Sean T. O'Kelly
Seán Thomas O'Kelly was the second President of Ireland (1945–1959). He was a member of Dáil Éireann
Dáil Éireann
Dáil Éireann is the lower house, but principal chamber, of the Oireachtas , which also includes the President of Ireland and Seanad Éireann . It is directly elected at least once in every five years under the system of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote...

 from 1918 until his election as President. During this time he served as Minister for Local Government (1932–1939) and Minister for Finance (1939–1945). He also served as Tánaiste
The Tánaiste is the deputy prime minister of Ireland. The current Tánaiste is Eamon Gilmore, TD who was appointed on 9 March 2011.- Origins and etymology :...

 (deputy prime minister) of Ireland from 1932 to 1945, under the title Vice-President of the Executive Council
Vice-President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State
The Vice-President of the Executive Council was the deputy head of government of the 1922–1937 Irish Free State, and the second most senior member of the Executive Council...

 from 1932 until 1937 and Tánaiste
The Tánaiste is the deputy prime minister of Ireland. The current Tánaiste is Eamon Gilmore, TD who was appointed on 9 March 2011.- Origins and etymology :...

 from 1937 until 1945.

Early life

O'Kelly was born in Dublin at 55 Wellington Street in the north inner-city Dublin. He was educated at the Richmond Street Irish Christian Brothers School, a short walk away. O'Kelly joined the National Library of Ireland
National Library of Ireland
The National Library of Ireland is Ireland's national library located in Dublin, in a building designed by Thomas Newenham Deane. The Minister for Arts, Sport & Tourism is the member of the Irish Government responsible for the library....

 in 1898 as a junior assistant. The same year, he joined the Gaelic League, becoming a member of the governing body in 1910 and General Secretary in 1915.

Active in Sinn Féin

O'Kelly joined Sinn Féin
Sinn Féin
Sinn Féin is a left wing, Irish republican political party in Ireland. The name is Irish for "ourselves" or "we ourselves", although it is frequently mistranslated as "ourselves alone". Originating in the Sinn Féin organisation founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith, it took its current form in 1970...

, then a small dual-monarchist, capitalist party, immediately at its inception in 1905. He became an honorary secretary of the movement from 1908, remaining in the post until 1925. In 1906 he was elected to Dublin Corporation
Dublin Corporation
Dublin Corporation , known by generations of Dubliners simply as The Corpo, is the former name given to the city government and its administrative organisation in Dublin between 1661 and 1 January 2002...

, and retained the seat until 1924.

In March 1915, O'Kelly went to New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

, to inform Clan Na Gael
Clan na Gael
The Clan na Gael was an Irish republican organization in the United States in the late 19th and 20th centuries, successor to the Fenian Brotherhood and a sister organization to the Irish Republican Brotherhood...

 of the plans for a rising in Dublin by the Irish Volunteers
Irish Volunteers
The Irish Volunteers was a military organisation established in 1913 by Irish nationalists. It was ostensibly formed in response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912, and its declared primary aim was "to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland"...

. Pádraig Pearse appointed O'Kelly to be his Staff Captain in preparation for whenever the insurrection would take place.

After the Easter Rising
Easter Rising
The Easter Rising was an insurrection staged in Ireland during Easter Week, 1916. The Rising was mounted by Irish republicans with the aims of ending British rule in Ireland and establishing the Irish Republic at a time when the British Empire was heavily engaged in the First World War...

 in 1916, O'Kelly was gaoled, released, and re-arrested. He escaped from detention in Fairfield in Britain
Great Britain
Great Britain or Britain is an island situated to the northwest of Continental Europe. It is the ninth largest island in the world, and the largest European island, as well as the largest of the British Isles...

, and returned to Ireland.

MP in the 1918 general election

O'Kelly was elected Sinn Féin Member of Parliament
Member of Parliament
A Member of Parliament is a representative of the voters to a :parliament. In many countries with bicameral parliaments, the term applies specifically to members of the lower house, as upper houses often have a different title, such as senate, and thus also have different titles for its members,...

 (MP) for Dublin College Green
Dublin College Green (UK Parliament constituency)
College Green, a division of Dublin, was a UK parliamentary constituency in Ireland. It returned one Member of Parliament to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1885 to 1922.-Boundaries and boundary changes:...

 in the 1918 British general election
Irish (UK) general election, 1918
The Irish general election of 1918 was that part of the 1918 United Kingdom general election that took place in Ireland. It is seen as a key moment in modern Irish history...

. Along with other Sinn Féin MPs he refused to take his seat in the British House of Commons. Instead they set up an Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann
Dáil Éireann
Dáil Éireann is the lower house, but principal chamber, of the Oireachtas , which also includes the President of Ireland and Seanad Éireann . It is directly elected at least once in every five years under the system of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote...

, in Dublin. O'Kelly served as Ceann Comhairle
Ceann Comhairle
The Ceann Comhairle is the chairman of Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Oireachtas of Ireland. The person who holds the position is elected by members of the Dáil from among their number in the first session after each general election...

 (Speaker) of the First Dáil
First Dáil
The First Dáil was Dáil Éireann as it convened from 1919–1921. In 1919 candidates who had been elected in the Westminster elections of 1918 refused to recognise the Parliament of the United Kingdom and instead assembled as a unicameral, revolutionary parliament called "Dáil Éireann"...


He also served as the Irish Republic
Irish Republic
The Irish Republic was a revolutionary state that declared its independence from Great Britain in January 1919. It established a legislature , a government , a court system and a police force...

's envoy, demanding recognition of the Republic and its admittance to the post-World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 peace treaty negotiations at Versailles
Paris Peace Conference, 1919
The Paris Peace Conference was the meeting of the Allied victors following the end of World War I to set the peace terms for the defeated Central Powers following the armistices of 1918. It took place in Paris in 1919 and involved diplomats from more than 32 countries and nationalities...

. While this request to Clemenceau
Georges Clemenceau
Georges Benjamin Clemenceau was a French statesman, physician and journalist. He served as the Prime Minister of France from 1906 to 1909, and again from 1917 to 1920. For nearly the final year of World War I he led France, and was one of the major voices behind the Treaty of Versailles at the...

 was sincere, it naively ignored the fact that France and Britain had been allied for the previous four years. In May 1920 he sent a memorandum on the Irish political situation to Pope Benedict XV
Pope Benedict XV
Pope Benedict XV , born Giacomo Paolo Giovanni Battista della Chiesa, reigned as Pope from 3 September 1914 to 22 January 1922...


Close to de Valera

O'Kelly was a close associate of Éamon de Valera
Éamon de Valera
Éamon de Valera was one of the dominant political figures in twentieth century Ireland, serving as head of government of the Irish Free State and head of government and head of state of Ireland...

, who served variously as President of Dáil Éireann
President of Dáil Éireann
The President of Dáil Éireann was the leader of the revolutionary Irish Republic of 1919–1921. The office, also known as Príomh Aire , was created in the Dáil Constitution adopted by Dáil Éireann, the parliament of the Republic, at its first meeting in January 1919. This provided that the...

/Príomh Aire (prime minister from April 1919 to August 1921) and President of the Republic
President of the Irish Republic
President of the Republic was the title given to the head of the Irish ministry or Aireacht in August 1921 by an amendment to the Dáil Constitution, which replaced the previous title, Príomh Aire or President of Dáil Éireann...

 (from August 1921 to January 1922). As with de Valera, he opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty
Anglo-Irish Treaty
The Anglo-Irish Treaty , officially called the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty Between Great Britain and Ireland, was a treaty between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and representatives of the secessionist Irish Republic that concluded the Irish War of...

 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 his own republican party, Fianna Fáil
Fianna Fáil
Fianna Fáil – The Republican Party , more commonly known as Fianna Fáil is a centrist political party in the Republic of Ireland, founded on 23 March 1926. Fianna Fáil's name is traditionally translated into English as Soldiers of Destiny, although a more accurate rendition would be Warriors of Fál...

, O'Kelly followed him, becoming one of the party's founding members. In 1932, when de Valera, having won that year's general election
Irish general election, 1932
The Irish general election of 1932 was held on 16 February 1932, just over two weeks after the dissolution of the Dáil on 29 January. The newly elected 153 members of the 7th Dáil assembled at Leinster House on 9 March 1932 when the new President of the Executive Council and Executive Council of...

, was appointed President of the Executive Council
President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State
The President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State was the head of government or prime minister of the Irish Free State which existed from 1922 to 1937...

 (prime minister of the Irish Free State) he made O'Kelly his deputy as Vice-President of the Council. 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
Governor-General of the Irish Free State
The Governor-General was the representative of the King in the 1922–1937 Irish Free State. Until 1927 he was also the agent of the British government in the Irish state. By convention the office of Governor-General was largely ceremonial...

, James McNeill
James McNeill
James McNeill was an Irish politician and diplomat, who served as first High Commissioner to London and second Governor-General of the Irish Free State....

. 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
Frank Aiken
Frank Aiken was a commander of the Irish Republican Army and later an Irish politician. A founding-member of Fianna Fáil, Aiken was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1923 and at each subsequent election until 1973...

 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 controversial membership of a right-wing Roman Catholic organisation, the Knights of Columbanus, which de Valera suspected had a source in the cabinet. The talkative, tactless, fanatically religious whiskey-drinking 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
County Kildare
County Kildare is a county in Ireland. It is part of the Mid-East Region and is also located in the province of Leinster. It is named after the town of Kildare. Kildare County Council is the local authority for the county...

, 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
Leinster House
Leinster House is the name of the building housing the Oireachtas, the national parliament of Ireland.Leinster House was originally the ducal palace of the Dukes of Leinster. Since 1922, it is a complex of buildings, of which the former ducal palace is the core, which house Oireachtas Éireann, its...

 (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 Irish constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann. 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.

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
Fine Gael
Fine Gael is a centre-right to centrist political party in the Republic of Ireland. It is the single largest party in Ireland in the Oireachtas, in local government, and in terms of Members of the European Parliament. The party has a membership of over 35,000...

's suggestion, that the office go to Douglas Hyde
Douglas Hyde
Douglas Hyde , known as An Craoibhín Aoibhinn , was an Irish scholar of the Irish language who served as the first President of Ireland from 1938 to 1945...

, a Protestant Irish man, as a thank you for his contribution to Irish society. Irish language enthusiast who had founded the Conradh na Gaeilge
Conradh na Gaeilge
Conradh na Gaeilge is a non-governmental organisation that promotes the Irish language in Ireland and abroad. The motto of the League is Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin amháin .-Origins:...

, known in English as the Gaelic League, a cultural organisation promoting the preservation of the Irish language
Irish language
Irish , also known as Irish Gaelic, is a Goidelic language of the Indo-European language family, originating in Ireland and historically spoken by the Irish people. Irish is now spoken as a first language by a minority of Irish people, as well as being a second language of a larger proportion of...

, music, dancing and traditions.

Minister for Finance

O'Kelly was appointed Minister of Finance in 1939. He secured the passing of The Central Bank Act in 1942. 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.

President of Ireland

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. O'Kelly's most famous faux pas occurred during a state visit to the Vatican, when in a breach with standard protocol
Protocol (diplomacy)
In international politics, protocol is the etiquette of diplomacy and affairs of state.A protocol is a rule which guides how an activity should be performed, especially in the field of diplomacy. In diplomatic services and governmental fields of endeavor protocols are often unwritten guidelines...

, he told the media of Pope Pius XII
Pope Pius XII
The Venerable Pope Pius XII , born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli , reigned as Pope, head of the Catholic Church and sovereign of Vatican City State, from 2 March 1939 until his death in 1958....

's personal opinions on communism. The resulting row strained relationships between Pope Pius and Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin was the Premier of the Soviet Union from 6 May 1941 to 5 March 1953. He was among the Bolshevik revolutionaries who brought about the October Revolution and had held the position of first General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee...


O'Kelly was elected unopposed to the presidency a second time in 1952. During his second term he visited many nations in Europe and addressed the United States Congress
United States Congress
The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress meets in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C....

 in 1959. He retired at the end of his second term in 1959, to be replaced by his old mentor, Éamon de Valera
Éamon de Valera
Éamon de Valera was one of the dominant political figures in twentieth century Ireland, serving as head of government of the Irish Free State and head of government and head of state of Ireland...


O'Kelly did not refer any Bills to the Supreme Court under Article 26 of Bunreacht na hÉireann. He convened a meeting of the Council of State
Council of State (Ireland)
The Council of State is a body established by the Constitution of Ireland to advise the President of Ireland in the exercise of many of his or her discretionary, reserve powers...

 in 1947, to consider whether Part III of the Health Bill, 1947 — which provided the basis for the Mother and Child Scheme
Mother and Child Scheme
The Mother and Child Scheme was a healthcare programme in the Republic of Ireland that would later become remembered as a major political crisis involving primarily the Irish Government and Roman Catholic Church in the early 1950s....

 — should be referred, but he decided against doing so.

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
John A. Costello
John Aloysius Costello , a successful barrister, was one of the main legal advisors to the government of the Irish Free State after independence, Attorney General of Ireland from 1926–1932 and Taoiseach from 1948–1951 and 1954–1957....

 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 Bunreacht na hÉireann, 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
Secretary-General to the President
The Secretary-General to the President is the senior Irish civil servant who both fulfils four distinct roles vis-à-vis the presidency of Ireland...

, 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, from 16–31 March 1959. He was invited to address both houses of Congress. 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. Both Ireland and America had been neutral countries when the war began, but the U.S. 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.

O'Kelly and Roman Catholicism

O'Kelly's longstanding association with Roman Catholicism proved controversial. At key times he was suspected by de Valera of being the "Church's man" in the cabinet, either deliberately or accidentally leaking information to the Knights of Saint Columbanus
Knights of Saint Columbanus
The Order of the Knights of Saint Columbanus is an Irish Catholic fraternal and service organization for lay men over twenty-one years of age.- Organisation :...

. O'Kelly made a point of ensuring that his first state visit, following the declaration of the Republic of Ireland
Republic of Ireland
Ireland , described as the Republic of Ireland , is a sovereign state in Europe occupying approximately five-sixths of the island of the same name. Its capital is Dublin. Ireland, which had a population of 4.58 million in 2011, is a constitutional republic governed as a parliamentary democracy,...

 in 1949, was to the Vatican
Holy See
The Holy See is the episcopal jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome, in which its Bishop is commonly known as the Pope. It is the preeminent episcopal see of the Catholic Church, forming the central government of the Church. As such, diplomatically, and in other spheres the Holy See acts and...

 to meet Pope Pius XII, a visit which, as mentioned, became mired in 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
Order of Christ (papacy)
The Supreme Order of Christ is the highest order of chivalry being awarded by the Pope. According to some scholars owes its origin to the same Order of Christ of the Knights Templar, from which came the Order of Christ that was awarded by the Kings of Portugal and the Emperors of Brazil...

 which he coveted. O'Kelly's passion for demonstrating his Roman Catholic beliefs on all possible occasions led him to be referred to as a creeping Jesus
Creeping Jesus
Creeping Jesus is a Hiberno-English term, originally used derogatively, to describe a Roman Catholic seeking to make a public display of religiosity in a manner which seems hypocritical and simply for show.-Origins of term:...


"A Model President"

Éamon de Valera
Éamon de Valera
Éamon de Valera was one of the dominant political figures in twentieth century Ireland, serving as head of government of the Irish Free State and head of government and head of state of Ireland...

 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. The author, Monsignor Pádraig Ó Fiannachta
Pádraig Ó Fiannachta
Pádraig Ó Fiannachta is a renowned Irish language scholar, poet and priest, born in the Kerry Gaeltacht in 1927. He studied at Maynooth, University College Cork and All Hallows, Clonliffe College. He was ordained a priest in 1953. He spent some time in Wales prior to returning to Maynooth College...

, reported that President O'Kelly kept barrels of draught Guinness
Guinness is a popular Irish dry stout that originated in the brewery of Arthur Guinness at St. James's Gate, Dublin. Guinness is directly descended from the porter style that originated in London in the early 18th century and is one of the most successful beer brands worldwide, brewed in almost...

 stout on tap in Áras an Uachtaráin
Áras an Uachtaráin
Áras an Uachtaráin , formerly the Viceregal Lodge, is the official residence of the President of Ireland. It is located in the Phoenix Park on the northside of Dublin.-Origins:...


O'Kelly was a short man with a tall second wife. When attending a football match once in Croke Park
Croke Park
Croke Park in Dublin is the principal stadium and headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association , Ireland's biggest sporting organisation...

, 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!"

On his retirement as president in 1959, he was described as a "model President" by the normally hostile Irish Times
The Irish Times
The Irish Times is an Irish daily broadsheet newspaper launched on 29 March 1859. The editor is Kevin O'Sullivan who succeeded Geraldine Kennedy in 2011; the deputy editor is Paul O'Neill. The Irish Times is considered to be Ireland's newspaper of record, and is published every day except Sundays...

 newspaper. Though controversial, the diminutive O'Kelly was widely seen as a 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
Glasnevin Cemetery
Glasnevin Cemetery , officially known as Prospect Cemetery, is the largest non-denominational cemetery in Ireland with an estimated 1.5 million burials...

, Dublin.

He was survived by his second wife, Phyllis, whom he married in 1936. Phyllis lost her first baby and was unable have any more. His first wife was Phyllis' sister, Mary Kate Ryan of Tomcoole, County Wexford
County Wexford
County Wexford is a county in Ireland. It is part of the South-East Region and is also located in the province of Leinster. It is named after the town of Wexford. In pre-Norman times it was part of the Kingdom of Uí Cheinnselaig, whose capital was at Ferns. Wexford County Council is the local...


Mary Kate and O'Kelly were married from 1918 until her death, aged 56, in 1934. They had no children. One of Mary Kate and Phyllis's brothers was Fianna Fáil minister, James Ryan while another sister was married to Fine Gael
Fine Gael
Fine Gael is a centre-right to centrist political party in the Republic of Ireland. It is the single largest party in Ireland in the Oireachtas, in local government, and in terms of Members of the European Parliament. The party has a membership of over 35,000...

 leader General Richard Mulcahy
Richard Mulcahy
Richard James Mulcahy was an Irish politician, army general and commander in chief, leader of Fine Gael and Cabinet Minister...



  • Hickey, D.J. and Doherty, J.E A Dictionary Of Irish History 1800-1980 Gill and Macmillian (1987) ISBN 0-7171-1567-4
  • Timons, M Seán T. O'Kelly, Roundwood and District Historical and Folklore Society, No 2(1989)

External links

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