'... a lady of many friends and no enemies'


RITA CURTIS

Guidh ar son anma Cait Ni Riain, Bean Sheain T. Ui Cheallaigh is inscribed underneath the stained glass window of St Theresa the Little Flower in St. Fintan's Church, Taghmon. The window was donated in memory of a remarkable woman who was successful in her own career, and a tower of strength to the man she married, Sean T. O'Kelly, who became President of Ireland in 1945 on the death of the First President, Douglas Hyde.

Mary Kate O'Kelly died in 1934, the year in which the stained glass windows were installed in the Church. At that time Sean T. O'Kelly was Vice President of the Free State and also Minister for Local Government and Local Health. Her brother Dr. James Ryan was Minister for Agriculture.

On the occasion of her death at the age of 56, a vote of sympathy was passed at a meeting of Wexford Corporation. Alderman Richard Corish T.D. paying tribute to her said, 'they did not alone admire the late Mrs O'Kelly as a relative of two distinguished gentlemen, but also as a Wexford lady, of whom they were all proud and who had made her mark on some of the biggest universities in the world. She was a distinguished daughter of Wexford and had also shed lustre on her country'. Councillor Roberts seconding the motion of sympathy said that there was not a more distinguished lady in Ireland.

Mary Kate was a member of the well known Ryan family of Tomcoole. On 16 November, 1875 John Ryan married Eliza Sutton. On 31 October, 1878, their second child Mary Kate was born. She was baptised in Taghmon Church on 2 November and was known to her family as Kit.

Travelling with her sisters and brothers in a donkey's cart to the national school in Caroreigh, no one could have predicted that Mary Kate was to have such a successful, varied and interesting life.

She was a boarder in Loreto Abbey, Gorey and later attended Loreto College, St. Stephen's Green, Dublin.

In 1902 she graduated from the old Royal University ,an examining body set up for the purpose of enabling students of the Catholic University, which was not recognised by the State and could not confer degrees, to obtain recognised degrees. The University was later known as University College, Dublin. Mary Kate took her degree in Modern Languages, French, German and English and passed with First Class Honours.

She moved to Cambridge where she took her teaching diploma with a double first and lectured for some years at Cambridge Training College. Later she was mistress of Modern languages at St. Andrew's Scotland, at Bedford, England and in one of the London County Council Schools.

In 1908 the Irish Universities Act was passed providing for the dissolution of the Royal University and Queen's College, Belfast and for the foundation of two new Universities, Queen's University in Belfast and the National University of Ireland. University College Dublin was one of its three constituent Colleges.

Returning to Ireland, 'Mary Kate was one of the first Assistants appointed in the College in 1911. After the death of Professor Cadic in 1913, for a period of six years overlapping the Great War it was not possible to fill the Professorship, and Mary Kate undertook the duties of temporary professor with great devotion and success. Professor Chauviré was appointed in 1919. The growth of the College necessitated a separation of French Philology (study of language) and French Literature. Mary Kate was appointed to the lectureship in French Philology a position she held until her death. She played a fundamental part in the development of French Studies and won the unceasing devotion of her students. Her influence and work were factors as large as any other, in the making of University College. She lived up to a recommendation in support of her first application for an appointment in the College - You will always find her high- minded and noble in character.'

In common with other members of her family she took a keen interest in the Sinn Fein movement and was an enthusiastic worker in the Gaelic League. From the earliest days of the Irish Volunteers her house was a centre of political activity. Sean Mac Diarmada, one of the signatories of the Proclamation 1916, was one of her closest friends. After the Rising she and her sister Nell were arrested and imprisoned for some weeks in Mountjoy Jail. She was eventually released on grounds of ill health. Sean Mac Diarmada was executed on 12 May 1916.

In 1898 Sean T. O'Kelly joined the Gaelic League and in 1905 with Arthur Griffith founded Sinn Fein. He was a fluent Irish speaker. The friendly Kit Ryan moved in the same circles. In 1954 in a foreword to the Centenary Record commemorating the building of the Twin Churches in Wexford Town, President O'Kelly wrote, 'Wexford has been a second home to me since the early days of this century, ever since the time when, quite young, I was first invited to judge in Irish Language Competitions at your great annual Feis - arising out of which too, later on, I came a-wooing a Wexford girl'. He was successful in his courtship and on Easter Monday, 1 April, 1918 he and Mary Kate Ryan were married in Rathmines. For sixteen years they had a happy marriage and a busy life. They had no children.

After her marriage Mary Kate O'Kelly retained her position as Lecturer in the National University and ensured that her husband became proficient in the French language.

Kit Ryan O'Kelly (photo taken on the patio of the O'Kelly home in Anglesea Road, Dublin)

During the Black and Tan regime her energies and resources were constantly at the disposal of the Republican Government in Dublin and in Paris and Rome where her husband was a Republican Envoy.

In 1926 , Sean T. O'Kelly was one of the founders of Fianna Fail. He later held many important ministerial positions including Minister for Finance and Tanaiste. In 1945 he was elected President of Eire (Ireland was not yet a Republic) and held this position for two terms.

Unfortunately by this time Mary Kate was no longer at his side. From 1928 onwards she was in poor health. Some weeks before her death, having completed the teaching year in Trinity Term, she went to the St. Lioba Nursing Home run by the Sisters of the Order of Notre Dame. This was a clinic in Nauheim near Frankfurt-on-Main in Germany for patients with heart problems. She did not regain her health and died at noon on 18 July, 1934. At her bedside before her death were her husband, her brother-in-law Surgeon M.J. O'Malley, Galway and Dr. C. Bastible, County Medical Officer for Wexford who had arrived by aeroplane.

Her remains were removed to the local parish church and the following morning a Requiem 'Missa Cantata' was celebrated. The long land and sea journey home to Ireland, via Harwich and London to Dun Laoghaire, took two days.

The coffin rested overnight in St George's Cathedral, Southwark, London. Requiem Mass celebrated by Fr. Senan, O.F.M. Dublin and Rev Cathal O'Callaghan, was attended by family members and dignitaries of Church and State.

At Dun Laoghaire the remains were met by Mr. Eamon de Valera and members of the Executive Council and were brought to University Church, St Stephen's Green, where Mass was said by Monsignor Curran, Rector, Irish College, Rome.

The funeral Mass was celebrated by Rev. Patrick Browne, Maynooth, a close family friend. The coffin draped in the Tricolour was taken to Glasnevin. The prayers at the graveside were recited by the Nuncio Apostolic and Kit was laid to rest. The large attendance was a demonstration of public sympathy and regret. Present were Kit's and the Vice President's immediate and extended families, a large number of clergy, Ministers of State, members of the Oireachtais, the Universities, the Judiciary, the Diplomatic Corps, the Gardai, the Army, Dublin Corporation, the professional and commercial classes and the general public.

Of a quiet and placid disposition, her keen sense of humour and imperturbable good temper rendered the late Mrs O'Kelly exceedingly popular with all who knew her. Her wide tolerance and unfailing good sense enabled her to keep all her friends, throughout the storm and stress of recent politics, and she will be sincerely mourned in both political camps, for she was a lady of many friends and no enemies .

In September 1936 Sean T. O'Kelly having obtained a Church dispensation married Phyllis Ryan, Kit's youngest sister. From 1945 - 1959, as President, he raised Ireland's image and was a well liked, shrewd, diplomatic, distinguished representative of his country. Kit would have enjoyed being the wife of the President - it was not her destiny.

ACKNOWLEGEMENTS

Thanks to Ryan family members, Evelyn Cullen and Betty Glavey, nieces, Eoin Ryan S.C. and Martin Ryan, nephews.

University College, Dublin, French Department.

Eleanor Curtis

Staff of Wexford Co. Library.

FOOTNOTES

  1. 'The Enniscorthy Guardian' 11 August 1934
  2. Ryan Family Tree - Betty Glavey (niece)
  3. Baptismal record: St. Fintan's Church, Taghmon
  4. 'The Free Press' 21 July 1934
  5. ibid.
  6. Education: Encyclopaedia of Ireland: Allen Figgis 1968. Hely Thom Ltd., Dublin.
  7. Extract from President's Report, 1933-1934. UCD
  8. 'Sean T. - Too Long in the Shadow' an unpublished history project by David Williams.
  9. 'The Free Press' 21 July and 28 July 1934
  10. 'The Free Press' 21 July 1934
  11. Evelyn Cullen (niece)