Seán T O’Kelly was born in Capel Street, Dublin on the 25th August 1882. Educated by the Christian Brothers he initially worked as a junior assistant in the National Library of Ireland. In 1898 he joined the Gaelic League, an organisation established to promote the use of the Irish language. He went on to become its General Secretary in 1915.
In 1905 O’Kelly became one of the founder members of the political party Sinn Féin. He became its honorary secretary in 1908 and remained in the post until 1925. In 1906 he was elected to Dublin Corporation.
As strategies began to be put in place for a rebellion in Dublin, in March 1915 O’Kelly was sent to inform the republican groups in the USA of the plans for a rising in Dublin. Leader of the Irish Volunteers, Padraig Pearse, appointed O’Kelly as his Staff Captain and during Easter Week, O’Kelly posted copies of the Proclamation around Dublin’s city centre, which declared Ireland a Republic.
Following the failed Rising of Easter 1916, O’Kelly was arrested and imprisoned in Britain, from where he escaped and returned to Ireland.
In the General Election of 1918, O’Kelly was elected a Sinn Féin member of parliament for Dublin College Green. The newly elected Sinn Féin politicians did not recognise the authority of Westminster and assembled instead in the Mansion House, Dublin to form the first Dáil Éireann (Irish Parliament) with Eamon de Valera as President. O’Kelly was elected Ceann Comhairle (Speaker). He also served as the envoy of the Republican government to peace conferences at Paris, Rome and Washington.
In the early 1920’s guerilla warfare was raging in Ireland. A truce was announced in 1921 and De Valera sent a group of negotiators (plenipotentiaries), led by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, to London to negotiate a treaty with Prime Minister Lloyd George. In December 1921 the Treaty was agreed and signed, establishing the Irish Free State with Dominion status, incorporating an Oath of Allegiance to the King, and relinquishing control of the six counties in Northern Ireland, which remained under British Rule.
Although approved by the majority of the Dáil, who saw the Treaty as a stepping stone to independence De Valera denounced it, calling it “neither this nor that”. He resigned his office as President and along with his followers, including O’Kelly, left Dáil Éireann. The country was split and Civil War broke out in 1922.
By 1923, after the deaths of almost 800 people, the Provisional Government had shown strong resolution and had driven the Republicans out of all but a few strongholds. De Valera finally issued the command to dump arms and give up the fight.
Sinn Féin continued to refuse to take the Oath of Allegiance and abstained from the Dáil. But in 1926 De Valera changed tactics, and at his party’s annual Árd Fheis (conference), he proposed that the Republicans take their seats and use legislation to achieve their aims. The party split, with De Valera’s supporters forming a new organization – Fianna Fáil. O’Kelly was one of the founding members.
In 1932 Fianna Fáil won the General Election. Eamon de Valera was appointed President of the Executive Council (Prime Minister of the Irish Free State). O’Kelly became Deputy Prime Minister (Táinaiste) and was made Minister for Local Government and Public Health. In 1941 he became Minister for Finance and held that post until his election by popular vote to the role of President of Ireland in 1945, where he remained for two terms of seven years. He was succeeded b Eamon de Valera.
During his career, O’Kelly received several public honours, including receiving the Grand Cross of St Gregory the Great from Pope Pius XII in 1934, and being invited to address a joint session of the US Congress in Washington on St Patrick’s Day, 1959.
Seán T O’Kelly died in Dublin on 23rd November 1966.