Kelly, John Maurice (1931–91), scholar, politician, and writer, was born 31 August 1931 in Dublin, eldest of three sons of Joseph Kelly, chief executive officer of the Agricultural Credit Corporation, from Co. Kerry, and May Kelly (née Boyle), civil servant, from Co. Mayo. John Kelly went to school first at St Conleth's in Dublin and later to Glenstal Priory School. He entered UCD in 1949, graduated with a first-class honours BA in ancient classics in 1952, and was awarded an MA the following year. He also began studying for the bar at King's Inns, but deferred taking his final examination when he was awarded a travelling studentship in classics in 1953. He went first to the University of Heidelberg, where he studied Roman law and was awarded a doctorate. The three major works on Roman law which he subsequently published, Princeps iudex (1957), Roman litigation (1966), and Studies in the civil judicature of the Roman republic (1976), won him an international reputation in the field of Roman law studies. In the third stage of his postgraduate career, at Pembroke College, Oxford, he wrote a thesis on the Irish constitution for which he was awarded a B.Litt. Its publication as Fundamental rights in the Irish law and constitution (1961) marked his emergence as the outstanding Irish scholar of his generation in this entire area.
In the meantime, he had been called to the Irish bar in 1956 and began to practise on the Leinster and Eastern circuits. Although he remained at the bar for a relatively short time, he displayed impressive qualities as an advocate which were later to serve him well as a politician. He had a remarkably agile mind and a gift for devastating repartee which were invaluable assets in the courtroom. Even as a fledgling barrister, he was prepared to challenge legal orthodoxy: he was proud of the fact that he questioned in court the doctrine that the state was immune from being sued in civil actions, some years before that apparently irremovable dogma was finally laid to rest by the supreme court.
He returned to academic life in 1961, when he became a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, where he remained until 1965 when he was appointed professor of Roman law and jurisprudence in the faculty of law in UCD. Two years later, he became dean of the UCD law faculty. The faculty to which he returned was very different from that which he had known as a student in UCD in the early 1950s. There was then no full-time professor or lecturer, and, as a result, no research, and the teaching was done on a part-time basis by busy barristers. The faculty was unable even to offer an honours degree in law until the early 1960s. Thereafter, the faculty was established on a full-time basis and the arrival of Kelly, first as professor and then dean, added to its growing reputation. He himself was actively involved in the work of reorganising and enlarging the faculty. Another project he undertook at this time was the revival of the Irish Jurist, a journal devoted to current and historical jurisprudence. He was the editor from its relaunch in 1966 until 1973.
Kelly had always taken a keen interest in Irish politics, even during the periods that he spent abroad. In 1966 he made what was to prove a momentous decision when he became a member of the Fine Gael party. He was elected to the senate in 1969 and to the dáil in 1973, and brought to the debates a gift for oratory and withering invective that recalled the heyday of James Dillon (qv). He sat continuously as a dáil deputy from March 1973 until 1989, serving in three different constituencies in south Dublin during that time.
On his first day in the dáil, the ‘National Coalition’ of Fine Gael and Labour replaced a Fianna Fáil administration that had been in power for sixteen years. As parliamentary secretary to the taoiseach (Liam Cosgrave) and chief whip, Kelly played an important role in the new administration, particularly as it enjoyed a relatively narrow majority in the dáil. He seemed assured of promotion to the cabinet itself in due course and there was some surprise when he succeeded the then attorney general, Declan Costello, on the latter's appointment to the high court in 1977. His tenure of the office, however, was to be of unprecedented brevity: the dáil was dissolved a mere four weeks after his appointment, and in the ensuing general election Fianna Fáil were returned with their largest ever majority.
Kelly seemed to find life as an opposition deputy more congenial than office. Apart from any other considerations, it enabled him to resume his academic career in UCD. He also now had the time to devote to what was to be his greatest contribution to Irish constitutional law, The Irish constitution, the first edition of which was published in 1980. This took the form of a detailed article-by-article commentary on the text of the constitution; it immediately became, and remains, the most authoritative work on the subject.
There was a further interruption to his full-time academic career, however, when the Fine Gael–Labour coalition returned to power for a brief period in 1981–2 with Garret FitzGerald (qv) now taoiseach. He served in FitzGerald's government as minister for trade, commerce, and tourism, but again did not appear to find the demands of office particularly congenial. On his return to the backbenches, he resumed the role that suited him best, that of a merciless critic of government policies. Even the targets of his barbed and witty comments acknowledged his skills as a debater, and those on his own side were not always spared. He was also becoming increasingly concerned by what he saw as the negative effects of the polarisation of Irish politics by the divisions of the civil war, which he considered to be of no relevance to the problems that confronted Ireland during the depression of the 1980s. However, he found little support among politicians for his strongly held view that it was time for the historic schism between the two wings of the Sinn Féin movement to be bridged, so that a party somewhat along the lines of the Christian Democrat parties in continental Europe could emerge, pursuing centre-right policies in opposition to, rather than in uneasy coalition with, the Labour party. There was more widespread support for his pleas, most eloquently voiced at the New Ireland Forum established by the FitzGerald government, for an end to the traditional anti-partitionist rhetoric of the mainstream political parties, which he saw as having exacerbated the continuing unrest and violence in Northern Ireland.
He was, however, becoming increasingly disillusioned with the political scene, and declined to accept ministerial office when the Fine Gael–Labour coalition came back to office in December 1982. He held his seat for Dublin South in 1987 but did not contest the 1989 general election and undertook what was to be his last major work, A short history of western legal theory (published posthumously in 1992). He died in Dublin on 24 January 1991 after a short illness, at the relatively early age of 59.
John Kelly married (1961) Delphine Dudley, a solicitor; her parents were John Marshall Dudley, also a solicitor, from Mallow, Co. Cork, and Marguerite Dudley (née Comyn). They had three sons and two daughters. With the exception of the time in Oxford, they spent most of their married life in 17 Ailesbury Road, Dublin. They had, however, many friends from their days in Oxford and spent part of the vacations in a cottage which they had bought in the Oxfordshire countryside. He and Delphine had a wide circle of friends, extending well beyond the political and academic worlds, both in Ireland and abroad; and social life in Dublin, in particular, was the poorer for his passing.
The major work by which John Kelly will undoubtedly be most widely remembered is The Irish constitution. It was not only the product of much research and reflection on the development of constitutional law in Ireland: it was greatly enriched by his own practical experience as a politician and, however briefly, as a practising barrister, by his profound knowledge of Roman law, and by his understanding of the manner in which the civil-law systems, particularly in continental Europe, have operated under the influence of that body of law. In addition, he was widely read in classical and modern literature, and in history, philosophy, and political science. He was also a gifted linguist, at home in French, German, and, to some extent, Italian. He had a lifelong interest in the Irish language and was one of the minority of Irish legislators who were capable of participating in debates in the first official language.
While it may never enjoy the same wide readership, in Ireland at least, as The Irish constitution, his Short history of western legal theory remains a remarkably impressive achievement. Again, he brought unique experience and skills to the task he set himself of providing students with a comprehensive guide to the manner in which jurisprudence has evolved in the western world over the centuries. His fluent and graceful style and the clarity with which he could expound difficult legal concepts were a feature, not only of The Irish constitution and A short history of western legal theory, but also of the vast range of learned articles he contributed to academic periodicals both in Ireland and abroad. It was, indeed, a matter of regret to some of his admirers that he devoted so much of his relatively short life to the pedestrian activities that are a feature of the lives of dáil deputies.
Kelly was slight in stature and always wore spectacles. The latter fact, combined, on occasion, with a somewhat abstracted air, might have suggested that he was the stereotype reclusive scholar. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Not merely did he throw himself into the political fray with gusto: in private, his vivid and restless personality was reflected in a torrent of dazzling conversation. He was not merely remarkably widely read, but had a deep and knowledgeable appreciation of music, particularly of the baroque era. (He reacted with amusement, astonishment, and some pride to the emergence of his eldest son, Nicholas, as a pop star and lead singer in a group called ‘The Fat Lady Sings’ in the late 1980s.)
In his early days, he embarked on what might been yet another notable career, as a writer of fiction, had not other preoccupations intervened. In 1964, under the name John Boyle, he published a novel entitled Matters of honour which might best be described as an Irish bildungsroman, recounting as it does the romantic escapades of an Irish student living in Germany in the early 1950s. A later novel, based on the Irish political scene, The polling of the dead, published posthumously in 1992, was more laboured and less successful.