by jdurney on March 1, 2011

Leader editor termed ‘a gentle revolutionary’

Revolutionaries are generally perceived as being men and women of daring action, assertive leadership, and strong personality – all characteristics needed to lead resistance to an occupying power. The story of how Ireland won its independence is full of them – Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, John Devoy, Countess Markievicz and the 1916 signatories  epitomised the characteristics associated with revolutionary activists. But not all revolutionaries possessed such formidable personalities. Behind the frontline figures of the revolutionary movement were many who, in a quieter way, applied their skills and intellects to the cause. Such men and women won the battle for hearts and minds while the more militant leaders were out winning the battle on the streets.  Numbered among such forgotten figures of the Irish revolution is a past editor of the Leinster Leader – Seumas O’Kelly whose tenure at the editor’s desk extended from 1906 to 1912 and again briefly in 1916.  A native of Loughrea where his father owned a milling business Seumas O’Kelly grew up in a milieu where the conversation and folklore of rural folk were major influences. Drawn to a life of writing he worked as a journalist in east Galway before heading southwards to his first editor’s job with the Southern Star newspaper in west Cork. Perhaps attracted by word of an emerging activism in the Irish cause centred on Dublin, he moved to Naas in 1906 to take up the editorial desk at the Leinster Leader. The paper, founded in the heady days of the 1880s Land League, was a sympathetic environment for a writer interested in advancing the cause of Irish independence. Seumas O’Kelly’s finely written editorials over a period of six years did much to invigorate nationalist spirit in Kildare. As well as his weekly journalistic writings O’Kelly began to publish creative work based on his observations of the good, and the bad, in Irish rural and small-town society. His work quickly gained recognition among the leading lights of the Irish literary revival of the time. In 1908, while he was still in Naas,  he wrote a play which was produced on the stage of the fledgling Abbey theatre prompting a commentator to describe him as ‘Ireland’s most popular new playwright.’ His later output of short-stories, poetry and novels met with popular acclaim even if professional critics regarded his work as uneven. However all were agreed that his short story ‘The Weaver’s Grave’ ranked as one of the finest of its genre.  An early edition was illustrated by the celebrated artist Jack B. Yeats who also provided sketches for O’Kelly’s poetry collection ‘Ranns and Ballads.’  His reputation as a writer brought him into contact with the influential circle of poets and authors which included headline names such as Padraig Colum, Oliver Gogarty, Lady Gregory, and, indeed, W B Yeats.  O’Kelly’s fine characterisations of Irish rural people were largely drawn from his east Galway origins. More rarely, traces of his tenure in Naas can be seen in his writing. His short story ‘Michael and Mary’ tells of a canal-side romance and opens with a description of a boat gliding along the canal with the Bog of Allen mists casting an ethereal light on the waterway: ‘ The soft rose light that mounted the sky caught the boat and burnished it like dull gold. It came leisurely, drawn by the one horse, looking like a ‘Golden Barque’ in the twilight.’  While capable of such creative flourishes O’Kelly remained rooted in the day-to-day journalistic needs of the nationalist movement and, after leaving the Leader in 1912, made his talents available to Arthur Griffith, one of the inspirational figures of the independence movement, who published the newspaper Nationality aimed at a growing nationalist readership.  His brother Michael succeeded him as editor of the Leinster Leader; Michael was made of more militant stuff and was interned after the 1916 Rising. Seumas returned to the Leinster Leader to fill the gap left by his brother’s incarceration.  After some months he went back to Dublin and resumed work on Griffith’s paper which was published at the Sinn Fein premises at Harcourt St., Dublin. It was there in November 1918 that some British soldiers and their followers,  engaging in riotous celebration of the armistice which ended the first world war,  attacked the premises where O’Kelly was working into the night. A man of gentle character he was upset by the aggression and suffered a seizure. He did not recover and died three days later on 14 November 1918. The contribution of his journalism to the nationalist cause was reflected in the great turnout for his funeral to Glasnevin. A later biographer remarked that ‘he died for Ireland as surely as if he had been shot by a Black and Tan.’  He is commemorated in a plaque at the Leinster Leader premises in Naas which bears the fitting tribute ‘Seumas O’Kelly, a gentle revolutionary.’ Series no: 203

Liam Kenny in his column ‘Nothin new under the sun,’ from the Leinster Leader of 18 November 2010 chronicles the life of editor, poet and revolutionary – Seumas Kelly. Our thanks to Liam.

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