A number of highly significant Irishmen died violently in 1916 – Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke, James Connolly and their associates to name but a few who were shot in May. Pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington had been summarily executed during the Rising. His brother in law Tom Kettle, barrister, poet and former MP followed them all in September when he died at the Battle of Ginchy on the Western front.
In between, another famous Irishman came to an unfortunate end. However not many people realise that Herbert, Lord Kitchener, hero of Omdurman, scourge of the Boers and Secretary of State for War in the British Cabinet was actually Irish. It was not something he tended to highlight himself.
But he was, in fact, as much a Kerryman as Mick O’Dwyer or John B.Keane. He was born Horatio Herbert Kitchener on 24 June 1850 in Ballylongford, near Listowel. His father, Lt.Col. Henry Horatio Kitchener, had purchased land under the terms of the Encumbered Estates Act designed to buy out bankrupt property owners after the Famine – so a sort of 19th century NAMA.
Kitchener left Kerry at the age of fourteen when the family moved to Switzerland for the health of his ailing mother. The future war lord nurtured a similar attitude to his native land as had that other great 19th century military figure, the Duke of Wellington, who allegedly observed of his Irish birth that, ‘being born in a stable does not make one a horse’. His dislike of the Irish, of course, did not stop Kitchener, like a lot of other Anglo-Irish grandees with a minimal knowledge of the country of their birth, from claiming to have an informed insight into how the country should be governed. Kitchener was for lots of stick and very little carrot.
Not that his counsel on the subject would have been widely canvassed. Kitchener made his reputation in faraway wars, starting with the Sudan and his victory at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. There he showed his compassionate side by digging up the remains of the Mahdi, slayer of General Gordon in the 1880s humiliation of Khartoum, and having his bones scattered. Even Winston Churchill, not renowned for his squeamishness, who was covering the war as a reporter, was disgusted with the slaughter of, in particular, Sudanese prisoners.
The de facto Kerryman also made his presence felt in the Boer War where his scorched earth policy and his creation of concentration camps brought the Boers to their knees in the most ruthless possible fashion. Kitchener didn’t have much time for uppity colonials.
When WW1 broke out Kitchener was quickly appointed Secretary of State for War and his iconic moustache and index finger were used as recruiting devices on the famous ‘Your country needs you’ posters.’
In a final gesture of solidarity with his native land Kitchener refused all requests for the incorporation of the southern Irish Volunteers as a unit into his New Army, despite the passage of the Home Rule act before hostilities commenced. The Ulster Volunteers however, signatories of a covenant pledging opposition to a democratic decision taken by the British parliament, became the 36th Ulster division. Consistency to Kitchener was as dangerous a vice as sentimentality.
Kitchener, who harboured a pathological hatred of journalists probably owed his appointment to the Cabinet in 1914 to a newspaper campaign designed to force the Liberal government to put this crusty old Tory in charge of the Army and Navy. Having created him the newspapers of the Press Baron Lord Northcliffe, the Dublin born Alfred Harmsworth from Chapelizod, sought to undo their own handiwork when they campaigned against him in 1915, blaming the Secretary of State for War for a chronic shortage of shells on the western front. The public sided with the most famous moustache in history and burned copies of the Times and Mail in the streets.
In June 1916 Kitchener set sail for talks in Russia on board the HMS Hampshire. The ship hit a German mine and sank, taking the Secretary of State for War with it. The reluctant Kerryman died 99 years ago, on this day.