Sr. Kathy Kettle, from Perth, was one of the many people with Irish roots who arrived on these shores to attend the commemorations of the 1916 Rising. More than 260,000 attended the main state ceremony in Dublin on Easter Sunday, and around 20 of Sr. Kathy’s family were present.
They had travelled from Australia to pay respect to their ancestors – the Kettles from Artane in Dublin – who were staunch nationalists and highly educated people.
Sr. Kathy arrived in Ireland four days before the commemorations and stayed with friends in Athleague, John and Moira Burns.
It was only by chance that she discovered her family’s nationalist roots.
“My cousin Seán was doing the family tree about ten years ago and he said: ‘Did you know that your granduncle has got a bust in St Stephen’s Green?’” Sr. Kathy said on a visit to Roscommon town.
The bust is of Thomas Kettle. A man of high intellect, he was born in Artane in Dublin, and was a versatile man: an economist, journalist, barrister, writer, poet, soldier and Home Rule politician.
He fought during the First World War, “fighting for the rights of small nations”, believing that assisting British forces would hasten Home Rule.
He made the ultimate sacrifice, however, dying in 1916, not during the Rising, but in the Battle of the Somme.
During her recent trip to Dublin for the centenary, Sr. Kathy made a visit to Glasnevin Cemetery and was delighted to hear Thomas referenced.
“The tour guide spoke about him,” she said. “I went up to him later and told him that I was related. He was taken away with surprise.”
Sr. Kathy, a Sister of Mercy, only discovered the depth of her family’s Irish heritage on a visit to Ireland in 2008. During that trip she discovered that Thomas had a brother, Laurence.
Laurence, who lived far longer than his sibling – he died in 1960 – was also a high achiever. A founding member of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, he was held captive by the insurgents in the College of Surgeons during the Rising.
Laurence and Thomas’s staunch nationalism was instilled in them by their father, Andrew, a Parnellite politician and founder of the Land League.
From speaking to Sr. Kathy, it is evident that she is of a similar mindset. “It’s unfortunate the way some things ended up: it would have been nice had Michael Collins lived and continued fighting for a united Ireland,” she said.
“I think that would have been a great achievement.”
In the early 1960s, her parents, Elizabeth and Michael, lived near the Falls Roads in Belfast, with their four young children – Gerard, Marie, Michael and Don. They were tense times in Belfast. In 1963, the family emigrated to Perth.
“Mam and Dad were just thinking things weren’t going well,” Sr. Kathy said. “They didn’t want to have the boys, never mind the girls, involved with any sort of violence. The opportunity (to emigrate) arose and they took it.”
At the time of their departure to Australia, Elizabeth, who died three years ago, was expecting Kathy.
“I was conceived in Belfast and delivered in Perth,” Sr. Kathy quips.
Having joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1988, Sr. Kathy has been based in the Nairobi, the poverty-striken Kenyan city, since 2002.
Tenement life in Dublin one hundred years ago would be paradise compared to the conditions she works in at Mukuru Slums. Mukuru, where around 500,000 people live, is a place of absolute destitution.
People’s homes are huts of corrugated sheeting; there are no toilets or running water. Sr. Kathy’s vocation is to lessen their plight.
“It’s pretty awful,” Sr. Kathy said. “The population of Kenya is 14 million. Sixty-five per cent of them are living in the slums, on about €40 a month.
“Out of that, you have got to feed people, pay for their rent, then send them to primary school.”
Primary school is free under the country’s Constitution, but the reality is far different, Sr. Kathy said.
“Because of the corruption, you have got lots of people in the school trying to make a substitution for their own salary,” she added. “You would love to be able to put a stop to the corruption.”
One hundred years after the Rising, Sr. Kathy is, like her ancestors, campaigning to improve a country’s conditions – Kenya’s, not Ireland’s.