Kelly, Rosaline (1922–2013), union official and media professional, was born on 27 November 1922 to Laurence Kelly, an insurance agent, and Ellen Kelly (née Fogarty) of 2 Sandyford Terrace, Drogheda, Co. Louth. Rosaline attended primary school at St Patrick's and St Philomena's in Drogheda before boarding at St Louis secondary school in Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan. She then moved to Dublin to study for a BA (1942), followed by a H.Dip.Ed. (1943) at UCD.
Kelly's professional career was perhaps less notable than her union one. She started off doing clerical work, including for the barrister and former politician Vincent Rice (qv) in the mid-1940s. She also worked for a time at the Irish Hospitals Trust sweepstakes in Dublin before moving to London where she landed a job as a sub editor at the long-running magazine, Woman (1958–77). Kelly joined the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in 1958 and was a deeply committed member from the outset, taking on more and more responsibility over the years. From 1965 she sat on the national council of the more conservative and somewhat genteel Institute of Journalists during a period in which the NUJ was involved in a dual membership arrangement with the organisation (following several failed attempts to merge the two). In this capacity she attended annual conferences in Malta, Jersey and Cologne before the arrangement ended following the failure of the final merger attempt at a joint conference in 1971. The next year in 1972, she became the vice-chair, then chair, of the magazine and book branch of the NUJ. The branch had been established just four years previously in 1968, was the largest of the union, had the highest proportion of women members of any branch and had early acquired a reputation as a radical leftist outpost (though Kelly described herself as apolitical in relation to British party politics due to her Irish nationality).
Later in 1972 Kelly would be elected as the branch's representative to the NUJ's national executive council (NEC) (1972–8). At that time, only three women had sat on the NEC since the union was established in 1907: in 1920, 1948 and 1969. In her statement on the ballot for the NEC election Kelly decried the council for being 'for far too long a male-voice choir' and stated that it needed 'constant reminding that men are not the only persons with dependants'. She also asserted her Irish identity and anticipated racial stereotyping with the line: 'I should like to tell you … that I am Irish, but that you can talk to me in English – and that I do wear shoes – almost always'. She signed off with her characteristic salute: 'Beir buaidh is beannacht' (NEC ballot, 1972). On the NEC she quickly developed a reputation as a formidable debater and for her procedural expertise. She was also very involved with the equal pay and opportunities campaign calling for a level playing field for women. After just three years on the NEC, Kelly was elected as its president at the 1975 annual delegates meeting (ADM), becoming the first woman in the union's history to ascend to this highest office, albeit one with a term usually limited to just a year (Kelly served a slightly longer term between 1975 and 1977).
Newspapers in her native Drogheda followed her NUJ career with great pride. On 24 October 1975 the Drogheda Independent featured an article headlined 'Woman boss', which gleefully announced Kelly's ascent to the role of NUJ president. The organisation was some 25,000 members-strong when Kelly took the reins, and she set out to visit every branch across Britain and Ireland during her term. When she visited the Irish Eastern Branch in Drogheda, she was greeted by the town mayor as well as her NUJ colleagues. She was not so warmly received elsewhere. Being a woman as well as a magazine employee made her an unwelcome figure in the male-dominated national newspaper sphere: 'I was not allowed to put a toenail in what was then Fleet Street … I set out to visit as many branches as I could, but I was never invited to Central London' she recalled years later (Journalists: 100 years of the NUJ, 2007).
In an interview with IPC News, shortly after her election as president she mused that 'As the first woman president I'll have to be extra good. If I make a right royal boo-boo people are going to put it down to the fact that I'm a woman' (November 1975). There were no such errors during her highly productive term, where she oversaw major changes to the organisational structure, including decentralising some powers and responsibilities to area councils. She also oversaw the development of programmes to help newspaper staff adapt to new computer technologies. The political environment for the media was particularly challenging at the time, and as president Kelly voiced the NUJ's disagreement with the use of the Official Secrets Act (1911) by the UK government to charge journalists and, in the view of the NUJ, suppress freedom of the press. A notable case was that against journalists Crispin Aubrey and Duncan Campbell who were prosecuted for having received classified intelligence information from GCHQ.
In 1977, following her stint as president, Kelly was elected by the NEC to represent the NUJ at the Press Council – becoming the union's first magazine employee, and first woman, to hold such a position. The Council, later the Press Complaints Commission, was a voluntary organisation comprised of lay members and members of the press with the mandate of upholding press ethics. Kelly held the position until 1980 when the NUJ decided to withdraw from the body, following the council's refusal to develop an official code of practice amidst accusations of cronyism. In 1979 she was made a member of honour at the NUJ ADM in acknowledgement of her contribution to the union.
During her fifty-plus year membership, she served for long periods on the NUJ appeals tribunal and the standing orders committee. Her grasp of procedure was the stuff of legend and invaluable to the latter committee's work, as well as at ADMs and to successive general secretaries, who often sought her counsel. She was also particularly committed to the union's charitable activities, serving as a trustee of the NUJ provident fund well into her retirement (as well as being chair of its management committee from 1980–82). The fund was established in the earliest days of the union to provide relief to members and their families in times of need. Kelly was heavily involved both in fundraising and in allocating donations from the fund. Her compassionate nature was greatly appreciated by those who benefited from the fund over the years, many of whom she met with personally.
Kelly left Woman in 1977 to take up a management role at its parent company IPC Magazines Ltd, accepting redundancy in March 1980 and thereafter working as a freelance publishing consultant. She also held the position of visiting lecturer in journalism at the London College of Printing (1981–5). During the papal visit to London in 1982 she supported the Catholic Information Services in dealing with press releases and media enquiries.
She retired from working life in 1986 and left her home in Fulham of nearly thirty years to return to Ireland, buying a house on Lakeview Road, Wicklow town, which she named 'Arash Areesh' a playful anglicisation of the Irish 'ar ais arís' (back again). She did not, however, retire from the NUJ and continued to work tirelessly for the union into her late eighties, retaining her high-profile roles on the standing orders committee and with the provident fund, as well as travelling regularly to England to deliver training courses for women officers. In Ireland she was instrumental in establishing the retired members section, which she chaired for more than a decade. She also continued to attend the ADM in the UK for as long as she could, giving up her place at what would have been her last ADM in 2012 to help the union save money.
She was a practising catholic with a deep personal faith who always made a point of locating the nearest church and checking mass times when at an ADM or other event. In what spare time she had, she enjoyed the study of languages and spoke Italian, French and Spanish, as well as Irish. Kelly neither married nor had children. For her ninetieth birthday her friend and fellow former NUJ president, John Devine, organised a surprise party for her which was attended by many of her NUJ comrades: 'when she entered the room and saw all the old friends she was dumbfounded for all of a minute (some class of a record for Rosaline) before announcing that it was the best birthday she ever had' (Michael Fisher's news website, 12 April 2013). She died just a few months later after a short illness in St Columcille's Hospital, Loughlinstown, Co. Dublin, on 11 April 2013. Her funeral was at St Patrick's church in Wicklow town and her remains were afterwards cremated at Mount Jerome cemetery in Harold's Cross, Dublin.
Séamus Dooley, the NUJ's Irish secretary described her as 'a role model for women in a male dominated industry', but noted that Kelly hated the term 'woman president', quoting her as saying: 'I was a president who happened to be a woman. You won't find the term “woman president” in the rule book' (NUJ website, 16 April 2013). In her personal copy of the book Journalists: 100 years of the NUJ (2007) author Tim Gopsill signed it to 'Rosaline, the first lady of the NUJ', which she was in every sense.
Rosaline Kelly's papers are held at the Media History Collection, curated by DCU Library's Special Collections and Archives Unit.