He was the devout Catholic and Irish-language activist who played a vital role in the struggle for republican purity. In this extract from the Dictionary of Irish Biography, Brian P. Murphy tells the story of John Joseph O'Kelly

John Joseph O'Kelly ('Sceilg'; Ua Ceallaigh, Seán) (1872–1957), writer, journalist, republican, Irish-language activist, and member of the first and second Dáils, was born 7 July 1874 on Valentia Island, Co. Kerry, and later took his most well-known pen name, ‘Sceilg’, from the nearby island.

O'Kelly was born on Valentia Island, Co. Kerry, and took his pen-name from the nearby island. Photo: Getty Images

His parents were Patrick and Ellen Kelly (née O'Sullivan). He was the second eldest child among three sons and four daughters who survived infancy (three did not). O'Kelly was deeply influenced by his family and Kerry origins: on the one hand, he sympathised with the Fenian heritage of his godfather, James O'Sullivan, which he celebrated with a ballad to the Fenians of Caherciveen.

On the other hand, he was proud of the achievements of Daniel O'Connell, and identified with the opening of the O'Connell memorial church in Caherciveen, where his uncle, Fr J. O'Sullivan, said the first mass in 1902. Later O'Kelly played an active role in the effort to restore O'Connell's home at Derrynane, Co. Kerry, writing a pamphlet, Save Derrynane, and a book, O'Connell Calling: the Liberator's Place in the World (1947).

Daniel O'Connell. Despite his Fenian roots, O'Kelly was an admirer of the Great Liberator

Two of his ancestors, Fr John O'Sullivan and Fr Florence O'Sullivan, had been elected rector magnificus of Louvain University in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and had left bursaries for their descendants. O'Kelly chose not to accept a bursary, but these Louvain connections engendered a firm commitment to the Catholic faith, and an acute awareness that it was persecution by the English authorities that had driven his ancestors abroad.

Educating himself

He attended the national schools at Corabeg and Portmagee, but did not attend secondary school. He learned Irish from his father, reading the Irish columns in the papers by Fr Peadar Ó Laoghaire and Douglas Hyde  and from storytellers on the island.

He also participated in Gaelic games, and was a friend of J. P. O'Sullivan, captain of the famous Laune Rangers team from Killorglin, Co. Kerry. Later in Dublin he associated with Michael Cusack, when Gaelic games were played in the Phoenix Park.

The GAA's Michael Cusack, whom O'Kelly knew through his own GAA activities.

The difficulty of earning a living from the land, especially if the landlord was harsh, was brought home to him in 1883, when he witnessed two large liners, the Belgravia and Furnesia, enter Valentia harbour and take about 1,250 people from the Ivereagh peninsula to America.

By 1897, when O'Kelly left Valentia for Dublin, he was a faithful catholic, a convinced separatist, and a fervent adherent of the Irish-language movement. He was also resolved to advance his own level of learning.

Teacher and journalist

O'Kelly earned his living from teaching and journalism. He taught Irish at Newbridge College; the Dominican Convent, Eccles St.; Loreto, St Stephen's Green; and degree classes at Cecilia Street Medical School. He also wrote an Irish column for the Irish People under the pen name ‘XYZ’ and for the Freeman's Journal (1901–5).

His articles in the Freeman's Journal called for a debate in Irish not only about the language itself, but also about the land, industry, and economic matters.

He also won some sixteen prizes in the annual Oireachtas competitions, mainly in the years 1901–11, in such diverse categories as history, poetry, plays, and songs. Many of these pieces were later published. He also played a significant, even indispensable, role in the publication (1904) of the Irish–English dictionary by Fr P. S. Dinneen.

This work brought him into contact with the Irish Texts Society, which had sponsored the dictionary. His brother-in-law, Fr Thade O'Sullivan, parish priest of Hounslow, Middlesex, England, was a supporter of the Irish Texts Society, and, having supported C. S. Parnell  in the crisis years, was the only priest from England to attend his funeral.

Charles Stewart Parnell. O'Kelly's brother-in-law was the only priest from England to attend his funeral. 

The informal meeting place for Irish-speakers in Dublin was An Stad in North Frederick St., and it sustained Irish-Ireland ideals in a convivial social setting. O'Kelly joined the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, and his book on Irish missionaries in Europe was published in 1904.

The Keating branch

In 1906 he became a member of its council, served on its publication committee, and in 1914 was appointed secretary. He also joined the commercial branch of the Gaelic League, and in 1900 was appointed assistant secretary to the League executive with a salary of £52 a year.

In December 1901 he resigned that position, having failed to secure the position of either local organiser or general secretary, which commanded higher salaries.

Earlier in 1901 he, along with fellow Munstermen Shan Ó Cuív, Tadhg Ó Donnchadha, and Risteard Ó Foghludha, had founded the Keating branch of the Gaelic League, and he had been appointed as one of its honorary secretaries.

This branch had a more advanced nationalist view than the League executive, and it also initiated many positive developments for the language movement, e.g. the foundation of Ballingeary Teacher's Training College (1904); the formation of the Keating Actors (1902), under the direction of W. G. Fay and notable for its women members; and the publication of a monthly journal, Banba (1901–6), which was edited by O'Kelly, and had contributions from leading writers in the fifteen issues that appeared.

Bitter differences

Bitter differences arose between the Keating branch and the League executive, and O'Kelly was central to two incidents that fuelled their acrimony: firstly, Patrick Pearse, rather than himself, was selected as editor of An Claidheamh Soluis in 1903; and secondly, he was dismissed from his position at the Freeman's Journal following the intervention of Hyde and other executive members in 1905.

Douglas Hyde, whose intervention led to O'Kelly's dismissal from the Freeman's Journal

Hyde attempted to redress any hurt caused to O'Kelly by coopting him onto the executive in 1906, but his attempt was nullified by other members of the executive. A third controversy (1908), concerning the payment of special fees for the teaching of Irish, also aligned O'Kelly and the Keating branch against the League executive.

Significant and bitter expressions of opinion were voiced in the pages of An Claidheamh Soluis between Pearse, the editor, and Cathal Brugha, Piaras Béaslaí and others.

Political activities

While primarily involved in Irish-language matters, O'Kelly also participated in political activities. He joined the Celtic Literary Society in 1899, where he associated with Arthur Griffith and Willie Rooney, and he was a founder member of the Sinn Féin party in 1905.

He had earlier supported the interesting and significant call made by Fr Peter Yorke in 1899 that the Gaelic League should be true to its original motto of ‘Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin amháin’, a call that had alarmed the League executive.

While O'Kelly was not a member of the IRB, the Keating branch became closely identified with that body, especially after the election of Cathal Brugha as president in 1910. The headquarters of the branch, at 2 North Frederick St. and then 46 Parnell Square, became the centre of IRB gatherings.

O'Kelly's comrade Cathal Brugha

Among the IRB men who attended the branch, were, apart from Brugha himself, Piaras Béaslaí, Richard Mulcahy, Gearóid O'Sullivan, and Diarmuid O'Hegarty, and immediately prior to 1916 they were joined by Sean Mac Diarmada, Tom Clarke, Thomas Ashe, and Michael Collins.

The Catholic Bulletin and the 1916 Rising

In 1911 O'Kelly was appointed by Gill's publishing house to be the editor of a new monthly magazine, The Catholic Bulletin: a Monthly Review of Catholic Literature. Originally its aim was to promote wholesome literature for the family and to support vigilance committees in their opposition to undesirable publications.

Among its contributors were Francis Ledwidge, Alfred O'Rahilly, Daniel Corkery (1878–1964), Eoin MacNeill, and many Gaelic Leaguers.

Several priests and bishops were regular contributors, as also were many women, unusual at the time. In June 1914 the journal had a circulation of c.10,000–15,000 and was acclaimed by the bishops of Ireland. A white bound copy was presented monthly to the pope

The outbreak of world war and the Easter Rising of 1916 changed the character of the magazine dramatically. The Bulletin, which had started to make political comments during the home rule crisis, came out in support of the Rising.

O'Kelly vs the censor

O'Kelly was largely responsible for that policy, and his actions made a major contribution to the advancement of the republican movement after 1916. Although O'Kelly did not fight in the rising – he was ill at the time – in the immediate aftermath he made a tremendous contribution to upholding not only the ideals that had been proclaimed, but also the reputations of all those who had taken part.

This was no easy task as he had to contend with the regulations of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) and with the press censorship office that had been imposed by martial law on 1 June 1916.

O'Kelly confronted the censor's demands with great skill. By focusing on the religious and social lives of those involved (political comment was not permitted), he paid tributes to those who had fought and did much to restore their good names.

By August 1917 the Catholic Bulletin had given precise details of the 160 sentences passed after the rising; had published either obituaries or tributes to almost all of the participants; and had given prominence to the wives and widows and young children who had suffered as a result of the sentences. Most of these accounts were accompanied by photographs.

Creating a historical record

During the war of independence (1919–21) O'Kelly continued to advance the ideals of Dáil Éireann, despite the continuing threat of censorship. The impact of the Bulletin at the time was acknowledged by his contemporaries and reluctantly recognised by the British authorities.

P. S. O'Hegarty recorded that with its large circulation it reached a majority of homes in Ireland, and was a major influence in forming a sympathetic view of those who took part in the rising.

O'Kelly was conscious that, while he may have been shaping the events of history, he was also creating a historical record for future generations. The news about events in Ireland was central to that historical record, but so also was the monthly column, headed ‘Notes from Rome’, which was written by Mgr John Hagan under the pen name ‘Scottus’.

The column recorded not only British actions designed to influence Pope Benedict XV during the war and in his dealings with Ireland, but also the efforts to counter them by Mgr Michael O'Riordan, rector of the Irish College in Rome till his death in 1919, and by Hagan himself, vice-rector (1904–20) and rector (1920–30) of the College.

It was in this context that O'Kelly wrote in April 1917 that the Catholic Bulletin would be an important source for future students of the lives, methods, and motives of the men of Easter week. Some modern commentators have ignored this valuable record of original source material and have criticised the Bulletin for the content of some individual articles, often without due regard for the context of the article.

By so doing they have obscured the very real achievement of O'Kelly, during his years as editor of the Catholic Bulletin (1911–22), in presenting an alternative view of the rising to that portrayed by British censorship and propaganda. He held the position of editor till September 1922, when he went to America on a republican mission.

John Joseph O'Kelly in the 1920s

The rise of Sinn Féin and the war of independence 

Apart from his position as editor of the Bulletin, O'Kelly played an important part after 1916 in other events which advanced the republican ideals of the rising. Soon after the Rising he was appointed treasurer of the Irish National Aid and Volunteers’ Dependents Fund; he, along with Fr Michael O'Flanagan, was involved not only in selecting Count Plunkett for the Roscommon North by-election, but also in the campaign that led to his election victory in February 1917, the first election won for the ideals of the rising.

He was selected as vice-president of the Gaelic League in 1916 and was a council member of the Irish Nation League, one of the political groupings that were working for a united nationalist front in 1917.

For his part in these political activities O'Kelly, together with some thirty like-minded nationalists, was deported without trial on 22 February 1917, in what has been termed the first ‘German plot.’ He was released from Fairford, Gloucestershire, in mid June 1917.

On his return to Ireland he contributed to the planning of the Sinn Féin convention which, in turn, led to the creation of a republican constitution for Sinn Féin in October 1917. Although he was not elected to the executive, he fully supported the ideals of the new Sinn Féin party, and was especially identified with the policies of Cathal Brugha, Count Plunkett, and Fr O'Flanagan.

This sketch of the first TDs shows some of O'Kelly's allies

In the general election of 1918 O'Kelly was elected as the Sinn Féin candidate for Louth, and he took part in the first meeting of Dáil Éireann on 21 January 1919. At that meeting O'Kelly read, in Irish, an ‘Address to the free nations of the world’ which called for Ireland's ‘complete independence as an Irish republic against the arrogant pretensions of England’.

This address was designed to further Ireland's claims at the Versailles peace conference. On 1 April 1919, following the departure of Seán T. O'Kelly to Paris to put forward Ireland's case at Versailles, J. J. O'Kelly was elected deputy speaker.

With the continued absence of his namesake in Paris, J. J. O'Kelly was effectively the chairman of the first Dáil Éireann, resigning his position as deputy speaker at a meeting of the second dáil on 26 August 1921.

President of the Gaelic League

In August 1919 O'Kelly was elected as president of the Gaelic League as the successor to Eoin MacNeill. His election was not only a testimony to his ability as an Irish scholar, but also an indication that the organisation wanted to embrace a strong nationalist position.

Although some records relate that he remained as president till 1923, his term of office ended after his departure to America in September 1922 and the election of P. T. McGinley (Peadar Mac Fhionnlaoich) as president in November 1922.

Following proposals by Cathal Brugha and Terence MacSwiney, O'Kelly was nominated as minister for Irish on 27 October 1919. After a meeting of the Dáil ministry, he was appointed minister of the national language on 7 November 1919.

He retained this post till 26 August 1921, when he was appointed minister of education of the second Dáil. He retained this post till the resignation of Éamon de Valera on 9 January 1922.

Éamon de Valera

The work carried out by O'Kelly in those early years of Dáil Éireann, as effectively chairman of the Dáil, minister of the national language, president of the Gaelic League, and editor of the Catholic Bulletin, was not only important and time-consuming, but also demanding and dangerous.

All nationalist organisations had been proscribed in September 1919 and O'Kelly, after regular raids and searches, was finally arrested on 8 March 1921. He was released from Arbour Hill early in May 1921.

Truce, treaty, and split 

Following the truce of 11 July 1921 and de Valera's talks in London with Lloyd George, O'Kelly was one of the Dáil ministry who spoke in opposition to the peace terms on offer, and constantly argued for the negotiations to be conducted on neutral territory.

Other ministers, notably Brugha, Austin Stack, and Robert Barton, also opposed the terms, which were rejected. When the new ministry of the second dáil was created on 26 August 1921, the number enjoying cabinet status was reduced.

It was significant that several ministers who, like O'Kelly, had spoken against the peace terms, lost their cabinet places. Among them were Count Plunkett, Countess Markievicz, and Art O'Connor.

Countess Constance Markievicz. Like O'Kelly, she was an opponent of the treaty and lost her cabinet place and they traveled to America together

O'Kelly spoke against the treaty on 22 December 1921 and voted against it on 7 January 1922. He was to remain resolutely opposed to the treaty and an uncompromising adherent of the oath to the Republic that he had taken and had administered to his colleagues in Dáil Éireann.

From mid March till 21 May 1922 he undertook a mission to America with Austin Stack and Countess Markievicz. Their aim was to secure Irish-American support for the anti-treaty policy of de Valera. On his return to Dublin, O'Kelly attended the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis of May 1922 which supported Dáil Éireann's ratification of the pact between de Valera and Michael Collins.

He contested the general election for Louth–Meath on 16 June 1922, at which the pact was broken, and was one of five members returned under the system of proportional representation.

Mission to America

O'Kelly was nominated by de Valera on 12 September 1922 to act as chairman of a delegation to America to complete the work of his earlier mission with Stack. O'Kelly represented the Cumann na Poblachta party, of which he was a trustee, and was accompanied by Joseph O'Doherty.

The delegation arrived in America at the end of September and made some progress, especially with Joe McGarrity. However, Irish-American opinion was fragmented by divisions over the treaty and the civil war. De Valera attempted to preserve republican unity and to provide legality for his opposition by reconvening the second dáil on 25 October 1922.

A new cabinet and a twelve-member council of state were announced, with J. J. O'Kelly nominated as one of its members.

Laurence Ginnell. His appointment caused controversy. Image: Getty Images

However, de Valera added to the uncertainty among his own representatives in America when he appointed Laurence Ginnell as republican envoy in early 1923. O'Kelly does not appear to have been consulted about this appointment, and both he and Fr O'Flanagan, who was also in America, left for Australia and began a republican mission in March 1923.

Australian adventure

While Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne welcomed them, they were opposed by other bishops and by the federal authorities. Their talks and tours attracted considerable public attention, but they were arrested on two occasions. Finally, after six weeks in prison in Sydney, they were deported to America on 16 July 1923.

During this unsettled time O'Kelly's dáil seat, much to his later chagrin, was allocated to Frank Aiken in the general election of 27 August 1923. Following the death of Ginnell, O'Kelly was nominated as republican envoy to America in September 1923.

He retained this position till he was replaced by Seán T. O'Kelly in October 1924. In his dealings with Irish-American organisations such as the American Association for the Recognition of the Irish Republic, J. J. O'Kelly constantly advanced an uncompromising republican position.

Confrontation with de Valera 

Returning to Ireland in November 1924, O'Kelly was elected chairman of the second Dáil in December. Regular meetings had taken place of this illegal assembly since the end of the civil war and de Valera, using the title ‘President of the Republic’, used it to advance the republican cause.

However, following the poor results in the by-elections of March 1925, de Valera began to question the effect on republican electoral success of a rigid adherence to the oath to the republic. Both in the second Dáil and inside the Sinn Féin party, O'Kelly was one of the leading opponents of de Valera's policy of flexibility in regard to the oath and of entering the Free State Dáil Éireann.

O'Kelly and other republicans engaged in a significant confrontation with de Valera over his policy in November 1925, both at the Sinn Féin ard fheis and at a meeting of Comhairle na d'Teachtaí (an enlarged gathering of the second dáil).

The issue came to a head at an extraordinary Sinn Féin ard fheis on 10 March 1926. Fr O'Flanagan proposed, and O'Kelly seconded, an amendment opposing de Valera's policy to enter the Free State Dáil, if the oath were removed. Their amendment motion was carried by 223 to 218, and de Valera resigned as president of Sinn Féin.

O'Kelly was joined in opposition to de Valera by Mary MacSwiney. Image courtesy of National Library of Ireland

The same battle was then fought out in the second Dáil, when on 28 March 1926, de Valera's policy was rejected by 26 to 15. Others prominent in opposition to de Valera were Count Plunkett, Mary MacSwiney, and David Kent.

De Valera responded by announcing the formation of a new party, Fianna Fáil, in April 1926; but he only left the second Dáil in 1927, after he had used his position in it to lay claim to the funds of the Dáil loan for Fianna Fáil.

Playing a major role

O'Kelly played a major role in the struggle for republican primacy and purity that was fought out between de Valera and Fianna Fáil against Sinn Féin and the second dáil throughout the next ten years. As president of Sinn Féin (he was elected to that position on 31 October 1926, remaining in office till 1931) and as chairman of the second Dáil, he was one of the main opponents of the Fianna Fáil party.

He, together with Count Plunkett, also found time to found the Academy of Christian Art in the 1930s. On the political front, however, despite his own articulation of republican principles by word and by pamphlet, the Sinn Féin party and the second Dáil became divided internally and declined in numbers.

On 8 December 1938 O'Kelly, as chairman of the second Dáil, drafted a statement by seven remaining members of the Dáil, delegating their authority to the Army of the Republic. The delegation was accepted, on behalf of the IRA by Stephen Hayes and Patrick Fleming.

Final writings

O'Kelly continued, however, to enunciate republican principles till the end of his life as a member of Sinn Féin. The range and volume of his written work was remarkable. From c.1900 till his death on 26 March 1957 he published some twenty pamphlets and books in Irish; some ten poems and ballads; five books in cooperation with Fr Dinneen; some thirty pamphlets and books in English between 1921 and 1952; and some thirty-eight articles under the various pen names of ‘Sceilg’, ‘Fear Siúil’, ‘S Ua C’, ‘Mogh Ruith’, and ‘Seán Ua (Ó) Ceallaigh’.

His books, apart from those already mentioned, included The Case for Ppholding the Irish Republic (1922); The Oath of Allegiance and all that it implies (1925); The Republic of Ireland Vindicated (1931); The National Outlook (1936); Stepping stones (1939); Partition: Dáil Éireann comes of age (1940); Cathal Brugha (1942); Ireland's spiritual empire: St Patrick as a world figure (1952); and A Trinity of Martyrs (n.d.).

This vast quantity of written work did not include his contributions to the Freeman's Journal, to the Irish People, and to the editorials in Banba and the Catholic Bulletin. The quality of the work was high, combining careful research with clarity of expression. The sheer volume of the work marks him out as one of the most prolific writers of his era.

He married (1904) Nora, youngest daughter of Patrick O'Sullivan of Lisbawn, Co. Kerry; they lived at 173 Botanic Road, Glasnevin, Dublin.

The Dictionary of Irish Biography is Ireland's national biographical dictionary. Devised, researched, written and edited under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy, its online edition covers nearly 11,000 lives. Read more about Dictionary of Irish Biography

SOURCES: Papers of the O'Kelly family; NAI, Sinn Féin funds case papers (J. J. O'Kelly evidence, 39, 40), ministry and cabinet minutes 1919–22; NLI, J. J. O'Kelly papers (MSS 17876, 18553, 18557), Celtic Literary Society minutes (19934), Gaelic League minutes (9799, 9800), Sean O'Mahony papers (24501), Count Plunkett papers (11383) and Austin Stack papers (17080); UCD Archives, Mary MacSwiney papers; TNA (PRO), press censorship files CO 904/166, CO 904/167; Defence of the Realm regulations, CO 904/169; Dáil Éireann: minutes of proceedings, official reports, 1919–22 (3 vols); J. A. Gaughan, Austin Stack: portrait of a separatist (1977); C. H. Fallon, Soul of fire: a biography of Mary MacSwiney (1986); Uinseann MacEoinn, Survivors (1987); Brian P. Murphy, ‘J. J. O'Kelly, the Catholic Bulletin and contemporary Irish cultural historians’, Archiv. Hib., xliv (1989), 71–88; id., Patrick Pearse and the lost republican ideal (1991); Denis Carroll, They have fooled you again: Michael O'Flanagan (1876–1942), priest, republican, social critic (1993)