John Kelly: Republican, Soldier, Politician, Peacemaker

John and Paddy Kennedy in 1969

This coming week will see the anniversary of the passing of John Kelly, a man of stature, honesty, and principle who as a young man was a Republican at a time when it was not popular. There were  people who would laugh at those who supported the Republican struggle simply because they had accepted the status quo of partition, something John Kelly did not.

So, who was John Kelly? Well, I can only talk about him as I found him and I wish to share that with you.

In 1956,  Mam told us that John had gone to Donegal to carry out work for his employer, which was not unusual as he had gone away before, so we paid no attention. As I was only eight years old, it just went over my head. However, by December 1956, things had changed and my life changed for ever. John had been arrested with two others in County Tyrone as part of an IRA flying column. They were arrested by the RUC and B Specials and were badly beaten before they were transferred to Belfast Jail. My memory of this is my mother bringing home his blood stained clothes and his full length field boots after he was remanded into custody and incarcerated in Crumlin Road Jail. He was later sentenced to eight years hard labour, and he served every last minute of it. John was educated by the Irish Christian Brothers, as all of the boys in our family were. After he finished his secondary education at Harding Street with the great brother Leonard, he was taken on as an apprentice Marine Engineer with Scotts Shipyard in Corporation Street Belfast, where he completed his trade.

During those years, things were very difficult as our home was constantly raided by the RUC and B Specials and there was a lot of coming and going  of relatives  of other prisoners coming to stay and visit on Saturdays. At the same time, we were making up the fruit parcel and the salad for the prisoners. We made up about 25 parcels every Saturday. The family also suffered in other ways as Protestant farmers from around Lisburn and parts of County Down refused to sell produce to our company, while others did and would not associate themselves with the boycott. A number of shopkeepers would not buy from us anymore, but our parents kept going; we only stopped in 1970 when my father died.

John had two visits per month and  my mother and father always took me on the Wednesday afternoon visit. I found these visits very dignified even though we had a lot of disrespect and intimidation shown to us. A brief description would go like this: If our visit was at 2:30/3pm, we would need to be there 20 minutes ahead of time. When we arrived at the jail, we would ring the bell and a little eye hole would open. We would show our visit passes, then the small door would open and we would enter into a covered courtyard, turn left into the visitors waiting room, present our visitor cards to the desk warden and then be ordered into the waiting room which was always full of visitors for other prisoners. We would call them “ordinary prisoners” as opposed to our Irish Republican political prisoners. We were different, and they were different to us. We were not criminals, but were fighting for the end of Unionist and British terror imposed on the nationalist and Republican community by the division of Ireland.

Soon after we would be called ‘Kelly Visitors’. We would get up and go to the desk, at which point all our pockets were emptied and we were searched.  Mam was taken into a separate room by a lady warden to be searched, after which we went through the gate lock system (lock one gate before they open up the other gate). We were then led across the open courtyard and up a number of steps to a long wide hall with visiting rooms for Republican prisoners.

As we were led into one of these rooms we were faced with this big table with john on one side and we were on the other,  The first thing said was ‘no touching or physical contact of any kind’. John was wearing a grey prison uniform with a red  star on the sleeve, but he was sitting up straight and impeccable in his appearance -- even in this grubby prison uniform. The conversation was, as usual, very limited as the warder was there listening to all that was said and notes taken. I suppose if anything out of the way was said it might rebound on John, so not a lot was said except the thanks for the fruit parcels,  maybe Gaelic football, or general chitchat.  My mother found it very difficult. Soon the visit was over and we were ushered out of the room and John was returned to "A" wing, but as we looked back we could see him stand up straight, chest out and march back up the hall. I could see the pride in my mother’s and father’s eyes as they to stood straight and proud of their son and I of my brother John my hero!. I was 9 years old, and it was my first visit. That image has remained with me for the past 56 years. 

In the following years, all continued with the fruit parcels, the visitors calling to our home and the Kerry and Cork people coming to stay, maybe for a week at a time. They would save up their visits and take one every day, which would be eight visits per trip, but as a young person at that time I just kept going making the parcels and the scallions for the Saturday salad along with the regular visits from the RUC and the B Specials.  I kinda got immune to all this, and every time our house was raided I would sing Tom Williams just to annoy them, for which daddy would give out to me!

I will always remember December 26th, 1960.  It was my birthday  and i was in the front room what we called the parlour.  Rita, my sister, was playing the piano trying to teach me and singing rebel songs out of a song book that I got for Christmas. As it was my birthday, Rita had bought me this wonderful red jumper from Robinson Cleavers Department store in Belfast which I had just put on when I heard a knock at the front door which I went to answer. There was only myself, Rita, Mam and Dad in the house.  I opened the door to see this guy who was wearing a grandfather shirt and a pair of black gutties. He asked, "Is your daddy at home?" I said, "Hold on there, I will get him.” As soon as dad saw him, he knew the problem;  it was Danny Donnelly, who had just escaped from Crumlin Road jail. He informed us that John was with him, but he felt he fell back into the jail as the rope they had been using had broken, but was not sure.  At that moment it was all systems go , Donnelly was removed to a safe house and myself and my dad went to look for John.  

We went up the Crumlin Road to the back of the Mater Hospital into the grounds of St. Malachy’s College at the back of St. John's Nursing Home. We searched for about an hour but no sign of him.  We returned home and it was advised that I go to my older sisters Margaret’s  house on the Antrim Road just in case things got violent.  At this stage, the RUC and the B Specials were closing off the total area in the search for Danny Donnelly;  it seems I just got out in time!  My father was not so lucky he was badly beaten by the Specials, but still they did not get any information as he did not know where Donnelly was. The person who knew was my mother and they only questioned her. She was not going to tell them. Nevertheless, they were under house arrest for six days before they realised that Donnelly was gone. It was then that we found out that John had indeed fallen back into the prison yard, in the process breaking his knee and hand. After he was charged with attempted escape he was sentenced to solitary confinement and 23-hour lockup for the remainder of his sentence (four years), and still they never broke him.  He was released in 1964, a time of great celebration for all the family.  I will always remember Mam and Dad going up to the jail to meet him, and him coming into the house sitting down to a full breakfast and the tear in his eye. My mother’s eye, my dads eye, and my own eyes with all of us there to greet our hero John (he was almost the last republican prisoner to be released).

Soon the family returned to normal, or what can be as near normal as we could get in the circumstances we found ourselves in as we were still under pressure from the state forces that never stopped. John was unsurprisingly unable to gain any kind of employment, but eventually he did get a job on contract to the Navan Carpet Group in Navan, County Meath as a maintenance fitter on their carpet making machines. This was to last about two years before he returned to belfast and got a job with I.C.I. as chief engineer over production machinery.  I.C.I. had just built a large plant at Kilroot outside Belfast.  John got married to Philomena who was a nurse at the Mater hospital. They bought a home at Glengormley, started their family, and John sang in the choir at his local church.  All was going well for him, and while he was no longer involved in the Republican movement, I suppose the the yearn for freedom and a just society for his daughter never really left him.

While all this was going on in his life, we saw the start of the civil rights movement -- the marches for one-man-one-vote, equality of jobs and housing, and education, only to see them being beaten off the streets by B Specials and the RUC. This, in turn, led to the battle of the Bogside, the burning of Catholic homes in the Lower Falls and Ardoyne, the eviction by loyalist and unionist supported by the RUC/B Specials of almost 4,000 Catholic / nationalist  families across Belfast,  and a statement from the then free state Prime Minister, Jack Lynch that he would not stand idly by while nationalist were being slaughtered and burned out of their homes. As most, if not all, old time Republicans had gone their own ways, there was no IRA in Belfast; but when the cry for help went out, it was these men who stepped up to the plate, and John and my brother Billy (who had been interned from 1957 to 1960) were to lead the defence of Belfast and the evacuation of the Catholic population to safety in school gyms and church halls inside nationalist controlled Catholic areas. This was supported by Billy McKee, Jimmy Steel, Marie Drum and her husband, Joe Cahill, Harry Cordiner, Liam Morgan, Tom Fleming, the Hannaway family, and of course all of the Kelly family. It was supported by all the nationalist population including all the professional classes and all of the Catholic business classes.

It was agreed that every area would have a citizens defence committee which would be headed by a old time IRA person (who had no connection with what was then described as an IRA organisation that was discredited, and which John and all the others had left after the end of the 1956/60 border campaign).  He/ she would recruit a team from within their community to defend their area. As it turned out, most of these recruits were British ex-soldiers and had rank from captain down to private. Some were highly trained ex-paratroopers and commandos who, in turn, trained their members. These are people who would never in their wildest dreams join the IRA, but August 1969 changed all that.

At a meeting held in west Belfast, the leaders of the various defence committees including Derry supported by all local politicians including Gerry Fitt, Paddy Wilson, Paddy Kennedy. They held a meeting where they elected a chairman / leader. That person was John Kelly.

At that time, the Irish government had sent an emissary to Belfast to make contact with who ever he could and to report back to the department of defence and the department of foreign affairs via Irish army intelligence. He was Capt. James Kelly (no relation). It was he who met up with John as he had been given a mandate to speak to him and explain the dire situation that the nationalist people were in. He was most times accompanied to these meetings by Paddy Kennedy (since Paddy was an elected member to the Stormont parliament)  and a colleague to Gerry Fitt as was Senator Paddy Wilson (who was later murdered by an UVF/RUC murder gang). He was also, at times, accompanied to these meetings with some of our leading business and legal people to get the message to the Irish government that we can not and will not allow this situation to continue there has to be change and it has to come soon.

At all of these meetings, I am led to understand, was the request for guns and expertise with special training to complement the training already being given to the local people on how to defend their homes and communities -- none of which was denied by Lynch.  He set up a cabinet sub-committee to oversee all this, which also included the import of arms for the people in the north.

In May of 1970 when the news broke about the attempt to import guns into the south, Lynch ordered the arrest of John along with others which included Charles Haughey who was, at that time, a government minister and was charged with the attempted import of guns.  All were brought to court, but the jury found all not guilty and agreed that all were acting with the full knowledge of the government. These events were to leave the people in the north to understand that once again the free state was to leave the nationalist people to their own devices and to the mercy of the British and the unionist. This, in turn, was to lead to the formation of the Provisional IRA and the start of the long war.

After the suspension of the Stormont parliament, there was an ongoing search for a political settlement with equality and justice. John also played his part in that quest with others, both here in ireland and in America. He also worked with Sinn Fein to that goal by winning a seat on the south Derry County Council where he had many a run-in with the unionist parties. He then stood as the Sinn Fein candidate for mid-Ulster in the first assembly elections after the Good Friday Agreement, which he won. 

John subsequently suffered bad health and retired from public life. He died on September 6, 2007.

Rest in peace John.  You had boots that none of us could fill, but you had shoulders that carried us all.  Thank you.

Views: 1039

Tags: Belfast, Derry, Down, IRA, Irish Freedom Struggle, Republican, Sinn Fein

Comment by Bit Devine on September 22, 2014 at 3:57pm

We'll not see the like of his kind again... Thank you also for sharing this story, as well, a chara

Comment by Gerry Regan on September 24, 2014 at 9:49am

Remarkable, poignant, momentous life, Philip. I am grateful you have added your voice, and memories, to ours. Go raibh maith agat!

Comment by Jean Sullivan Cardinal on September 24, 2014 at 12:35pm

Thank you for sharing.

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