Kelly, Dominick (d. 1806), poet, novelist and physician, was most likely a native of Ballyglass, Co. Roscommon. Kelly’s early life is obscure, though he was a medical student in Edinburgh in the late-1750s and is recorded as being in Brussels in 1760, suggesting that he travelled to the continent to continue his medical studies. He apparently spent some years in the environs of London’s Grub Street, before finishing his working life as a doctor in Ballyglass. Though no record of his graduation has yet been found, he was referred to in a legal document as ‘Dominick Kelly, Dr. of Physick’ (Beryl, ii, 339) and twice in the journal of the Irish house of lords as ‘Dominick Kelly, M.D.’ (Journals of the House of Lords, 26, 87), making it almost certain that he took a medical degree.
Kelly’s first known verse, ‘Miss Polly Roe, of Galway’ was published in the Edinburgh Magazine in 1758. His first known London publication – a different poem on the same subject, ‘Verses to Polly Rowe’ – appeared in the Lady’s Magazine in 1760. When, later that same year, Lloyd’s Evening Post published a poem Kelly considered a ‘piratical imitation’ of his Edinburgh work, he wrote to protest. The newspaper obligingly reprinted his own poem, retitled ‘Polly Rowe: a ballad’ (26–9 Dec. 1760). In doing so, however, it attributed authorship to a ‘D. Shelly’, leading Kelly to write a correction. The error was a happy one since, in making the correction, the Evening Post also reprinted Kelly’s poem from the Lady’s Magazine. In January 1761, the poem appeared in the London Public Advertiser, over the legend ‘D. Kelly. Brussels 1760’. On returning from the continent, Kelly seems to have been based in London. When the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser misattributed Hugh Kelly’s Thespis to him in 1766, he took advantage of the confusion by publicising a new work of his own, ‘Molly White; or, The bride bewitched’ (1767). This comic tale of medieval village life appeared in the form of a pamphlet by ‘D. Kelly, Esq.’, published by William Griffin who, three years later, would issue, also in pamphlet form, Oliver Goldsmith’s poem ‘The deserted village’ (1770).
By 1768, Kelly seems to have settled into the life of a country doctor in Co. Roscommon, while continuing to harbour literary aspirations. Between 1768 and 1770, nine poems appeared anonymously in ‘the Batchelor’ papers, including in the Dublin Mercury newspaper published by the prominent catholic bookseller, James Hoey, Jr (qv). The first of these poems, ‘The battle of the Chaunters. Fought near Castleblakeney in the County of Galway. July 27th, 1767’, suggests Kelly recognised where his poetic strengths lay. Although closely modelled on ‘Molly White’, ‘The battle of the Chaunters’ is the first poem of an ambitious seven-poem sequence of over 1,000 lines on Irish rural themes. Taken as a whole, the sequence, written in supple heroic couplets, offers a wealth of insights into popular life in mid-century Connacht. The topics, alongside many others, include politics both Irish and global, classical myth, Irish folklore, and ample representation of the amusements of a hard-working (and sometimes exploited) rural community. Tellingly, the last of the nine poems, ‘The humble petition of Cornelius O Clummogan, the famous poor scholar; to the priest of the parish’, is written in strikingly unconventional rhyming couplets that imitate the ‘long line’ of contemporary Irish-language verse. Unique in Irish poetry of the period, the poem reveals Dominick Kelly as almost certainly bilingual. ‘The humble petition’ is also notable for being the first extended representation of the Irish ‘poor scholar’ in print, some half a century before the figure became familiar in the work of Thomas Crofton Croker (qv) and William Carleton (qv).
How much of the rich thematic variety of Kelly’s comic yet sympathetic verse might have been understood by the metropolitan readers of the Dublin Mercury is uncertain, but the poems were undoubtedly enjoyed by readers. It was in response to the success of his verse that Kelly was encouraged to try his hand at prose fiction. The result was a short satirical novel, The history of Mr. Charles Fitzgerald and Miss Sarah Stapleton, set in Cos Westmeath and Dublin, and peopled with members of the protestant gentry, catholic clergy and their parishioners, and a solitary dissenting physician. A pointed parody of popular marriage plot fiction, it reaches an abrupt satirical conclusion. Also published by James Hoey, Jr, the volume containing the novel included, with a separate (though previously unindicated) title-page, the nine poems previously published in the Dublin Mercury, with the title Fugitive pieces. Perhaps because both novel and poems were so unusual in form and content, the volume enjoyed only limited success, though the verse was long remembered.
In the 1770s, Kelly continued to contribute to what was then Hoey’s Dublin Mercury, both in the form of satirical prose – ‘A Connaught man unmask’d’ – and poems, including a St Patrick Day’s ode, in 1771. Hoey included Kelly’s ‘Miss Polly Roe of Galway’, in his anthology, Apollo (1772), later discovering that the poem had been appropriated – its subject anglicised as ‘Nancy Crow’ – and set to music by England’s leading composer, Thomas Arne. Protesting against this ‘English plagiarism’, Hoey took the opportunity to reprint both versions in The wreath (1775), a sequel to Apollo. Later in the decade, ‘Verses to Polly Rowe’, first published almost twenty years previously, was recovered and published, without attribution, in London in the Lady’s Magazine in September 1779, as ‘Verses from a gentleman in Brussels to a lady in London’. Kelly’s practice of often publishing anonymously makes it very likely that more of his verse remains to be discovered. His last known publication, however, was attributed on its title page to ‘Dominick Kelly, author of “The Battle of the Chanters [sic]”’. This was Codrus, a slim volume published in 1794, possibly in Dublin, comprising the humorous ‘Codrus; or Advice to indigent poets’, and two epitaphs.
Following his death in 1806, the poet was remembered in a verse obituary, published in Walker’s Hibernian Magazine, as ‘Dominick Kelly, Esq., Author of the celebrated poem called “The Battle of the Chaunters”, &c., &c’ (Dec. 1806). Regretting the lack of recognition accorded Kelly in his lifetime, the obituarist correctly described him as a resident of Co. Roscommon, associated with an area close to the River Suck. Kelly’s identity, however, was soon obscured by misattribution. In An agricultural and statistical survey of the County of Galway (1824), the agronomist Hely Dutton reprinted both ‘The battle of the Chaunters’ and ‘The humble petition’ as evidence of the poetic talents of a Dr Dominick O’Kelly of Ballyglass, Co. Galway. Seven years later, these two poems, retitled ‘Red rose; or, The harmonic rivals’ and ‘The O’Shaughnessyanum: the humble petition of Daniel O’Shaughnessy, the famous poor scholar; to the priest of the parish’, appeared in The Hippocrene (1831) as the work of Patrick O’Kelly (qv), author of Killarney (1791). Nor was this the only misappropriation of Kelly’s poetry. Lights and shadows of the Scottish scenery and character, a verse collection published in Edinburgh in 1824 and edited by ‘Cincinnatus Caledonius’, reprinted a near-direct plagiarism of ‘Verses to Polly Rowe’, with the title ‘Lines to a Lady (Miss Jessie MacGhie)’ and attributed the ‘sweet rhapsody’ to the Scottish poet John Lowe, author of the celebrated poem ‘Mary’s dream’.
Despite sporadic efforts by nineteenth- and early-twentieth century writers to recover the identity of the author of, above all, ‘The battle of the Chaunters’, Kelly’s name remained elusive. More recently, the misattribution of his writings in bibliographies and library catalogues has continued to militate against recognition of Dominick Kelly’s varied and innovative work.