Seán T. O'Kelly

Seán T. O'Kelly
2nd President of Ireland
In office
25 June 1945  24 June 1959
Taoiseach Éamon de Valera
John A. Costello
Éamon de Valera
John A. Costello
Éamon de Valera
Preceded by Douglas Hyde
Succeeded by Éamon de Valera
In office
29 December 1937  14 June 1945
Taoiseach Éamon de Valera
Preceded by Himself as Vice-President of the Executive Council
Succeeded by Seán Lemass
Minister for Finance
In office
16 September 1939  14 June 1945
Taoiseach Éamon de Valera
Preceded by Seán MacEntee
Succeeded by Frank Aiken
Vice-President of the Executive Council
In office
9 March 1932  29 December 1937
President Éamon de Valera
Preceded by Ernest Blythe
Succeeded by Himself as Tánaiste
Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann
In office
22 January 1919  16 August 1921
Preceded by Count Plunkett
Succeeded by Eoin MacNeill
Teachta Dála
In office
August 1923  February 1948
Constituency Dublin North-West
Personal details
Born Seán Thomas O'Kelly
(1882-08-25)25 August 1882
Abbotstown, Dublin, Ireland, United Kingdom
Died 23 November 1966(1966-11-23) (aged 84)
Blackrock, Dublin, Ireland
Resting place Glasnevin
Nationality Irish
Political party Fianna Fáil
  • Mary Kate Ryan (m. 1928; d. 1934)
  • Phyllis Ryan (m. 1936; d. 1983)
  • Samuel O'Kelly
  • Catherine O'Dea
Religion Roman Catholicism

Seán Thomas O'Kelly (Irish: Seán Tomás Ó Ceallaigh; 25 August 1882 – 23 November 1966), originally John T. O'Kelly, was the second President of Ireland (1945–1959). He was a member of Dáil Éireann from 1918 until his election as President.[1] During this time he served as Minister for Local Government (1932–1939) and Minister for Finance (1939–1945). He also served as deputy prime minister of Ireland from 1932 to 1945, under the title Vice-President of the Executive Council from 1932 until 1937 and Tánaiste from 1937 until 1945.

Early life

O'Kelly was born in inner-city Dublin, although his exact place of birth is disputed.[2][3] Baptised as John,[4] he was the eldest son of Samuel O'Kelly, a boot and shoemaker of Berkley Road,[5] by his marriage to Catherine O'Dea, and had three sisters and four brothers, two of whom were educated by Patrick Pearse at St Enda's school.

O'Kelly's first school was the Sisters of Charity, in Mountjoy Street (1886–90), then the Christian Brothers School in St Mary's Place (1890–94). His senior school education was at O'Connell School, a Christian Brothers school in North Richmond Street (1894–98). O'Kelly joined the National Library of Ireland in 1898 as a junior assistant to T. W. Lyster, remaining there until 1902, and becoming a subscriber to the Celtic Literary Society.[6] The same year, he joined the Gaelic League, becoming a member of the governing body in 1910 and general secretary in 1915. He was appointed manager of An Claidheamh Soluis, which included amongst its editors the revolutionary leaders of Sinn Féin.[7]

Active revolutionist in Sinn Féin

He went to work almost immediately for Arthur Griffith, at the Gaelic League on the organization's administration papers. He came to Griffith's notice the previous years joining the IRB as a member of the esoteric Bartholomew Teeling Circle from 1901. O'Kelly joined Sinn Féin, then a small dual-monarchist, capitalist party, immediately at its inception in 1905 as one of its founders. He became a joint-honorary secretary of the movement from 1908, remaining in the post until 1925. In 1906 he was elected to Dublin Corporation, and retained the seat for Inns Quay Ward until 1924. One acolyte campaigner was Thomas Kelly who joined him in pressing the government for improved municipal drainage schemes for Dublin's slums.

Like Father O'Flanagan, O'Kelly was chosen to make an Irish language address to the Pope Pius X in 1908. Both men were bilingual party members promoting Irish culture. O'Kelly was one of the establishing members of the Irish Volunteers in 1913. In August 1914 he agitated to suppress the landing of arms at Kilesole, County Wicklow.

In March 1915, O'Kelly went to New York City, to inform Clan Na Gael of the plans for a rising in Dublin by the IRB. Patrick Pearse appointed O'Kelly to be his Staff Captain in preparation for whenever the insurrection would take place.

Easter Rising

It was during the Easter Rising that O'Kelly met Mary Ryan. She was arrested on 18 May 1916 with her sister Nell for unspecified offences to be incarcerated in Mountjoy Gaol. Historians have argued that she may have been confused with her sister, Min Ryan. Kit, as Mary Ryan was known, was Professor of French at University College Dublin. She shared her house with her sisters at 19 Ranelagh Road, Dublin, which O'Kelly visited. They were married in 1918.[8]

O'Kelly was at the heart of the party operation. He was one of a handful of men who might have known of the "All-Ireland" Volunteer HQ at Athenry, County Galway, according to Liam O'Briain involved in marshalling the rebellion in the western hills from Limerick across the Shannon.[9] He was also responsible for springing Bulmer Hobson from the custody of the IRB.[10] Thereafter Hobson mysterious "disappearance" became the moment when "a devoted son" of Ireland was excluded from the movement; but O'Kelly may have saved his life.[11] During the Rising he was in and out of the GPO, and was requested to set up as "Civil Administrator of the Government of the Republic" with four others.[12] The project never proceeded, as perhaps no attempt was made to anticipate preparations for a political structure free from Britain.[13]

After the Easter Rising in 1916, O'Kelly was gaoled, released, and re-arrested. He was sent to Reading Gaol, and then escaped from detention in Fairfield in Britain, and returned to Ireland. "Sinn Fein became a cloak for Volunteer meetings"[14] Sinn Féin won a landslide victory.

1918 general election

O'Kelly was elected Sinn Féin Member of Parliament (MP) for Dublin College Green in the 1918 general election.[15] In his role as Secretary, O'Kelly was tasked with preparing the Sinn Féin Executive Council for the Dáil Éireann Constituent Assembly, which had been agreed at the Ard Fheis in October 1918. Along with other Sinn Féin MPs he refused to take his seat in the UK House of Commons. Instead they set up an Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann, in Dublin. O'Kelly served as Ceann Comhairle (chairman) of the First Dáil.[16] O'Kelly published the Democratic Programme, he himself had edited. It appealed to a wider mission statement for independence and separatism, which was not sanctioned by the electorate. In fact, it was a skeleton document borrowed on the back of Pearse's martyrdom, written in the late leader's style, from the Labour leader Thomas Johnson.[17]

O'Kelly's approach to President to Woodrow to visit Dublin in 1919 on his way to Versailles was roundly rejected. Wilson was already withdrawing from the Self-Determination League, making his critics label O'Kelly as 'pompous.' Despite the US Senate's resolution on June 5, the President would not break his commitment to the Big Four for unanimity.[18] He also served as the Irish Republic's envoy, demanding recognition of the Republic and its admittance to the post-World War I peace treaty negotiations at Versailles. While this request to Clemenceau was sincere, it naively ignored the fact that France and Britain had been allied for the previous four years.[19][20] O'Kelly was followed to Paris as envoy by the eminently better-qualified George Gavan-Duffy, who was from a titled family of barristers and diplomats.[21] In May 1920 he sent a memorandum on the Irish political situation to Pope Benedict XV.[22]

Close friend of de Valera

O'Kelly was a close associate of Éamon de Valera, who served variously as President of Dáil Éireann (prime minister from April 1919 to August 1921) and President of the Republic (from August 1921 to January 1922). As with de Valera, he opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed by representatives of the British and Irish Republic's governments in December 1921.

When de Valera resigned as President of the Republic on 6 January 1922, O'Kelly returned from Paris to Ireland to try to negotiate a compromise, whereby de Valera could return to the presidency. A furious de Valera turned down the offer and ordered O'Kelly to return to Paris.

During the Irish Civil War, O'Kelly was in jail until December 1923. Afterwards he spent the next two years as a Sinn Féin envoy to the United States.

A founder of Fianna Fáil

In 1926 when de Valera left Sinn Féin to found Fianna Fáil, O'Kelly returned to Ireland and was appointed a vice-president of the new republican party. In March 1927 he became editor of The Nation and played a significant role building up support for the new party before the June 1927 election.[23]

In 1932, when de Valera, having won that year's general election, was appointed President of the Executive Council (prime minister of the Irish Free State) he made O'Kelly his deputy as Vice-President of the Council from 1933.[24] He was also named Minister for Local Government. O'Kelly earned a controversial reputation over his key role in attempts to publicly humiliate the then Governor-General of the Irish Free State, James McNeill. Stunts such as withdrawing the Irish Army's band from playing at diplomatic functions which the Governor-General attended, or in one notorious case the sight of O'Kelly and Defence Minister Frank Aiken storming out of a diplomatic function at the French Legation when McNeill, the guest of honour, had arrived, damaged O'Kelly's reputation and image, particularly when the campaign backfired.

McNeill published his correspondence on the issue with de Valera making de Valera appear foolish, before resigning and leaving de Valera with the task of choosing a new Governor-General, an embarrassing situation for a politician who had tried his best to avoid any association with the office. To the surprise of many, O'Kelly's was not among the names considered for the office. It is not known for certain, but suspicion rests on O'Kelly's membership of a Catholic fraternal organisation, the Knights of Columbanus, which de Valera suspected had a source in the cabinet. O'Kelly matched the bill, perhaps through indiscretions rather than deliberate actions. However O'Kelly was not made Governor-General, the post instead going to the former Fianna Fáil TD, Domhnall Ua Buachalla from County Kildare, who would be the last Governor-General.

Considered for President of Ireland in 1938

In 1938, again O'Kelly's position in cabinet became a focus for speculation, as rumours swept Leinster House (the seat of Parliament) that de Valera intended making O'Kelly the Fianna Fáil choice to become President of Ireland, the office which had replaced the governor-generalship in the new Constitution of Ireland. Again the justification for de Valera nominating one of his senior ministers for the Presidency, were rumours that someone in cabinet was, either deliberately or accidentally, letting information slip to the Catholic Church through the Knights of Columbanus. It came as anger and surprise to De Valera to find out that O'Kelly was a member of this masonic-type organization.[25]

De Valera had on a number of occasions ordered O'Kelly to resign from the Knights, only to find that he would rejoin later. However, the apparent entry of the popular Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alfie Byrne, into the presidential race (in fact he eventually failed to get nominated) and the belief that neither O'Kelly nor any other politician could beat Byrne (ironically a close friend of O'Kelly) led to all party agreement, on the opposition Fine Gael's suggestion, that the office go to Douglas Hyde, a Protestant, as a thank you for his contribution to Irish society. An Irish language enthusiast, Hyde had founded the Conradh na Gaeilge, known in English as the Gaelic League, a cultural organisation promoting the preservation of the Irish language, music, dancing and traditions.

Minister for Finance

O'Kelly was appointed Minister for Finance in 1941.[26] He secured the passing of The Central Bank Act in 1942.[27] On 17 July 1942 at the fifth and final stage of the Dáil debate on the "Central Banking Bill", he argued that the owner of the credit issued by the Central Bank of Ireland, should be the private property of the joint stock banker and not the property of the people of Ireland. This debate was carried out when only five Deputies were present in the Dáil.[28]

President of Ireland

The inauguration of Seán T. O'Kelly as President of Ireland in 1945.
The 2nd Cavalry Squadron of the Blue Hussars escort the President, who travelled in the late Queen Alexandra's landau. The Landau and the Hussars were later scrapped.
President Seán T. O'Kelly, An Tóstal, 1954.
Outside the GPO, President O'Kelly receives the salute from the new Garda recruits during the Tostal celebrations of 1954.

O'Kelly left the cabinet in 1945 when he was elected President of Ireland in a popular vote of the people, defeating two other candidates.[26] O'Kelly's most famous faux pas occurred during a state visit to the Vatican, when in a breach with standard protocol, he told the media of Pope Pius XII's personal opinions on communism. The resulting row strained relationships between Pope Pius and Joseph Stalin.

O'Kelly was elected unopposed to the presidency a second time 25 June 1952. During his second term he visited many nations in Europe and addressed the United States Congress in 1959.[29] He retired at the end of his second term in 1959, to be replaced by his old mentor, Éamon de Valera.

O'Kelly did not refer any Bills to the Supreme Court under Article 26 of the Constitution of Ireland. He convened a meeting of the Council of State in 1947, to consider whether Part III of the Health Bill, 1947 – which provided the basis for the Mother and Child Scheme — should be referred, but he decided against doing so.[30]

He dissolved the Dáil on four occasions (in 1948, 1951, 1954 and 1957). On each occasion the Taoiseach who advised him to do so (de Valera in the first and third cases, and John A. Costello in the other two) had not been formally defeated in a Dáil vote in a manner showing a loss of support by a majority of TDs. Therefore, under Article 13.2.3° of the Constitution, O'Kelly had no discretion to refuse to act on their advice to dissolve. A more complex case occurred however in 1949 when the First Inter-Party Government was defeated in a snap Dáil vote on a financial measure due to the absence of a number of Government TDs. O'Kelly was advised by the Secretary to the President, Michael McDunphy that had Costello requested a dissolution, he could have refused it. However Costello, on the basis that the loss of the vote was accidental (due to a mistake by the party whips), not evidence of a shift in voting, opted to reintroduce the measure the following morning, rather than seek a dissolution. With all Deputies present this time the Government won the vote. McDunphy later changed his mind and in the files on the event concluded that the President could not have refused a dissolution because the loss had merely been a technical loss, not an actual decision by the Dáil to vote against the government.

Visit to United States

O'Kelly was the first Irish president to visit the United States, when from 16–31 March 1959 he was the guest of President Eisenhower. He was invited to address both houses of Congress.[29] This was important to Ireland as it showed that the new republic and its head of state were recognised by the United States. Historian Joe Lee has stated that the visit signified an end to a period of distrust between Ireland and the United States following World War II.[31] Both Ireland and America had been neutral countries when the war began, but the US joined the conflict in 1941. That Ireland continued to remain neutral annoyed American politicians during the war, and afterwards. The invitation to President O'Kelly to address Congress meant that Ireland had been forgiven by the larger power.[32]

O'Kelly and Catholicism

O'Kelly was known to be a devout Catholic. At key times he was criticised by de Valera of being the "Church's man" in the cabinet, either deliberately or accidentally leaking information to the Knights of Saint Columbanus. O'Kelly made a point of ensuring that his first state visit, following the declaration of the Republic of Ireland in 1949, was to the Vatican to meet Pope Pius XII, a visit which, as mentioned, created controversy when the famously talkative O'Kelly inadvertently revealed the Pope's private views on communism. Consequently, he was not awarded the papal Order of Christ which he coveted.

"A Model President"

Seán Tomás Ó Ceallaigh; 25 August 1882 – 23 November 1966, was the second President of Ireland (1945–1959)

Éamon de Valera worried about O'Kelly's drinking habits, which were much commented on during his career. O'Kelly drank a lot, and often, yet his behaviour remained dignified and above reproach and he never caused any scandal.[33] The author, Monsignor Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, reported that President O'Kelly kept barrels of draught Guinness stout on tap in Áras an Uachtaráin.[34]

O'Kelly was a short man with a tall second wife.[35][36] When attending a football match once in Croke Park, he was on the field to throw in the ball. A member of the crowd shouted, "Cut the grass, we can't see the President!"[37]

On his retirement as president in 1959, he was described as a "model President" by the normally hostile Irish Times newspaper. Though controversial, the diminutive O'Kelly was widely seen as genuine and honest, albeit tactless.

He died on 23 November 1966, at the age of 84, fifty years after the Easter Rising that first brought him to prominence. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.


In 1918 O'Kelly married Mary Kate, known as Kit, the daughter of John Ryan, a farmer of Tomcoole, near Taghmon, County Wexford.[5] Kit was an assistant professor of modern languages at the National University.[38] They remained married until her death in 1934, aged 55. They had no children. In 1936 O'Kelly married his late wife's younger sister, Philomena Frances Ryan (1895-1983), known as Phyllis, after gaining a papal dispensation to do so. A chemist and public analyst, she was already forty-three when they married.[38] She lost her first child and was unable to have any more.[39]

One of Mary Kate and Phyllis's brothers was the Fianna Fáil minister James Ryan, while another sister, Mary Josephine, known as Min, was married to the Fine Gael leader General Richard Mulcahy.[38]

See also


  1. "Mr. Seán T. O'Kelly". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 11 February 2012.
  2. The Irish Dictionary of National Biography indicates that he was born at 4 Lower Wellington Street, Dublin. Another source says at 55 Wellington Street. Yet another source: - states that he was born in Capel Street
  3. Cowell, John (1980). Where they lived in Dublin. O'Brien Press Limited. ISBN 978-0-905140-43-8.
  4. Frederic Logan Paxson, Postwar years; normalcy, 1918-1923 (Cooper Square Publishers, 1966), p. 34
  5. 1 2 Debrett's House of Commons, and the Judicial Bench (1922), p. 123: "Sean Tomas O'Kelly, el. son of Samuel O'Kelly, of Berkley Road, Dublin; b. Aug. 25th, 1883; ed. at O'Connell Schs., Dublin: m. 1918, Mary Kate, da. of John Ryan, of Wexford ; is Sec. to Gaelic League, a Member of Municipal Council, Dublin"
  6. Irish Dictionary of National Biography
  7. Charles Townshend, "Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion" (Penguin 2006), p. 412.
  8. Sinead McCoole, "No Ordinary Women: Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary Years 1900-1923" (O'Brien 2004). p.54-55.
  9. Irish Bureau of Military History (BMH) WS 6 (Liam O'Briain)
  10. F.X.Martin (ed.), "1916 - Myth, Fact and Mystery', Studia Hibernica, 7 (1967) pp.88-9.
  11. Townshend, p.137-8.
  12. a single issue of the "Irish War News", 25 April 1916.
  13. Seán T. O'Kelly, '1916 before and after', National Library of Ireland (NLI) Ms 27692; Townshend, p.161.
  14. M.Laffan, "Resurrection in Ireland: The Sinn Fein Party, 1916-1923", p.31, cited in C.Townshend, "The Republic". p.33.
  15. "Seán T. O'Kelly". Retrieved 11 February 2012.
  16. Townshend, p.64.
  17. C Townshend, p.66, citing J.J.Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society (Cambridge 1989), p.41.
  18. Townshend, p.68.
  19. Letter to Clemenceau Feb 1919
  20. O'Kelly and Gavan Duffy to Clemenceau, June 1919
  21. Townshend, p.69.
  22. Memorandum by Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh to Pope Benedict XV
  23. Brian P. Murphy, 'O'Kelly, Seán Thomas (1882–1966)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011
  24. Townshend, p.33.
  25. W.J.McCormack, "Blackwell Companion to Modern Irish Culture" (2001), p.524.
  26. 1 2 Townshend, p.463.
  27. "Central Bank Act, 1942". Irish Statute Book. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
  28. Dáil Éireann – Volume 88 – 17 July 1942 – Committee on Finance. – Central Bank Bill, 1942—Fifth Stage
  29. 1 2 The six Irish leaders who have addressed joint sessions of the U.S. Congress are Seán T. O'Kelly (18 March 1959), Éamon de Valera (28 May 1964), Liam Cosgrave (17 March 1976), Garret FitzGerald (15 March 1984), John Bruton (11 September 1996), and Bertie Ahern (30 April 2008).
  30. Kelly, Hogan and Whyte The Irish Constitution (4th ed., LexisNexis Butterworth, 2003) par 4.5.110. Health Act, 1947 Part III .
  31. J.J.Lee, "Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society (Cambridge 1989),
  32. Uachtaráin – Séan T. Ó Ceallaigh (51m 00s) on YouTube Television documentary by TG4, 2007.
  33. Uachtaráin – Séan T. Ó Ceallaigh (28m 10s) on YouTube Television documentary by TG4, 2007.
  34. Uachtaráin – Séan T. Ó Ceallaigh (47m 35s) on YouTube Television documentary by TG4, 2007.
  35. Uachtaráin – Séan T. Ó Ceallaigh (46m 42s) on YouTube Television documentary by TG4, 2007.
  36. Uachtaráin – Séan T. Ó Ceallaigh (48m 03s) on YouTube Television documentary by TG4, 2007.
  37. Uachtaráin – Séan T. Ó Ceallaigh (47m 05s) on YouTube Television documentary by TG4, 2007.
  38. 1 2 3 The Ryans of Tomcoole at, accessed 12 May 2015
  39. Uachtaráin – Séan T. Ó Ceallaigh (41m 16s) on YouTube Television documentary by TG4, 2007.


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