Many years ago at a time when my research into the history of Athy was still at an embryonic stage, I first encountered the name of the writer Patrick O’Kelly. It was in the context of his history of the Rebellion of 1798 published in 1842 that O’Kelly is generally known, if he is known at all to the modern reader. My interest in O’Kelly stemmed from a conversation I had in the early 1960’s with the late Kevin Meany, then the Librarian of Athy’s small Library housed in the Town Hall. Kevin, who like myself, had a great interest in history, especially that of our own locality, drew my attention to O’Kelly’s book on the Rebellion which was then, and still remains, a rare item, seldom, if ever, seen in private libraries. Many years were to pass before I acquired a copy of O’Kelly’s work and the long search for the book proved worthwhile when the small tome revealed much of what we know today about the 1798 Rebellion in Athy.
O’Kelly himself was a man of mystery and over the years knowing that he was from South Kildare I’ve sought out any and every piece of information about him. At the end of his book on the 1798 Rebellion, O’Kelly gave some information on his family background. His father was Sylvester Kelly of Kilcoo, a tenant of the Duke of Leinster, occupying two firms at Kilcoo and Coolroe close to the town of Athy. O’Kelly claimed to have descended from Fergus O’Kelly of Luggacurran Castle which we were told was positioned close to the chapel at Luggacurran. Fergus O’Kelly was murdered by the 11th Earl of Kildare on top of Kilkea Castle sometime prior to 1585 following which Kelly’s lands were taken over by the “Wizard Earl” as the 11th Earl was known.
Patrick O’Kelly states in his book to have been 17 years of age when, in 1798, he led the United Irishmen of South Kildare in an aborted attempt to seize the town of Athy. He was also involved as one of the Irish leaders in agreeing terms between the Irish rebels and Generals Lake and Dundas at Knockallen on Whit Monday 1798. Whatever the nature of O’Kelly’s involvement in the Rebellion, he seemed well-positioned to later write of the activities of the time and his many references to Athy are both informative and important. He recounted how, on the 23rd of May of that year, the Captains appointed to command the United Irishmen of South Kildare, received orders to assemble their men in three units. One of to attack Athy from the Geraldine side, the second to march from Cloney and Kilberry while the third unit was to attack the town from the Laois side. The last group assembled in strength on Silverhill close to Kilcoo armed with pikes and muskets. The subsequent failure of the Colliers to join those assembled on Silverhill prompted the United Irishmen to abandon the attack on Athy.
O’Kelly gave his age as 17 years when he commanded the United Irishmen in 1798 but in his obituary notice in The Freeman’s Journal of the 19th July 1858 his age was given as 82 years. This would mean he was 22 years old in 1798 and possibly even 25 years old if the records of Dublin Catholic Cemetery’s Committee are to be believed where his age is given as 85 years.
Following the suppression of the United Irishmen Rebellion, O’Kelly relates that he returned to Kilcoo where “I remained tranquilly at home with my father”. Patrick O’Kelly was expected to succeed his father following the latter’s death in 1803 but apparently the farm leases were instead given by the Duke of Leinster to Patrick’s brother John. The former Colonel of the United Irishmen now married with 3 young children emigrated to America where he set up a private academy in Baltimore. He spent 20 years in America returning home to Ireland following the death of his brother John. His mother, who was then in her 85th year, wrote to him to return so that the farm leases due to expire in 1825 could be renewed. However, Patrick O’Kelly’s involvement in the 1798 Rebellion was to prove a stumbling block insofar as his hopes of getting the lease of the family farm was concerned. He worked the lands for a short period prior to the expiration of the lease on the 1st May 1825 and on giving up peaceful possession found, to his consternation, that neither the Duke of Leinster or his agent Harry Hamilton, favoured his application for renewal. Hamilton is reputed to have told O’Kelly that he would never get a perch of the Duke’s Estate.
Disillusioned, O’Kelly and his family now emigrated to France where he remained for 7 years working as a Professor of Language in Versailles. While in France, he translated Abbe Mac Geoghegan’s History of Ireland first published in Paris between 1758 and 1762.
O’Kelly returned to Dublin in 1831 and lived for a while at number 20 Greville Street off Mountjoy Square and that same year the first volume of his translation of Mac Geoghegan’s work was published. Volumes 2 and volumes 3 were published in 1831 and 1834. O’Kelly, who was described in the Dublin directory as a Professor of Languages lived for a while in Number 3 Lower Cumberland Street and later still on the North Strand. Further editions of his translation of Abbe Mac Geoghegan’s history were published in Dublin at different dates up to 1868 by which time he had also published his General History of the Rebellion of 1798 and, in 1838 his edition of ‘Historica Descriptio Hiberniae’. Another lesser known work attributed to O’Kelly was the 1834 publication entitled ‘Advice and Guide to Emigrants, Going to the United States of America’.
The parish priest of Athy, Reverend John Lalor, wrote on the 16th September 1841 a testimonial for O’Kelly which he produced in his history of the 1798 rebellion. It read “I have known the bearer Mr. O’Kelly for several years. He is a member of one of the most respectable families in the parish of St. Michael’s in Athy of which I am the pastor. He wishes to return from this country together with his excellent family to France where he lived for some years. I am also happy to state as to his high character as a scholar and a gentleman which he possesses in an eminent degree”. Whether he went to France in 1841 I cannot say but he was certainly living in Dublin in 1844 where he remained until he died at 3 Margaret Place on the 11th July 1858. He was buried at Golden Bridge Cemetery.
The Athy man, who played a very significant part in the 1798 Rebellion in South Kildare and an even more significant part in Irish publishing in the second quarter of the last century is today an almost forgotten footnote in Irish history. I would like to hear from anyone who may have any further information on Patrick O’Kelly or his family formerly of Kilcoo and Coolroe.