The conspiratorial editor
In the week in which the Leinster Leader publishes examples of its issues from the heady weeks after the Easter Rising of 1916 it is timely to revisit the recollections of one of its key figures – Michael O’Kelly, editor and nationalist. Michael, and his more literary minded brother Seumas, were two Galway men who edited the newspaper for a period from 1906 to 1922. From their editorial office in in Naas they fired off frequent broadsides against what was seen as the oppressive rule of imperial government. While Seumas went off to find a level of fame in the exciting nationalist theatre movement Michael involved himself ever more deeply in the nucleus of a revolutionary movement in Kildare.
Later in his life he recalled the influences which were to set him on a path of rebellion. Harking back to his roots in east Galway he identified his formative political influences: “Before arriving in Co Kildare I had already become a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and my earliest connection with political activities occurred in 1898 in Loughrea … we formed a 1798 Centenary Commemorative Committee.” An early journalistic stint in the Limerick Leader newspaper resulted in him striking up a friendship with Sean O’Connor, then a teacher in Killaloe with whom he exchanged “political confidences” –a coded reference to discussions relating to a militant approach to independence for Ireland.
The two crossed paths when Michael O’Kelly came to Naas to take up the editorship of the Leinster Leader in 1912 from his brother Seumas who had moved to Dublin to develop his writing career which already had attracted attention from luminaries such as Lady Gregory and Countess Markievicz. Sean O’Connor had by then moved to Celbridge where he was beginning to stir some life into whatever dormant traces of nationalism remained among the cold plains of north Kildare. He told Michael O’Kelly that he had been appointed organiser for the Gaelic League in the county and that he was quietly engaged in organising for the IRB. The Leinster Leader editor expressed surprise at this news having come to the conclusion that Kildare had spent too many years within the Anglo-sphere of the Pale to harbour any stirrings of independence. However was confident that “things national in the county were not as hopeless as they appeared to be on the surface. “ While O’Connor assured him that the tide of militant nationalism then rising in other counties was finding an inlet in parts of Kildare, there was still work to be done in the county town to find men who could be trusted to organise in preparation for a political breakthrough.
As part of his journalistic output O’Kelly wrote editorials proclaiming the cause of Irish independence. It was after one such broadside that he was stopped in the street by Thomas Patterson who had returned to Naas having served his business apprenticeship in Dublin. Patterson had moved in nationalist circles in Dublin and recognised in O’Kelly’s activist journalism a kindred spirit. Soon O’Connor from Celbridge, O’Kelly and Patterson were meeting in the latter’s premises to discuss plans and propaganda. The fact that Patterson ran a main street business meant the he was an ideal outlet for drawing others into conspiratorial circles including men who had enlisted in the King’s army.
Michael O’Kelly recalled that among Patterson’s customers were ex-soldiers who had served in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, a British Army regiment which recruited and trained men through its depot in Naas army barracks. From the initial contact with regimental veterans it was a short step for the nationalist trio to infiltrate the ranks of serving personnel in the barracks. And unlikely as it might have seen the sergeants’ mess proved a surprisingly sympathetic environment for O’Kelly and his fellow agent provocateurs. He recalled: “ We did succeed in making contact with several men of the Dublin Fusiliers and found that a great proportion of the men then stationed in Naas Barracks were sympathetically disposed towards the National Volunteer movement.” He recalled being invited to a sing-song entertainment in the Sergeants’ Mess where the appeasement of Edward Carson in Ulster, who had defied any move from Westminster to establish Home Rule all over the island of Ireland, was denounced with an “outspoken freedom and vigour that could not be excelled by the most advanced Home Ruler.” Things got even better if O’Kelly’s recollections are to be believed. One of the sergeants who was an expert machine gunner offered to act as an instructor to a rebel unit should the opportunity of a rebellion come to pass. However such potent military advice from the heart of the establishment was to come to nought in July 1914 when the world war broke out and the soldiers’ attentions turned to the killing fields of Flanders rather than the rebellious backstreets of Kildare.
It was back to the less dramatic approach of building the organisational blocks for a rebellion for O’Kelly and his comrades. The Gaelic League branch was not in a flourishing condition at the time and he felt that another mechanism was needed. He promoted the establishment of a branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in the town but it clearly did not meet its expectations in terms of revolutionary fervour and he withdrew from membership. However help came from an unexpected direction. The debacle over the Home Rule B ill in which the Ulster Unionists defied the British Government’s plan to legislate for a level of independence for Ireland prompted outrage among people in the three southern provinces. A previously apathetic population became outraged as to why the Ulster Unionists seemed to be getting their way but long suffering Irish nationalists were still beneath the imperial rod. As Michael O’Kelly recalled the surge of outrage “furnished us with the conditions most favourable to our purpose”. The rebellion was still some way off but, from the eyrie of the Leinster Leader editor’s office, things were looking promising indeed. Leinster Leader 8 March 2016, Looking Back Series no: 475.