by ehistoryadmin on March 5, 2016

A patriot of the pen

Liam Kenny

There is currently much debate on how to commemorate the men and women of 1916 whose militant action triggered an unstoppable momentum towards independence for Ireland. The great names of the Irish nationalist pantheon are quoted liberally – Pearse, Connolly, McDonagh, Markievicz – and other headline names.

Inevitably the emphasis will be on the leaders 1916 who adopted military action to overthrow what they saw as the imperial yoke and who, in many cases, paid with their own lives. And while it is right that reflection and recollection should focus on who were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice it should also be remembered that there were others who took a gentler approach to the independence cause. Equally as ardent as their gun-toting compatriots, they believed that the pen was at least as mighty as the sword. A prime example of a nationalist whose words flew like bullets against the establishment was an editor of this paper, one Seumas O’Kelly, whose anniversary occurs in the month of November.

O’Kelly occupied the editor’s desk of the Leinster Leader from 1906 to 1912 and again for a short time in 1916. Later he worked for a Sinn Fein newspaper in Harcourt Street, Dublin. It was there while working late on a night in November 1918 that he collapsed when British soldiers and their hangers-on broke up the premises as they riotously celebrated the news of the armistice which had silenced the guns in Flanders. Weak in constitution, he did not recover from the trauma and he died some days later. It brought an end to a journalistic career which had graced the columns of this paper with conviction and purpose.

O’Kelly’s creative resources were forged in his native Loughrea where his father ran a milling business. He grew up in a milieu where the conversation and folklore of the small farmers and the small town shopkeepers were major influences. Drawn to a life of writing he worked as a journalist in east Galway before heading south to his first editor’s job with the Southern Star newspaper in west Cork. He was one of the youngest editors of his time.

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 an ideal vehicle 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. His enthusiasm had other local outlets – he was a prominent member of the Naas branches of the Gaelic League and of Sinn Fein.

As well as his weekly journalistic output O’Kelly began to publish creative work based on his observations of the good, and the vain, in Irish rural and small-town society. His work quickly gained attention among the leading lights of the Irish literary revival of the time without bringing him the long term recognition so enjoyed by others from that era.

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 subsequent output of short-stories, poetry and novels met with popular acclaim even if professional critics were more qualified in their appreciation. 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 an influential circle of poets and authors which included headline names such as Padraig Colum, Oliver St John Gogarty, Lady Gregory, and, indeed, W B Yeats. O’Kelly’s accurate 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 Leinster Leader in 1912, made his talents available to Arthur Griffith, a leading figure 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. It was there in November 1918 that British soldiers and their followers 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.’ Hopefully in the debate that surrounds the commemoration of the men and women of 1916 there will be room for patriots of the pen as well as those of the gun. Leinster Leader 25 November 2014, Looking Back, Series no: 409.

Previous post:

Next post: