In 1942 Maeve Cavanagh; poet, wife of composer and revolutionary Cathal MacDowell and sister of political cartoonist Ernest Kavanagh, deposited their souvenir album of postcards and photographs in the National Museum of Ireland. These cards were produced mostly between 1913 and 1922, and covered topics such as the Labour war of 1913-14, the 1916 Rising, the Irish Volunteers and National Volunteers, conscription and various propaganda cartoons, many of them drawn by MacDowell and Kavanagh themselves.
Among the postcard photographs were two very different images of Alderman James Joseph Kelly, which he personally sent to his friend MacDowell, each with a message of explanation on the reverse. One photograph is of James Kelly, taken in Dublin in 1916 before his arrest. The other is of the same man, taken in London after his release from prison after just 16 days.
James J. Kelly, a 45 year old merchant, owned a tobacconist shop on the corner of Camden Street and Harrington Street, also known as ‘Kelly’s Corner’. He was a Dublin Corporation Alderman, a Justice of the Peace and had previously held the office of High Sheriff of Dublin. Kelly was a Nationalist, but not a member of either Sinn Fein or the Irish Volunteers, believing more moderately in self-determination for Ireland. However, on the 26th April 1916, the third day of the Rising, he found himself suddenly linked to the rebels and to the story of Francis Sheehy Skeffington.
Sheehy Skeffington, journalist, suffragist and pacifist, was arrested on 25th April and detained in Portobello Barracks, not far from Camden Street. He had not taken any part in the Rising, and he had been in the city appealing for peace and trying to prevent looting. British Army officer Captain Bowen-Colthurst of the Royal Irish Rifles was at that time attached to the 3rd Battalion stationed at the barracks. On the 26th April he decided to lead a raiding party into the city in search of Sinn Feiners, using Sheehy Skeffington as a hostage. As he marched into the city he shot 19 year old mechanic James Coade on the Rathmines Road, and 40 year old bricklayer Richard O’Carroll as he reached Camden Street. As the people on the streets fled from the gunfire, Thomas Dickson, editor of The Eye Opener, took shelter in Kelly’s shop, which Bowen-Colthurt’s party was heading towards in the belief that Kelly was a member of Sinn Fein. Patrick McIntyre, the editor of the Searchlight and a friend of Kelly’s, was already inside. Dickson and McIntyre were both arrested and brought to Portobello Barracks, where they were shot alongside Sheehy Skeffington. Kelly himself was not present at the time of their arrests, but was arrested later and sent to Richmond Barracks. His sister gave evidence to the Royal Commission of Inquiry which investigated the events, stating that the soldiers wrecked the shop, then bombed it with hand grenades.
Kelly spent from 26th April to 8th May in Richmond Barracks, from where he was deported to Wandsworth Prison in London on a cattle boat along with 196 other men. He appears on the Released List for the 12th May, so spent a total of about 16 days in detention before his release, unlike the many men who would spend up to eight months in prison camps. However, what Kelly suffered in those 16 days is evident on his face; apart from the tough conditions in prison, on close inspection there are also signs of his being beaten, evident in the black eye visible in the photograph.
On the 15th May 1916 during the Commons sitting on the Disturbances in Ireland, the Under-Secretary of State for War was questioned about Kelly’s case, in particular on ‘what charge, if any, was made against Alderman Kelly; and if he will be compensated for the loss sustained by the action of the military authorities?’ The Under-Secretary replied that ‘Mr. Kelly was arrested on suspicion, but, on investigation of the facts, it was determined that no charge should be preferred, and he has been released. The Government cannot recognise any claim to compensation’.
Kelly returned to politics after the Rising, and ran as an Independent nationalist candidate in the 1918 General Election in the St. Patrick’s Division of Dublin. He ran against the Irish Party candidate William Field who had held the seat since 1892, and the Sinn Fein candidate Countess Constance Markievicz. Markievicz won, but refused her seat in the British Imperial Parliament in Westminster and joined the newly formed Dáil Éireann in January 1919.