O'Kelly, Seán Thomas (Ó Ceallaigh, Seán Tomás) (1882–1966), politician and president of Ireland, was born at 4 Lower Wellington Street, Dublin, on 25 August 1882, eldest son of Samuel O'Kelly, master boot- and shoemaker, and his wife Catherine (née O'Dea). He had three sisters (including a twin who died at the age of four) and four brothers, two of whom were educated by Patrick Pearse (qv) at St Enda's School and fought in the IRA during the war of independence.
O'Kelly was educated at the Sisters of Charity school, Mountjoy Street (1886–90), the CBS at St Mary's Place (1890–94), and the Christian Brothers’ O'Connell Schools in North Richmond Street (1894–8). At the last of these he acquired a love of Irish, after repeated chastisement by the brothers to make him do his Irish-language exercises (he subsequently declared that they had been right to treat him so). O'Kelly joined the central branch of the Gaelic League in 1898.
In 1898 O'Kelly became a junior assistant at the NLI. Here he attracted the interest of T. W. Lyster (qv), who advised him on how to continue his self-education and attempted to dissuade him when he resigned from his post at the library in 1902, having decided that holding a position under the British government was incompatible with his separatist views. O'Kelly subsequently worked as business manager for the Gaelic League paper, An Claideamh Soluis, and for papers owned by Arthur Griffith (qv). In 1915 he became national secretary (ard rúnaí) of the Gaelic League as a result of leadership changes following the resignation of Douglas Hyde (qv) as president of the league.
O'Kelly made the acquaintance of Griffith while attending Celtic Literary Society debates in 1898–9; they remained close friends until the split over the Anglo-Irish treaty. In 1901 O'Kelly joined the IRB as a member of the Dublin-based Bartholemew Teeling Circle, and in 1905 he was a founder member of Sinn Féin, becoming joint secretary of the party in 1908. In January 1906 he became a Sinn Féin member of Dublin corporation for the Inns Quay ward, and soon became known (with his Sinn Féin colleague Thomas Kelly (qv)) as a high-profile campaigner for municipal reform, with a particular interest in the mains drainage scheme. In 1908 he presented an Irish-language address to Pope Pius X on behalf of Dublin corporation. O'Kelly retained his seat until Dublin corporation was dissolved by the government of W. T. Cosgrave (qv) in 1924; he was re-elected when the corporation was reconstituted in 1930. He was the unsuccessful Fianna Fáil candidate for the office of lord mayor in a contest against Alfie Byrne (qv), before finally leaving the corporation when he joined the cabinet in 1932.
O'Kelly was a founder member of the Irish Volunteers and supervised the landing of arms at Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow, in August 1914. In March 1915 he was sent on an IRB mission to the USA to secure funds from Clan na Gael. He participated in the Easter rising in 1916 as a staff officer and aide-de-camp to Pearse. He was also named second in command of a civil government nominated by the rebels, which was to have been headed by Tom Kelly but was never officially created. O'Kelly was stationed at the GPO and spent much of the rising reconnoitring the city to report on the advance of British forces. He was also given the task of pasting copies of the ‘Proclamation of the provisional government of the Irish republic’ around the city centre; he later described himself as ‘official bill-poster to the Republic’ (Irish Independent, 24 Nov. 1966). On the Friday of Easter week he received a flesh wound in the left leg while trying to re-enter rebel-held areas by crossing a British barricade in Parnell Street. He was arrested on the following Monday. O'Kelly's court martial was repeatedly delayed (through the influence of Archbisop William Walsh (qv)) and he was eventually deported to Wandsworth prison, London. After developing pneumonia he was transferred to Woking military prison, then spent three weeks at the Frongoch internment camp in Wales, before being moved to Reading jail, from which he was released at Christmas 1916.
On returning to Ireland O'Kelly renewed his Volunteer activities; as a result he was rearrested and deported to Oxford, then to Fairford, Gloucestershire; he left Fairford without permission and made his way back to Ireland. He resumed public activity after the declaration of the amnesty that marked the opening of the Irish convention in July 1917. He took a prominent role in the reorganisation of Sinn Féin and its electoral campaigns; after escaping arrest in the roundup that followed the ‘German plot’ of 1918, O'Kelly became acting chair of the Sinn Féin national executive and acting director of organisation. In this capacity he produced the first draft of the party's 1918 general election manifesto. O'Kelly was elected to the first dáil for the College Green constituency of Dublin. He continued to represent Dublin city constituencies until 1945 (Mid Dublin, 1922, 1923; North Dublin, 1923–37; Dublin North West, 1937–45). As with Cosgrave and Seán Lemass (qv), his image as a plain-speaking, ordinary Dubliner (‘the Dublin boy-next-door who became president’, Irish Press, 24 Nov. 1966, 10) proved an electoral asset; Richard Dunphy described O'Kelly as ‘one of [Fianna Fáil]'s most consistent and shrewd populists’ (Dunphy, 83).
O'Kelly revised the original democratic programme of the first dáil from a draft prepared by Thomas Johnson (qv) and William O'Brien (qv) (d. 1968), which was seen as excessively socialist. At the inaugural meeting of the first dáil O'Kelly was elected ceann comhairle (speaker); he retained this position until August 1921, although for most of the period J. J. O'Kelly (qv) (‘Sceilg’) was acting ceann comhairle. O'Kelly was subsequently sent to Paris in an unsuccessful attempt to represent the dáil at the peace conference. He remained in Paris until April 1922 as dáil envoy to France (his absence later gave rise to accusations of ‘shirking’ by his political opponents) and oversaw republican press propaganda on the continent.
While visiting Rome in January 1920 O'Kelly fell ill with rheumatic fever and spent more than three months convalescing at the Irish college. The contacts he formed during this period with Mgr John Hagan (qv), rector of the Irish college, and Hagan's eventual successor, the Rev. M. J. Curran (whom O'Kelly had known since they attended the same school), were to be important in the development of Fianna Fáil and its relations with the catholic church. On 12 April 1920 O'Kelly was granted a private audience with Pope Benedict XV, at which he stated the Sinn Féin case; he later believed that this had been instrumental in preventing a formal papal condemnation of IRA violence. On 27 May he staged a reception at the Irish college to mark the beatification of Oliver Plunkett (qv); the attendance of most of the Irish bishops at this reception was widely regarded as a semi-formal recognition of O'Kelly's position as representative of the Irish republic.
During his time in Paris, O'Kelly made only periodic visits to Ireland after the truce. Upon learning the terms of the treaty he immediately denounced it, and thereafter acted as chief whip to the anti-treaty TDs during the dáil debate. O'Kelly played a leading role in the 1922 ‘Irish race convention’, held at Paris but rendered abortive by the divisions over the treaty. In the aftermath of the treaty split, O'Kelly tried to serve as intermediary between the bishops and his fellow republicans, a role in which he was the more credible for his own moderate views; shortly before the outbreak of the civil war he told Bishop Edward Mulhern (1863–1943) of Dromore that he believed republicans should act as a constitutional opposition. O'Kelly returned to Ireland permanently in April 1922 and supervised republican press propaganda; after the outbreak of the civil war he was arrested and detained at Kilmainham prison and Gormanston internment camp until December 1923. From 1924 to 1927 O'Kelly was envoy to the USA for Éamon de Valera (qv), securing the support of the vast majority of American-based republicans for Fianna Fáil after its secession from Sinn Féin. In 1926 he was a founding vice-president of Fianna Fáil, and in 1927 he became editor of the party newspaper, The Nation (he was succeeded by Frank Gallagher (qv) in 1929).
O'Kelly was a devout catholic, and was regarded as the most clericalist member of the Fianna Fáil leadership. In the 1920s he campaigned for prayers to be said in the dáil and for the suspension of business on church holidays, protesting that the dáil had ‘so far ignored the existence of God’ (Murray, 254), an implicit appeal to the view that Cumann na nGaedheal was insufficiently catholic because it was influenced by ‘masonic’ protestant plutocrats. In 1929 he claimed that Fianna Fáil spoke ‘for the big body of catholic opinion’ (Murray, 246), implying that Cumann na nGaedheal's dáil majority was illegitimate because it was dependent on protestant TDs. He attacked the Cosgrave government for failing to consult the Irish bishops before seeking the appointment of a papal nuncio, and in 1932 he denounced Cumann na nGaedheal's employment policies as contradicting catholic social teaching. He was a member of the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland and the Knights of St Columbanus. In 1934 the latter allegiance led to accusations that his veto on the appointment of the protestant republican R. G. Bradshaw (qv) as town clerk of Sligo had been inspired by the knights, whereas, in fact, the decision was mainly due to Bradshaw's links with the IRA – though this does not necessarily exclude sectarian motives. J. J. Lee describes O'Kelly as de Valera's ‘virtual minister for ecclesiastical affairs’ (Lee, 167). In 1933 while representing Ireland at the League of Nations he secured the withdrawal of a document favouring contraception, and in 1935 he worked closely with the catholic bishops in drafting the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which outlawed contraception.
Cabinet minister and tánaiste
In the post-1932 Fianna Fáil government, as vice-president of the executive council (1932–7), and tánaiste (1938–45), O'Kelly was nominally de Valera's second in command; in fact, however, he was seen as third in line behind de Valera and Patrick Ruttledge ((qv), who had turned down the office of vice-president of the council for health reasons) until Ruttledge's departure from the cabinet in 1941. Even after this O'Kelly was not seen as a prospective successor to de Valera (unlike Lemass, his successor as tánaiste, whose appointment to that post clearly marked him as heir-apparent to the taoiseach). As de Valera's deputy, O'Kelly represented Ireland at the 1933 commonwealth conference at Ottawa, appeared on several occasions at the League of Nations, and opened the Irish pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
In 1932 O'Kelly entered the cabinet as minister for public health and local government, in which role he oversaw a major slum clearance and house-building programme, which contributed significantly to working-class support for Fianna Fáil. Between 1932 and 1942 12,000 houses per year were built with government assistance, compared to fewer than 2,000 between 1923 and 1931. (O'Kelly liked to taunt the Labour Party by contrasting their perceived ineffectiveness with solid Fianna Fáil social legislation.) O'Kelly actively encouraged local authorities to expand their housing programmes on the assumption that finance would be made available. His activity in this area led the pro-Fine Gael journalist D. P. Moran (qv) to list O'Kelly, along with Lemass and Thomas Derrig (qv), as one of the three achievers of the Fianna Fáil government. Mary Daly's history of the Department of the Environment calls O'Kelly a determined minister, strongly in touch with local opinion, and extremely effective in securing funding for the department's schemes despite attempts by the Department of Finance to impose spending controls; he was, however, less effective in overseeing the expenditure of these funds. At the time of O'Kelly's death these house-building schemes were recalled as his principal achievement; de Valera described the housing estates in the inner suburbs as ‘a monument to him better than any words can be’ (Irish Press, 24 Nov. 1966).
In earlier years O'Kelly had accused Cumann na nGaedheal of centralist tyranny, but in 1934 he suspended four county councils with opposition majorities shortly before the local elections, and privately suggested that county councils should be superseded by a purely managerial system. He clearly indicated a desire to dilute the role of the local appointments commission established by the Cumann na nGaedheal government and to move back towards a system of explicitly political appointments (a view reflecting, inter alia, a desire to reinstate appointees dismissed for republican activities, and a suspicion that senior civil servants retained Cumann na nGaedheal sympathies). His intentions were largely frustrated by de Valera and other cabinet members, though the secretary of the Department of Local Government and Public Health, Edward McCarron (d. 1970), was removed from office in 1936 owing to a dispute with O'Kelly over the handling of a medical appointment at Portrane Mental Hospital. In 1935 O'Kelly oversaw a redrawing of constituency boundaries which significantly and deliberately favoured Fianna Fáil (the Independent Labour deputy R. S. Anthony (qv) compared it to unionist gerrymandering in Northern Ireland) and began a trend towards the creation of smaller constituencies. O'Kelly was also minister for education for three weeks in 1938.
In 1939 O'Kelly was appointed minister for finance. He moved away from the expansionist policies associated with Seán Lemass to the fiscal conservatism advocated by the senior officials of his new department; his wartime budgets relied on indirect taxation rather than taxes on capital. Within the cabinet he criticised moves towards state-directed economic planning, and the Central Bank Act, which he oversaw in 1942, gave the new institution the minimalist role favoured by finance officials rather than the more wide-ranging authority advocated by Lemass. In 1943 he blocked Lemass's proposal for an expanded building programme, and his last budget speech in 1945 criticised Beveridge-style proposals for an increase in state services, on the grounds that this would inevitably produce an undesirable increase in bureaucracy. Despite his earlier praise for Pius XI's vocationalist encyclical Quadragesimo anno, as minister for finance O'Kelly strongly opposed the activities and eventual proposals of the committee for vocational organisation chaired by Bishop Michael J. Browne (qv) of Galway; when O'Kelly (in line with Fianna Fáil government policy) also publicly criticised the social insurance proposals put forward by Bishop John Dignan (qv) of Clonfert, the Irish Times noted with satisfaction that Ulster unionists could no longer see the southern state as representing ‘Rome rule’.
In 1945 O'Kelly won the first contested presidential election, narrowly defeating Seán Mac Eoin (qv) and Patrick McCartan (qv). He was re-elected unopposed in 1952, and finally retired in June 1959. Although sometimes stubborn and obstinate in his dealings with governments, he was effective in the role of ceremonial head of state, and his public profile was much higher than had been that of Douglas Hyde (who was confined to a wheelchair). He used his presidential office to make several public appeals for reconciliation between the old combatants of the civil war. With the coming into force of the Republic of Ireland Act on 18 April 1949, the president of Ireland was recognised externally as head of state and could now make formal visits abroad, while diplomats accredited to Ireland now presented their credentials at Áras an Uachtaráin. In the 1950s O'Kelly travelled widely, receiving orders and decorations from the papacy, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, France, and the Federal Republic of Germany. His presidential career closed with a high-profile state visit to America, during which he addressed a joint session of both houses of congress on 17 March 1959, and received honorary degrees from De Paul University (Chicago), the Jesuit Fordham University (New York), and Boston College; he had already received honorary degrees from the NUI, TCD, and the University of Ottawa. On his retirement from office in June 1959 he was succeeded by Éamon de Valera.
While O'Kelly's extremely short stature attracted comment throughout his career, humorous comment was particularly prevalent during his presidency. Stories include the claim that when O'Kelly was walking onto the pitch to be presented to the teams at an international football match a spectator called out ‘Cut the grass and let's have a look at him’; when Walt Disney visited Ireland in search of leprechaun lore for the film Darby O'Gill and the Little People, jokers are said to have suggested a visit to Áras an Uachtaráin. His excessive fondness for whiskey at this time was widely known but not subjected to public comment.
In 1918 O'Kelly married Mary Kate Ryan, lecturer in French at UCD (her language skills contributed significantly to his diplomatic efforts), who was the sister of Dr James Ryan (qv) and sister-in-law of Richard Mulcahy (qv). After Mary's death in 1934 he married her sister, Phyllis Ryan (qv), public analyst, in 1936. (Shortly before O'Kelly's death in 1966 he and Phyllis became the only married couple both of whom received 1916 combatants’ medals.) There were no children of either marriage. It has been alleged that both sisters initially supported the treaty but were converted by O'Kelly. The Ryan family embodied the divisions of the civil war (another sister married Denis McCullough (qv)). Relations between O'Kelly and Mulcahy were particularly bitter; while Mulcahy eventually resumed friendly relations with James Ryan he was never reconciled with O'Kelly, whom he publicly and privately spoke of with the utmost contempt.
On his retirement O'Kelly gave a series of radio talks about his early life and the independence movement. These formed the basis of an account serialised in the Irish Press (3 July to 9 August 1961) and subsequently translated into Irish and published as Seán T. (1963), echoing the nickname by which he was commonly known. The book relied heavily on memory and its accuracy on points of detail has been questioned by scholars such as F. X. Martin (qv). In retirement he lived at his home, Roundwood Park, Co. Wicklow. He died 23 November 1966 at the Mater Private Nursing Home, Dublin, after an illness of sixteen months, and was buried at Glasnevin, Dublin. His perceived unctuousness and his opportunistic tendencies in his later career should not efface his significance as a separatist organiser and an effective populist politician, who played a major role in the establishment of Fianna Fáil political hegemony.