John J. O'Kelly

"Sceilg" redirects here. For other uses, see Skellig (disambiguation).

John Joseph O'Kelly (known as Sceilg;[1] 1872 – 26 March 1957) was an Irish politician, author and publisher.[2] He was a president of the Gaelic League and of Sinn Féin. He was born on Valentia Island off the County Kerry coast.

Political career

He joined Sinn Féin at its inaugural meeting on 5 November 1905. Following the 1916 Easter Rising, O'Kelly joined the Irish Nation League and became treasurer of the Irish National Aid and Volunteers' Dependants' Fund for the relief of prisoners and their families. In February 1917 he was arrested and deported to England where he was interned without trial for several months. On his release O'Kelly was elected to the Provisional Committee of the newly merged Irish Nation League and Sinn Féin, thereafter called Sinn Féin. He was appointed editor of the influential "Catholic Bulletin".[3] In the 1918 general election he was elected as a Sinn Féin MP for Louth by 255 votes in what was the closest contest in Ireland in that election. The closeness of the contest was due to the strong AOH organisation in the county that campaigned for outgoing North Galway MP Richard Hazleton of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

O'Kelly took his seat in Dáil Éireann as a Sinn Féin Teachta Dála and was Leas-Cheann Comhairle (Deputy chairman) from 1919–21.[4] He was Secretary for Education in the Government of the 2nd Dáil. From 1919 to 1923, he was President of the Gaelic League. He opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty that was ratified by the Dáil in January 1922, and refused to accept the legitimacy of the Irish Free State established in December 1922. He and others maintained that the Irish Republic continued to exist and that the rump of the Second Dáil, composed of those anti-Treaty TDs who had refused to take their seats in what became the Free State parliament, was the only legitimate government for the whole of Ireland. In June 1922, he was elected to the Third Dáil for the constituency of Louth/Meath but abstained from taking his seat. In August 1923, standing as a Republican for the Meath constituency, he was defeated for an abstentionist seat in the 4th Dáil. He was again defeated in the Roscommon by-election of 1925, his last election attempt.[5] After the resignation of Éamon de Valera as president of Sinn Féin in 1926, O'Kelly, who maintained an abstentionist policy towards Dáil Éireann, was elected in his place and remained in this position until 1931 when Brian O'Higgins took over the leadership.

O'Kelly was hostile towards the 1937 Constitution of Ireland, claiming it was insufficiently supportive of Irish Republicanism and that the Constitution also did not require the President of Ireland to be of Irish birth.[6]

Sceilg was unusual among Irish Republicans in that he regarded Daniel O'Connell and T.M. Healy as political heroes. This apparently reflected local patriotism (both men came from south-western Ireland near to Sceilg's own birthplace) and Sceilg's own devout Catholicism, which led him to exalt O'Connell's achievement of Catholic Emancipation and Healy's claims that the adultery of Charles Stewart Parnell with Katharine O'Shea made Parnell unfit for political leadership. Sceilg was also explicitly hostile to the Spanish Republic declared in 1931, believing it to be anti-Catholic and supported by pro-British Freemasons.

Literary interests

He was a prolific author on Irish language and history topics, editing Banba, The Catholic Bulletin and An Camán. He was intensely religious and an active Catholic. Many of his speeches and writings contained content critical of Freemasons and Jews.[7] In 1916, members of Ireland's Jewish community protested after the Bulletin published a series of articles by Fr. T.H. Burbage accusing the Jewish community of carrying out ritual murders ; O'Kelly refused to apologise for the articles.[8] O'Kelly opposed members of the IRA fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. In 1938, he was one of seven remaining abstentionist Second Dáil TDs who transferred the "authority" of what they believed was the "authority" of the Government of the Irish Republic to the IRA Army Council (see Irish republican legitimatism).

In 1938, he visited Germany, later publishing his impressions in the Irish Independent.[9]


O'Kelly died in Our Lady's Hospice, Harold's Cross, on 26 March 1957, and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery on 28 March.[10]



  1. A pen name he took which refers to the island of Sceilig Mhichíl, which he could see from his childhood home on Valentia Island.
  2. "Mr. Seán (Sceilg) Ó Ceallaigh". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  3. Recent book on the Bulletin
  4. "John J. O'Kelly". Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  5. Took, Christopher & Seán Donnelly. ""Sceilg" O'Kelly John Joseph ("Sceilg") O'Kelly". Retrieved 9 June 2012.
  6. Dermot Keogh and Dr. Andrew McCarthy, The making of the Irish Constitution 1937: Bunreacht na hÉireann. Mercier Press, 2007 (p.193).
  7. See,for instance The Irish Revolution, 1913–1923 edited by Joost Augusteijn,Palgrave Macmillan (2002) pg. 46, and The Two Irelands 1912–1939 by David Fitzpatrick, Oxford (1998) Pg. 188.
  8. Jews in Twentieth-century Ireland: Refugees, Anti-semitism and the Holocaust by Dermot Keogh,Cork University Press, 1998 (pg. 70-1).
  9. Irish Independent, 27 March 1957.
  10. Irish Independent, 27 March 1957.

Further reading

Political offices
New office Secretary for Education
Succeeded by
Michael Hayes
Party political offices
Preceded by
Éamon de Valera
Leader of Sinn Féin
Succeeded by
Brian O'Higgins
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