The legacy and life of Seumas O’Kelly, former Leinster Leader editor and revolutionary

Henry Bauress looks back at the facinating former Leinster Leader editor and his works

The legacy and life of Seumas O’Kelly, former Leinster Leader editor and revolutionary

Descendants of Seumas O’Kelly, the one time Leinster Leader editor, the anniversary of whose death takes place this month, were once told by an academic that the late writer was “dated.”

Understandably, given O’Kelly’s life story and his talent, they want him to get the recognition that they believe he deserves.

Fortunately, there is now a chance to take a fresh look at the writings of the Galway writer, including on RTE media.

With the 100th anniversary of his death, RTE and others have been taking a new look at his novels and plays.

On a number of fronts, O’Kelly does merit much more attention for his literary work than he has got up to now.

Not only was he heavily involved in the political journalism of the country at a crucial time for what was to become the Republic of Ireland, but he was also a literary writer who had gone to university with James Joyce. That is not a literary recommendation, in itself, but his talents were widely recognised in his lifetime and perhaps it was only due to the fame of people like Joyce and Yeats that O’Kelly and writers like him, were demoted, so to speak.

In his native Galway, he was born in Loughrea where his father was a newsagent. The Seumas O’Kelly Players drama group is named after the one time Naas resident.

O’Kelly was effectively murdered — legally it might be termed manslaughter — on the night of November 11 1918.

It does not appear that anyone was brought to justice for the assault which led to his death.

Some of his many works were translated into foreign languages in the heyday of the writer, including Danish, German and Russian.

Seumas was a former editor of the Leinster Leader, initially taking on the job from 1906-1912.

His brother, Michael, also filled the role for a term but Seumas came back to edit the newspaper when Michael was sent to prison in the UK following the round up of many people in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising.

Seumas died on November 14 1918, three days after being assaulted on Armistice Day.

He was only in his late thirties — there are differing accounts as whether he was born in 1875 or 1876 or 1880. His health was poor and he had the aid of a walking stick with him when he was working at No 6 Harcourt Street, Dublin, in the office of Nationality, the then Sinn Fein newspaper, which he was editing.

Seumas was a good friend of Arthur Griffith.

When Griffith got into trouble with the authorities and was jailed he brought Seumas in to man, not the barricades, but the newsman’s pen.

The building at No 6 Harcourt was the office of Sinn Fein and the Sinn Fein Bank.

As Alphonsus Sweeney, a nephew of Seumas O’Kelly, tells in an 1968 speech (reprinted) in “A rebel’s desk,” on November 11, World War 1 ended, officially anyway.

Armistice Day was celebrated in Dublin by “British soldiers and their followers.”

All the principal buildings in Dublin flew the Union Jack. but No 6 Harcourt Street did not.

It flew the Irish republican flag.

In the evening, the building was attacked “by a rabble led by some British soldiers” and quite a lot of damage was done. The attacks continued on November 12 and November 13.

On November 11, Seumas had arrived at this office and was sitting at his editorial desk and was opening some correspondence when a sudden attack was made in an endeavour to wreck the building.

A mob charged up the stairs. Harry Boland turned the hose on the attackers and Bob Brennan tried to prevent the office from being wrecked and papers destroyed.”

He went on to say: “Seumas defended himself from the mob with his walking stick but he collapsed with a haemorrhage and was taken to Jervis Street Private Nursing home where he died during the night three days later.”

That was November 14 1918.

He was given a national funeral on Sunday, November 15.

Arthur Griffith, who was in Gloucester jail in the UK wrote: “His death is a tragic loss to Ireland and for me it is the loss of one of dearest friends, he has given his life for the cause.”

It was a huge funeral which received much coverage in the national press of the time.

The Leinster Leader edition of November 23 1918 covered the event.

The chief mourners were his brothers, Rev Fr Alphonsus O’Kelly ODC and Michael O’Kelly, his sister Miss Nora O’Kelly, his nephew, Alfie Sweeney, J. O’Beirne, M. Flynn (a cousin), Jno Barrett and K. Farrell, both from Loughrea, M. O’Flanagan and Louis McCarthy as well as the north Kildare Sinn Fein executive.

Alphonsus Sweeney sums up the life work of Seumas: “He devoted most of his literary talents to the cause of Irish independence but had the time to make a contribution to the Irish literature of that great period of Yeats, Joyce and Stephens, A.E. and Gogarty.”

He wrote seven plays, four of which were produced by The Abbey Theatre, two novels, four books of short stories and hundreds of articles for magazines and newspapers.

Unfortunately, many of these are out of print and not easy to find.

Kildare librarian, Mario Coates, said the books are collectors items.

But the County Library is considering publishing some work in different formats, he said.

The most famous of the works is The Weaver’s Grave which has been translated into other languages.

RTE produced it for radio and it is available on the RTE Player.

The play, adapted from the short story by Michael O hAodha, won the Prix Italia for radio drama in 1961.

RTE Radio has produced readings of some of his work at the nightly at 11.20pm slot as part of RTE’s book on one series.

For those not up at that late hour I am sure it can be downloaded from the RTE Player during the day.

Liam Kenny, who has written about Seumas in recent years said it was “good to see this national recognition for one of the forgotten figures of the Irish literarary revival.”

Also this month, The Lady of Deerpark by Seamus O’Kelly (1881-1918) will be read on the Book on One.

Told from the point of view of Paul Jennings, the agent of Deerpark, an estate house in the west of Ireland of the 1890s, the book has been described as an ironic elegy for a way of life in decay.

It has been hailed as a book of significance in wonderfully capturing the atmosphere of its time.

When Seumas was in Naas, he lived for a long period at an unusual four chimney house on the Grand Canal.

Locals called it Bracken’s Cottage

Recently I met Deirdre Lawlor (nee Sweeney) and her husband, Peter, to talk about Seumas.

Deirdre is a great grand niece of Michael and Seumas O’Kelly and a daughter of Alphonsus Sweeney, who was a nephew of both Michael and Seumas.

Alphonsus’s father married their sister, Ellen.

The Lawlor’s would love to see their relative in more limelight than he is now.

Peter described Seamus as “philosophical” compared to his more outgoing brother, Michael.

In a piece he wrote about Seumas in 2011, local historian James Durney said that Seumas had been described as “a gentle revolutionary” and a plaque on the Naas office of the Leinster Leader described him as such.

Revolutionaries, write Durney, are perceived to be people of daring action and strong personality.

He cited Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, John Devoy and Countess Markievicz (who knew O’Kelly) as being among them.

“But not all revolutionaries possessed such formidable personalities,” he wrote, and many applied their skills in a “quieter way” to the cause and “won the battle for hearts and minds”

Seumas started work as journalist in east Galway before taking up a job at the Southern Star in Cork.

But alongside his journalism and editorials he began to publish creative work.

Among others, he wrote a play for the early Abbey and was described as Ireland’s most popular new playwright.

Critics varied on the quality of his many short stories and work but recognised some were better than others.

James Joyce was not overly impressed with the first work, a collection of ten stories called By the Stream of Kilmeen, but warmed to O’Kelly, his UCD arts classmate, later on.

There appears to be widespread agreement that his short story, The Weaver’s Grave, is among the great short stories.

An early edition was illustrated by Jack B Yeats who also did sketches for the O’Kelly poetry collection, Ranns and Ballads.

He was in contact with writers like Padraig Column, Oliver Gogarty, Lady Gregory and W.B.Yeats.

The painter, Estella Solomons, painted Seumas O’Kelly.

While he is out of print, collections of his manuscripts are held in Berg collection, New York library, the Morris library in southern Illinois, the Lilly library in Indiana, at the University of British Columbia, Canada and also at the National Library in Dublin.