O'Kelly was a close associate of Eamon de Valera, who served variously as President of Dáil Éireann/Príomh Áire (prime minister from April 1919 to August 1921) and President of the Republic (from August 1921 to January 1922). As with de Valera, he opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed by representatives of the British and Irish Republic's governments in December 1921. When de Valera resigned as President of the Republic, O'Kelly returned from Paris to Ireland to try to negotiate a compromise, whereby deV could return to the presidency. A furious deV turned down the offer and ordered O'Kelly to return to Paris.
When in 1926 Eamon de Valera left Sinn Féin to found his own pragmatic republican party, Fianna Fail, O'Kelly followed him, becoming one of the new party's first members. In 1932, when de Valera, having won that year's general election, was appointed President of the Executive Council (prime minister of the Irish Free State) he made O'Kelly his Minister for Local Government. O'Kelly earned a controversial reputation over his key role in attempts to publicly humiliate the then Governor-General of the Irish Free State, James McNeill. Stunts such as withdrawing the Irish Army's band from playing at diplomatic functions which the Governor-General attended, or in one notorious case the sight of O'Kelly and Defence Minister Frank Aiken storming out of a diplomatic function at the French Legation when McNeill, the guest of honour, had arrived, damaged O'Kelly's reputation and image, particularly when the campaign backfired; McNeill published his correspondence on the issue with de Valera (in which de Valera looked foolish), before resigning, leaving de Valera with the task of choosing a new governor-general, an embarrassing situation for a politician who had tried his best to avoid any association with the office.To the surprise of many, O'Kelly's was among the names considered for the office. Why is not known for certain, but suspicion rests on O'Kelly's controversial membership of an extreme right wing Irish Roman Catholic organisation, the Knights of Columbanus, which de Valera suspected had a 'source' in the cabinet. The talkative, tactless, fanatically religious whiskey-drinking O'Kelly matched the bill, perhaps through indiscretions rather than deliberate actions. However O'Kelly was not made governor-general, the post instead going to former Fianna Fáil TD Domhnall Ua Buachalla.
In 1938, again O'Kelly's position in cabinet became a focus for speculation, as rumours swept Leinster House (the seat of Parliament) that deV intended making O'Kelly the Fianna Fáil choice to become president of Ireland, the office which had replaced the governor-generalship in the new Irish constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann. Again the justification for deV sending one of his senior ministers to 'the Park' (a term used to describe the presidency, as the presidential residence is in the Phoenix Park in Dublin), was rumours that someone in cabinet was, either deliberately or accidentially, letting information slip to the Catholic Church through the Knights of Columbanus. De Valera had on a number of occasions ordered O'Kelly to resign from the Knights, only to find that he would rejoin later. However, the apparent entry of the popular Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alfie Byrne, into the presidential race (in fact he eventually failed to get nominated) and the belief that neither Sean T. not any other politician could beat Byrne (ironically a close friend of Sean T.'s) led to all party agreement, on the opposition Fine Gael's suggestion, that the office go to Douglas Hyde, an independent senator, Irish language enthusiast and founder of Conradh na nGaeilge (pronounced Cun-ra naa gale-ga), known in English as the Gaelic League, a cultural organisation promoting the preservation of the Irish language (gaelic), music, dancing and traditions.
Sean T. finally left the cabinet in 1945 when he was elected President of Ireland in a popular vote of the people, defeating two other candidates. Sean T.'s most famous faux paus occurred during a state visit to the Vatican, when in a breach with standard protocol, he told the media of Pope Pius XII's personal opinions on communism. The resulting row strained relationships between Pope Pius and Josef Stalin.
Sean T. was elected unopposed to the presidency a second time in 1952. He retired at the end of his second term in 1959, to be replaced by his old mentor, Eamon de Valera. He died in 1966, fifty years after the Easter Rising that first brought him to prominence. On his retirement as president in 1959, he was described as a 'model president' by the normally hostile Irish Times newspaper. Though controversial, the diminutive Sean T. (in one famous cartoon he was shown walking up a long driveway to the presidential residence, Áras an Uachtaráin, in a top hat bigger than he was!) was widely loved, as a funny, honourable, occasionally flawed but always decent man.
Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh died on November 23 1966. He was survived by his second wife, Phyllis. They had no children.
|Presidents of Ireland||
Eamon de Valera