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The brothers O'Kelly, editors of the
Leinster Leader newspaper
By James Durney, Historian in Residence,
Kildare County Council
Galway-born brothers, Séumas and Michael O'Kelly,
were both editors of the Leinster Leader during
Ireland's revolutionary period. Séumas was editor from
1906-1912, while Michael replaced his brother as
editor when Séumas moved to Dublin. Subsequently,
when Michael was interned in the aftermath of the
1916 Rising, Séumas briefly replaced him until Michael
was released from custody a few weeks later. The
editorship of the Leinster Leader was Séumas O'Kelly's
longest single journalistic connection.
Michael O'Kelly was born Michael Kelly, on 18 February
1873, in Loughrea, Co. Galway, to Michael Kelly and his
wife, Catherine Fitzgerald. Séumas O'Kelly was born
James Kelly, in Mobhill, Loughrea, Co. Galway, on 16
November 1875, the youngest of seven children. On 22
October 1905 Catherine Kelly took ill while saying the
Stations of the Cross, in Loughrea Cathedral, and died
the next day.
Writing in June 1919, in a preface to his brother's play,
The Parnellite, Michael O'Kelly wrote about the origins
of the O'Kelly's: Born at Loughrea, Co. Galway, the early
life of Séumas O'Kelly was passed in an environment that
strongly permeated all his work. His forebears on the
paternal side were for many generations identified with
the milling and corn-carrying trade, which in the past
flourished between Limerick and Galway ... The father of
Seumas for many years carried on a prosperous business
in Loughrea. Seumas's mother was Catherine Fitzgerald
of Foxhill, in the same locality, a family name now extinct,
and only the very old remember the Fitzgeralds of Foxhill,
noted for their generous hospitality.
From the 1880s Loughrea was at the centre of agita-
tion by the Land League's `Plan of Campaign' on the
Clanricarde estate. Many tenants in Loughrea and
surrounding rural districts were evicted for non-
payment of rent, and Lord Clanricarde resisted their
reinstatement until the estate was purchased by
special legislation shortly before the Great War.
Michael O'Kelly later wrote that his father was `one of
the sufferers amongst the evicted tenants of the Clan-
ricarde estate,' and the scenes which Séumas
`witnessed in his early years left a deep and lasting
impression on his mind'. According to one local story
the Kellys were evicted from their holding during the
Plan of Campaign, though they seemed to have
retained a degree of financial stability. Michael Kelly
opened a newsagents' shop in Loughrea and was able
to provide a good level of education for his
children.
In the 1901 Census Michael Kelly's occupation was
given as `Newsagent.' His address at Mobhill, Loughrea,
was recorded as a shop on the B1 Form. He was sixty
years of age and his wife, Catherine (56), and daughter,
Nora, (26) are also recorded as being newsagents. Sons
Michael (23) and James (21) are recorded as `journal-
ists.' A grandson, Alphonsus Sweeney (8), was also
recorded. Ten years later, in the 1911 Census, Michael
(34) had changed his name to O'Kelly and was a
boarder in a house on Dublin Road, Nenagh, Co.
Tipperary. His occupation was given as a journalist and
his language proficiency recorded as `Irish and English'.
In 1911 Séumas was living in Naas, Co. Kildare, in a
cottage rented from Mrs. Norton. The census form was
completed and signed in Irish with the head of family
signature being given as Mícéal Ua Ceallaig (72). Also
recorded was Nóra Ní Ceallaig (daughter, aged thirty),
Séumas Ua Ceallaig (son, aged twenty-eight) and
Alponsus Mac Suibne (nephew, aged ten). Both Mícéal
and Séumas are recorded as having `gaelig and bearla',
while Nóra and Alponsus have `bearla' only. However,
Alponsus Mac Suibne is recorded as being a nephew,
so it is obvious that Séumas, and not Mícéal, filled in
the census form.
While growing up in Loughrea, Séumas was influ-
enced in his viewpoint by contact with older relatives
and country people from whom he learned some Irish
and the folklore/storytelling tradition that shaped
many of his stories and writings. Much of his writings
are recognisably set in Loughrea and the west of
Ireland. Séumas began working as a journalist on local
papers, including the Midland Tribune, the Tuam News,
and the Connacht Leader. When he took over the
Southern Star, based in Skibbereen, Co. Cork, in 1903,
he became the youngest newspaper editor in Ireland.
Seumus O'Kelly