Kelly, Deirdre (1938–2000), environmental and community campaigner, was born 15 May 1938 at Holles St. maternity hospital, Dublin, eldest daughter among three daughters and a son of Thomas McMahon , bus driver, and Mary (‘Molly’) McMahon (née Kenna), of 5 Sussex Road, adjoining Upper Leeson St., Dublin. She was educated locally at Scoil Bhríde, Ranelagh, and at Holy Faith Convent, Haddington Road. After studying at the College of Commerce, Rathmines and the National College of Art she worked as an archaeological artist at the National Museum of Ireland and taught art at the VEC, Inchicore. In 1970 on completion of a BA in history and archaeology at UCD, she married architect Aidan Kelly from Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, and settled in a basement flat on Fitzwilliam St.
Having lived her early life in the largely intact historic core of Dublin's south city area, Deirdre Kelly condemned the property destruction and community displacement that accompanied economic development after 1960. With An Taisce and the Dublin Civic Group (formed 1966) she actively opposed these trends. If Dublin's Georgian and Victorian architecture was despised by ‘progressive’ elements as the concern of ‘long-haired intellectuals’, Kelly represented ordinary Dubliners against the replacement of historic buildings with outsize concrete office blocks and high-rise dwellings.
Rejecting the prescribed canon that ‘heritage’ appealed to an isolated minority, she stirred popular appreciation of the familiar urban environment. Her first major test was the so-called ‘battle’ of Hume St. (1969–70), near the north-eastern corner of St Stephen's Green. She joined the lengthy sit-in protest, which in June 1970 was violently broken up by agents of the builders. This action against peaceful protesters was a tipping point for undecided observers to support Deirdre Kelly and the campaigners, who won a limited victory in retaining Hume St.'s outward Georgian appearance when the developers agreed to erect pastiche façades. For Kelly it was a moment of epiphany that girded her for the battles ahead. She was a founder of the Living City Group (LCG) in 1970 to promote urban communities within the ‘living heart’ of historic Dublin, rather than dispersal to distant suburbs like Tallaght. It functioned from her basement home, which became overcrowded as three sons and a daughter were born, necessitating a new address at 4 Old Mount Pleasant, Ranelagh. There, in 1979–81, she produced the LCG newsletter City Views, cheaply printed through grant aid and heavily illustrated with maps and photographs. Kelly's relentless attack on urban planning in Dublin listed councillors who supported and opposed her causes and cited successful foreign alternatives. She stood before bulldozers at least once and tried in vain to prevent by legal means the replacement of Georgian houses on Baggot St. with a towering bank building.
As architectural ‘statements’ continued to be approved, none more extraordinary than phased civic offices on the archaeologically rich viking settlement at Wood Quay, Deirdre Kelly was among the first to protest. On 12 March 1974 the LCG held a public meeting at the Mansion House, the opening shot of a long battle to preserve the very roots of the city. In 1976 Kelly published Hands off Dublin, a grim account of contemporary planning policy with stark images by Irish Times photographer Pat Langan exposing the effects of road-widening and the decay of Dublin's streetscape: it became a classic indictment of civic malaise as the Wood Quay crisis mounted. With the formation in April 1976 of the Friends of Medieval Dublin (FMD) led by a charismatic historian, the Rev. F. X. Martin (qv), Kelly's cause was boosted, given the FMD's academic and political support as far abroad as Scandinavia. Even the vikings, traditionally dismissed as pagan invaders, were rehabilitated by public acclaim as sophisticated settlers (proven through lengthy rescue excavations), reflected in costumed and helmeted young Dubliners joining ‘Save Wood Quay’ protest marches in the late 1970s alongside students, trade unionists, intellectuals, and gowned aldermen. Although the high court declared the site a national monument in 1978, Kelly's hopes were dashed a year later by the ending of legal restraint on construction of the civic offices. Following an FMD occupation of Wood Quay in June 1979 and a final grant of eighteen months excavation, the civic offices (first phase) were erected 1981–8. However, the campaign for Dublin had increased awareness of heritage as a word in the public lexicon, soon to appear in political election manifestos and commercial marketing strategies.
In 1986 Deirdre Kelly was main organiser of the Dublin Crisis Conference, a well-timed forum of civic-interest groups ranging from environmentalists to civil rights campaigners demanding community-centred local government. The ‘Dublin Millennium’ celebration of 1988 was an official response to address the situation through urban renewal and belated celebration of the city's heritage, somewhat vindicating Kelly's campaigns. Improved environmental protection and community housing gradually reversed the decay, apparently securing what she had fought to save. In 1995 she finally published Four roads to Dublin, a relaxed history of Ranelagh, Rathmines and Leeson St., in peaceful contrast with her militant oeuvre to date. By 2000 Dublin corporation sat in partnership with the Dublin Civic Trust on the EU-funded ‘Historic heart of Dublin’ project. Deirdre Kelly died of cancer 16 February 2000, aged 61, only three days after F. X. Martin. She was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery. The following May, Frank McDonald of the Irish Times commemorated her in the dedication of his book The construction of Dublin.