O'Kelly, James Joseph (1842–1916), Fenian, journalist, and politician, was born 1 May 1842 near Westland Row, Dublin, eldest among five children of John O'Kelly, petty landlord, dray maker, and blacksmith, and his wife Bridget (née Lawlor), daughter of a cabinet maker and Young Irelander. His three brothers were artists, including the distinguished painter Aloysius O'Kelly (qv), to whom he was very close and for whom he acted occasionally as an agent. He attended school in Dublin and London and worked for two years in the studio of his uncle, John Lawlor (qv), a distinguished London sculptor. During 1860, while attending Irish language classes in Dublin, he was sworn into the IRB and together with his boyhood friend, John Devoy (qv), made pikes at his father's forge. When his father died (1861) his family moved to London, where he helped to establish the IRB. In 1863 he was elected captain of the London Irish Volunteers, but opted instead to join the French Foreign Legion. After serving briefly in Algeria, he fought in Mexico and took part in several campaigns, including the siege of Oaxaca and the battle of Mien. In 1866, when he learned from Devoy that the IRB was planning a rising, he deserted from the Foreign Legion and, after enduring great hardship, reached the United States and subsequently set sail for Ireland.
On arriving in Ireland he saw that the IRB was ill-equipped for a rising and so opposed the idea. Returning to London, in 1868 he became secretary of the IRB supreme council, began work as the London correspondent of the Irishman, and for two years acted as the leading IRB arms agent in Britain. During the Franco–German war (1870–71) he offered to raise an Irish brigade for the French government, which apparently was ready to commission his services, but the sudden defeat of France put an end to this project. On 25 February 1871 he went to America and became the art editor and drama critic of the New York Herald. Shortly afterwards he became the paper's war correspondent and distinguished himself by securing a number of exclusive interviews, notably one with Cuban guerrillas who were fighting for independence in 1873. After he advised the rebels on military matters, however, he was arrested by the Spanish-Cuban army, tried by court martial, and sentenced to death. However, the Spanish government intervened and ordered his extradition to Spain, and the intervention of Isaac Butt (qv) and the American minister to Spain secured his release.
After a brief stay in Gibraltar, he returned to New York and wrote a book about his experiences in Cuba, The Mambi land (1874), which remains in print in Cuba. As special correspondent of the New York Herald, in 1874 he accompanied the emperor of Brazil throughout his tour of the United States (on one occasion allegedly saving the life of the empress) and the following year he accompanied the American army in its war against the Sioux. During 1875 he was persuaded to marry an American woman whom he had made pregnant, but they did not live together and she was sent to Paris, where she resided with his brother Aloysius. Later the same year, he married Harriet Clarke, a singer and the sister of his friend J. I. C. Clarke (qv). On the discovery of his bigamous life, his second wife divorced him (1876), making him the subject of scandal in the New York press, although he was allowed to keep his position with the New York Herald. During 1877, while in Paris as a war correspondent, he interviewed Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) twice and became convinced of his political ability. By now an active agent of Clan na Gael, in January 1878 O'Kelly contacted the Spanish government and promised it military aid should it attempt to recapture Gibraltar from the British, but the proposal was refused. As he believed that a stridently separatist public opinion was needed in Ireland if a foreign power was ever to support a rebellion, thereafter O'Kelly worked to persuade Devoy and other Clan leaders that the Irish revolutionary movement (while continuing to prepare for armed revolution) should call for an Irish nationalist parliamentary party to be established at Westminster. After initial hesitation, Devoy agreed with O'Kelly's advice and published the Clan's ‘new departure’ proposals in the Irish press (November 1878).
During 1879, as Clan envoy to the IRB, O'Kelly proposed that the Irish revolutionary movement should give military aid to the Zulus in their war against Britain. The following year he tried to persuade both the Clan and the IRB to arm the tenants taking part in the Land League agitation in the west of Ireland. The IRB supreme council, however, rejected his proposals and refused to work with him owing to his support for the Land League. Disillusioned with the Irish revolutionary movement, in the April 1880 general election he decided to stand for parliament on a Land League ticket and was elected for Co. Roscommon. Thereafter he spoke at numerous rallies and by December 1880 was a member of the League's central committee. His public image in Ireland was that of a radical. He supported the right of atheists to sit in parliament without having to take the oath of allegiance and, through his friendship with the French communard Henri Rochefort, helped win the support of the radical Parisian press for the Land League. He was arrested in Dublin on 15 October 1881 as part of Dublin Castle's general suppression of the Land League, and held in Kilmainham jail until 2 May 1882.
By the mid 1880s he was a member of the central committee of the Irish National League (established 17 October 1882), and was effectively the Parnellites' chief spokesman in parliament on British foreign policy. As war correspondent for the Daily News, his detailed reports on the Sudanese war (1883–5), made from behind enemy lines, received much praise in Britain. Secretly, however, he was supporting the Mahdi against the British and indeed he attempted to persuade the Clan to give the Egyptians military assistance. One of the most anticlerical Parnellite MPs, he believed that only IRB participation in constitutional politics could prevent the catholic hierarchy from manipulating the home rule movement for its own ends. Although he was one of the few close friends of Parnell within the party, he was not allowed to shape policy. Rather he was relied on by Parnell to use his influence with Devoy to boost Irish-American support for the party. In the 1885 general election O'Kelly was elected for Roscommon North by a large margin. After the defeat of the 1886 home rule bill, he was inclined to be pessimistic about the chances of winning Irish independence. His growing financial difficulties also meant that he could not attend Westminster frequently. During 1888 he formed the Boyle Democratic Club to keep in closer touch with his constituents and spent two months in prison for supporting the Plan of Campaign in Roscommon. When called before the special commission during 1889, he attracted attention by his candid admission that he was a former revolutionary and by his willingness to defend Fenian idealism.
He took Parnell's side in 1891, and was sent (March 1891) by him to New York to work with Devoy in collecting funds. In the 1892 general election, the anti-Parnellites highlighted his anti-clericalism and the scandal of his divorce to undermine his campaign, and he narrowly lost his seat. In 1895, however, after working for three years as a leading contributor to the Irish Daily Independent, he recovered it and was returned unopposed until his death. His parliamentary career, however, was dogged once more by financial difficulties, which were alleviated only by the sale of his brother's paintings. He was one of the first MPs to support the United Irish League (est. August 1898) and became one of its vice-presidents. During 1899 he wrote recollections of the IRB for William O'Brien (qv) and the Irish People. He held strong pro-Boer sympathies during the South African war (1899–1902) and wrote to Devoy expressing the hope that the Irish revolutionary movement might be able to capitalise on the event. His efforts to encourage cooperation between Parnellites and anti-Parnellites during the late 1890s were much appreciated by Michael Davitt (qv) and John Dillon (qv), who even considered him as a potential leader of a reunited Irish parliamentary party, although his influence within the party was hardly sufficient to make this possible. During the 1900s he worked as the London correspondent of the Irish Independent and rarely attended Westminster because of ill health. In keeping with party policy, he advocated support for the allies during the first world war, an action that surprised his old friend Devoy, who remarked that this was the first time the two men had disagreed strongly on political matters. O'Kelly maintained a silence regarding the Easter rising and died of pneumonia in London on 22 December 1916.