Parnell made one important long-term friend during this campaign. Andrew Kettle was the first name on Parnell’s nomination papers; he was to be a loyal ally to the end.”[8] Parnell subsequently ran successfully in a Meath by-election in 1875 and went on to become one of Ireland’s most celebrated nationalist parliamentary leaders of the nineteenth century, along with Daniel O’Connell.

A second critical juncture revealing Kettle’s significance relates to the founding of the Irish National Land League. After Davitt approached Parnell in 1879 to propose the establishment of an organisation to combine the forces of Ireland’s three most important movements – parliamentary Home Rule, “New Departure” Fenians, and agrarian land reform – Parnell sought out Kettle to discuss with him the merits and risks of the proposal before making a decision.[9] Following the death of Butt in May 1879, Kettle was “next in command” of the “land platform.”[10] He was very concerned that recent bad harvests could lead to another famine and convened a public conference to determine the next steps of the movement. At the conference, Kettle co-wrote and seconded a “rent-strike resolution,” which, ultimately, was considered too radical by the gathering and was not approved. Parnell came to the same conference to find Kettle to get his views on Davitt’s Land League proposal. Kettle recounts how after some discussion he fully endorsed the idea and urged Parnell to go to Mayo to speak at Davitt’s planned rally the following week, advising him that “you will need to be extreme to make the right impression.”[11] In Mayo, Parnell, himself a landlord, did just that, and famously called on tenant farmers and labourers to resist evictions and to “show the landlords that you intend to hold a firm grip on your households and land.”[12]

The Irish National Land League was formally established at a meeting in Dublin in October 1879. Davitt and Parnell insisted that Kettle should chair the meeting as co-founder, arguing that “the [Fenian] men in America would not have confidence in the new land movement unless the leading Tenant Right men would join” and that Kettle chairing “would be evidence that the country was united on the question.”[13] Historian R. V. Comerford confirms the significance of Kettle’s role as “the dominant figure in the umbrella Central Tenants’ Defence Association” whose agreement “to cooperate with Davitt” ensured “the way was smooth for the emergence of the Irish National Land League.”[14]

Third, in the context of the anticipated introduction by the authorities of new “coercion” laws and policies in 1881, which were principally intended to suppress the Land League and its leaders, Kettle recounts his role in persuading Parnell and Davitt to commit to a more radical course of action than they originally contemplated. In summary, the adopted version of Kettle’s proposed “policy of concentration” consisted of all the Home Rule MPs staging a strong vocal protest against coercion in the Westminster parliament (without going so far as to get them expelled), followed by them staging a “walk out” and a return to their constituencies in Ireland, where they would await the actions of the government – presumably their arrest. According to the agreed plan, following the first arrest, the Land League would call a rent strike to force a comprehensive settlement of the land question.

Davitt and Parnell’s agreement to this course of action is indicative of the very significant influence of Kettle at this moment. The plan replaced a more moderate initial proposal from Davitt, which Kettle dubbed the “policy of dispersal,” whereby Parnell and some supporters would go to the United States to mobilise support and raise funds, while a smaller group of the Land League executive would remain in Ireland to face the outcome of the coercion laws and policies. As it happened, the authorities acted more quickly than expected, arresting Davitt within two days of the executive adopting its version of Kettle’s plan. In response, the Irish Party members “raised such a storm” that they were expelled from parliament.[15] These events caused disarray among the members of the Land League executive, the majority of whom decamped to Paris, abandoning Kettle’s “policy of concentration.” This outcome was a source of immense disappointment to Kettle.

Eventually, most members of the Land League executive ended up in Kilmainham Jail, including Kettle and Parnell, in July and October of 1881, respectively. After the arrest of Parnell, Kettle co-signed the No Rent Manifesto along with other imprisoned members of the executive on 18 October 1881. However, he did so without enthusiasm. As Kettle explains in his memoirs, at this late stage, he viewed it as a necessary gesture but a doomed strategy, given that the people, now “without leaders nor the organisation […] are called upon to start on an indefinite warfare which […] they can’t wage successfully.”[16] For Kettle, who had a keen understanding of the dynamics and conditions of effective movements, the window of possible success for a “No Rent campaign” had closed six months earlier.

Kettle writes that after his early release from prison due to declining health in December 1881, he stepped back from activism to focus on salvaging his farming business and paying down debts that he had accumulated due to the extent of his involvement in the Land War and the months he spent in prison.[17] Nonetheless, his memoirs are full of examples of interventions that he continued to make, which influenced the context of agrarian and parliamentary activism throughout the 1880s and 1890s in small but significant ways. For example, after the Phoenix Park murders in May 1882, government repression of Land League leaders intensified. Kettle observed that “Parnell’s popularity [in Ireland] was at a sort of low ebb,” which he attributed to “the failure of the Land League to produce better results.”[18] Kettle was concerned for Parnell’s safety given the level of government antipathy towards him and his movement, and his waning popularity on the ground. In 1882, to bolster Parnell’s standing, Kettle coordinated with E. D. Gray, the editor of the Freeman’s Journal, to initiate the Parnell Tribute, a high-profile fundraising tactic that evaded coercion measures, which Gray arranged to be kicked off by a £50 donation from Bishop Croke (albeit not condoned by the Vatican). The Parnell Tribute, of which A. J. Kettle was an honorary secretary, ultimately raised £40,000. This enabled public appreciations of Parnell that re-energised his supporters’ enthusiasm and buoyed his reputation.[19]

A decade later, on 28 August 1892, the Royal Irish Constabulary Inspector General and County Inspectors’ Monthly Confidential Report contained a surveillance entry on A. J. Kettle along with a covertly taken photograph of him walking along what is now Dublin’s O’Connell Street. The report noted that Kettle was “a leading INL [Irish National League] organiser and was imprisoned as a suspect under Mr. Forster’s Act [the Protection of Person and Property Act, also called the Coercion Act] in 1881. He was rejected by Carlow in 1891 when he sought its representation in the Parnellite interest. He continues to take a prominent part as a speaker and writer on the Parnellite side.”[20]


Over the last 50 years, recognition of the significance of A. J. Kettle in Irish history has grown. In particular, biographers of Parnell and historians of Ireland’s Home Rule and agrarian reform movements frequently cite Kettle’s memoirs as an important historical source.[21] Some authors have sounded a note of caution about some of Kettle’s accounts because they were “written in old age and [are] therefore to be treated with caution”[22] or because of the 30-year delay in writing them.[23] Nevertheless, scholars have consistently relied on the memoirs and steadily corroborated and woven accounts of events provided by Kettle into their explanations of critical junctures and developments during this period.

For example, Paul Bew examined the extent of Kettle’s influence on Parnell’s evolving positions on the “land question.”[24] In his memoirs, Kettle recounts a conversation with Parnell in which Kettle posits that the fact of historical over-taxation of Ireland forms the basis of a strong argument for a government-backed land purchase scheme to enable the massive transfer of land ownership from landlords to tenants.[25] Bew quotes from this conversation at length and offers supporting evidence indicating that Parnell was influenced by Kettle and subsequently sought out the experts Kettle cited to follow up on the proposition.[26]

In another example, looking at events as a historical sociologist, Anne Kane considers the “Land War” as a “discursive process of forging a national identity” in which she argues “the Irish transcended […] differences of dispersed social identities that had thwarted previous attempts at […] reform.”[27] Kettle features prominently in Kane’s analysis. She highlights his role as one of the “most radical members of the Land League […] [who] pushed a proposed strategy of paying no rent,”[28] and in doing so contributed to the forging of an Irish “national identity.” On the Home Rule front, Kane underlines the importance of Kettle’s “revolutionary plan” involving withdrawal of the Irish members from Parliament, their return to Ireland to “face arrest for treason,” and the mobilisation of tenant farmers to engage in a “retaliatory no rent strike.” She concludes that, in the end, “Parnell chose a policy close to Kettle’s proposal.”[29]


To date, there has been no detailed study of A. J. Kettle’s earlier collaboration with Isaac Butt and the work of the Central Tenants’ Defence Association (CTDA) and the Dublin organisation, both of which Kettle co-founded and led. Usually, references to the CTDA cast it as an organisation that represented larger cattle farmers[30] and, therefore, not one concerned with addressing the needs of more precarious smallholders, especially in the west of Ireland. However, this characterisation does not tally with the fact that Kettle was an innovative advocate and practitioner of tillage farming, which he favoured over large-scale livestock farming. In addition, accounts of Kettle as “a tenant-right agitator,”[31] an early proponent of “peasant proprietorship” via government-funded land purchase,[32] and one of “the most radical members of the Land League”[33] are at odds with the idea that the CTDA was just a mouthpiece of prosperous farmers. Nowlan also highlights the uniqueness of Kettle’s perspective as someone who “judged events in terms of the needs of tenant farmers and the often-forgotten agricultural labourers.”[34] Kettle’s repeated calls for a combined platform of “improvements for farmers” and “free land for labourers” challenge the assumption that the associations he established and led primarily represented the interests of affluent farmers.[35]

More generally, Kettle’s memoirs point to other promising lines of inquiry not yet fully explored. For example, while the Kettle–Parnell relationship documented in the memoirs has received significant attention since the book’s first publication in 1958, the Kettle–Davitt relationship has only come into focus more recently (such as in the works of Carla King).[36] After Parnell, Davitt, whom Kettle admires greatly, is the single most cited person in the text, which contains numerous characterisations of “Davittism.” There is much to be gleaned about Davitt himself as well as about the “battles for ideas” at the time through a close reading of Kettle’s own views and his commentary on Davitt and other protagonists in his milieu.

Also, as Nowlan noted, “[i]n many ways these recollections provide a useful addition to the literature on the political and social history of nineteenth century Ireland.”[37] In particular, Nowlan described Kettle’s vivid account in Chapter 1 of farming life in north County Dublin as a reminder that “a story of uniform misery does not do justice to the pattern of regional differences in pre-famine Ireland.”[38] Regarding other aspects of social history, Kettle’s relationship with members of the Catholic clergy was often contentious, while his commitment to working across religious denominations and interests in the role of spirituality in public life are notable. Along with this, his repeated statements on the desirability of the separation of church and politics reveal important aspects of a subject that is rarely touched on by historians of this period.[39] Because Kettle was a devout Catholic, his ideas and actions in this regard are important and suggest that a variety of viewpoints existed among Catholic nationalists before independence about the form that church–state relations should take, which were very different from what actually transpired in twentieth-century Ireland. Similarly, A. J. Kettle’s favourable view and backing of the Ladies’ Land League and Anna Parnell’s leadership of it as “Ireland’s first political organisation led and run by women”[40] are noteworthy and invite more research. His attitude in this regard, following Davitt, sets Kettle apart from Parnell and the generally strongly patriarchal Land League executive.


Laurence Kettle was concerned that he had made a mistake by delaying publication of his father’s memoirs until after the turbulent political life of a newly independent Ireland had settled down. In his Introduction in 1958, he expressed regret that none of the “thousands of […] farmers and agricultural labourers, who owed so much to my father, were still alive and would remember and understand the importance of the successful fight for the land.” Perhaps, in looking back, he underestimated how publishing the memoirs would enable future readers to reflect on the lives and times of those farmers and labourers and their families who had joined in the fight which, as Laurence Kettle described it, ultimately “freed the country […] from the state of serfdom which prevailed before my father’s time.”

In contextualising the memoirs in 1958, Laurence also wished to unsettle dominant national founding narratives and to remind readers that “the Land War was also the War for Independence” – that it was, in Fintan Lalor’s words, the material out of which the victory of independence could be forged.

Finally, Laurence sets out two deceptively modest goals for the memoirs – to “serve a useful purpose, by filling some gaps in Irish history” and to give “a view of the real Parnell.” Regarding the latter, the extent to which historians of Parnell have relied upon the memoirs demonstrates their enduring value in this respect. Regarding the former, in publishing this new edition of the memoirs, it must be stated that they also aim to foreground A. J. Kettle in his own right, as a man whose lifelong contribution to land reform politics warrants more sustained attention and analysis. More generally, with this newly annotated edition, it is hoped that the value of these memoirs in raising new questions and finding new gaps to fill in Ireland’s political, social, and economic history will be appreciated and enjoyed by wider audiences.

  1. Kettle, A. J. 1958, chap. 1.
  2. Kettle, A. J. 1958, book flap.
  3. Moody and Martin 2011, 250.
  4. Moody and Martin 2011, 252.
  5. Davitt 1904, 714.
  6. Fallon 1958.
  7. Nowlan 1959, 343.
  8. Bew 2011, 13.
  9. Kettle, A. J. 1958, chap. 3.
  10. Kettle, A. J. 1958, chap. 3.
  11. Kettle, A. J. 1958, chap. 3.
  12. Freeman’s Journal, 9 June 1879.
  13. Kettle, A. J. 1958, chap. 3.
  14. Comerford 1996a, 35.
  15. Kettle, A. J. 1958, chap. 6.
  16. Kettle, A. J. 1958, chap. 8.
  17. Kettle, A. J. 1958, chap. 9.
  18. Kettle, A. J. 1958, chap. 9.
  19. See, for example, The Pilot , 27 October 1883.
  20. RIC Inspector General 1892. With particular thanks to Dr. Declan Brady for kindly sharing details of this file, which he discovered on a research visit to the British National Archives.
  21. Lyons 1978; Bew 1980; Kee 1993; Jackson 2003; King 2009, 2016.
  22. Lyons 1978, 146.
  23. Kee 1993, 329; Nowlan 1959, 344.
  24. Bew 2011.
  25. Kettle, A. J. 1958, chap. 5.
  26. Bew 2011, 107.
  27. Kane 2011, 2.
  28. Kane 2011, 151.
  29. Kane 2011, 177.
  30. Bew 1978, 54; Moody 1982, 273; Casey 2016, 61.
  31. Thornley 1964, 94.
  32. Bew 2011, 67.
  33. Kane 2011, 151.
  34. Nowlan 1959, 343.
  35. Kettle, A. J. 1958, chap. 11; Kettle 1885.
  36. King 2009, 2016.
  37. Nowlan 1959, 343.
  38. Nowlan 1959, 344.
  39. For example, Callanan 1996, 37; Travers 2013, chap. 4; Jackson 2003, 32.
  40. King 2009, 29.


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

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