Kelly, Thomas J. (1833–1908), Fenian and soldier, was born 6 January 1833 in Mountbellew, Co. Galway. His father Patrick, a farmer (and later a public house owner), intended him for the priesthood and sent him to St Jarlath’s College, Tuam, but he did not have a vocation. Leaving school, he served a printer’s apprenticeship in Loughrea before, in 1851, emigrating to New York, where he worked as a printer, joined the Printer’s Union, and enrolled in the New York state militia. He joined local Irish bodies, such as the Irish Emigrant Aid Society and the Emmet Monument Association (a forerunner of the American Fenian Brotherhood), but he also became an active freemason, serving as a Master Mason and Royal Arch Mason of different lodges before becoming a Knight Templar of the Nashville Commandery (1859) a couple of years after moving to Tennessee. Here, he initially worked as a foreman printer before serving briefly as editor of the Nashville Evening Democrat, a short-lived journal that supported Stephen A. Douglas in the 1860 US presidential election.
Upon the outbreak of the American civil war (April 1861), as a supporter of the Union, he travelled north to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he enlisted in 10th Ohio regiment of the federal army, which consisted mostly of Irish emigrants. He was quickly promoted to first sergeant (3 June 1861) but suffered a severe neck injury in battle that autumn. In January 1862, he joined the Army of the Cumberland under General George Henry Thomas (1816–70), whom he served as signal officer and second-lieutenant (9 July 1862) and later captain and chief signal officer (17 March 1863). In August 1863, he was ordered to return to his original regiment as a captain. This regiment continued to serve Thomas’s forces in battle up until it was mustered out of the army on 17 June 1864. In early 1865, Kelly’s prior army experience as a communications and tactical advisor led the American Fenian Brotherhood to appoint him one of an American team that performed an inspection of the military capability of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). He returned to Ireland on 6 April 1865, settling in a residence on Grantham Street, Dublin.
Kelly’s initial reports to New York led him to receive a nominal Fenian rank of colonel, while his authority in the IRB grew considerably after arranging the rescue of its leader James Stephens (qv) from Richmond prison (24 November 1865), after which he became the intermediary between Stephens and the rest of the IRB. Arrests after the police suppressed the Irish People in September 1865 deprived the IRB of most of its American advisors, excepting Kelly and William Halpin (qv), a fellow Ohioan, who, as the leaders of the IRB’s ‘military council’, decided on all plans for a rebellion. Two different plans existed. First, John Devoy (qv), who reported to Kelly on IRB recruiting efforts within the British army, proposed an effort to capture various Dublin barracks by a force led by local recruits and army deserters, but Kelly dismissed the plan in the winter of 1865, not least because the IRB did not have enough weapons, which he hoped to acquire in Liverpool via his agent Ricard O’Sullivan Burke (qv). Second, Halpin proposed a ‘general insurrection’ without specifically targeting British barracks. As Halpin had outranked Kelly as a US soldier, his idea attained seniority without receiving formal approval.
In March 1866, after contributing a few articles to the Irishman, Kelly travelled with Stephens to Paris with the intent of sailing to America, but they did not arrive in New York to confer with the Fenian Brotherhood executive until May. By this stage, a split in the Fenian Brotherhood was depriving it of resources. Stephens’ demands for unconditional American finance assistance were rejected and, after a series of New York meetings (15–17 December 1866), the American Fenians decided to cease working with him. Instead, Kelly (who had returned to Ireland briefly to perform another inspection of the IRB that September) was ordered back to Ireland to take command of the Irish movement and instigate a rebellion. Settling in London in January 1867, his plan became to launch a general insurrection in March that would be sustained by guerrilla warfare up until the arrival of aid from America. However, notwithstanding brief skirmishes in Cork and Tipperary, the attempt of Halpin to spark a general insurrection after assembling an IRB force in the Dublin mountains (5 March 1867) proved abortive. Meanwhile, an American ship carrying arms and ammunition, which had liaised with Kelly via O’Sullivan Burke, arrived too late and was also prevented from landing.
As the acting head of the IRB during 1867, Kelly instigated two developments that set a tone for its future activities. First, a proclamation of an Irish republic was drafted, which was sent to the press in early March on behalf of a self-styled ‘provisional government’ (nominally established in London on 10 February 1867). Second, after the failure to instigate a rebellion, efforts were made in July 1867 to reorganise the IRB under a new supreme council executive, which flirted with the idea of continuing to act as a ‘provisional government’. Kelly was arrested in Manchester on 11 September and rescued one week later (in the operation that led to the execution of the ‘Manchester martyrs’) but a consensus among IRB leaders that efforts at a rebellion had been a mistake soon led Kelly to return to New York. He would quietly withdraw from Irish revolutionary circles, although he did serve as secretary of a committee to welcome Fenian prisoners back to New York in January 1871.
In 1869, he began working as superintendent of a New York post office and married Catharine Gillogly, a native of Ohio with whom he had five children, one of whom relocated to France upon marrying a founder of the De Castellane champagne company. Soon afterwards, he began working as chief clerk in the auditor's department of the New York Customs House; a position he would hold until his retirement in 1905. Upon his wife’s death in 1891, he married Anna Dunne, who had been his wife’s sick nurse and they had two daughters. For many years, he was an active member of Alexander Hamilton Chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, a US civil war veterans association, but only occasionally attended Irish-American public events (his last public appearance was at a ‘Manchester martyrs’ commemoration in New York on 22 November 1903). At his request, when he died on 5 February 1908 at his home 331 East 119th Street, New York, he was buried alongside his US army comrades in Woodlawn Cemetery, New York, after a private service. On 4 April 2017, the New York State Senate posthumously awarded him a Liberty Medal, its highest honour, in recognition of his past work for the US armed services. To mark the centenary of the 1867 rising, a commemorative plaque was unveiled on Kelly’s ancestral home in Mountbellew.