Conor O’Kelly was born in the Square, Claremorris in 1873. He was the son of William O’Kelly, a local Draper. On Sunday the 20th of April 1879, from the windows of his first floor parlour, Mr. O’Kelly and his family watched as the Mayo Contingents formed up below in the Square, before marching on to Irishtown to found the movement, later known as 'The National League of Ireland', October the 21st. 1879. William O’Kelly wrote the "Call" for the first Irishtown meeting of the Land League. He and two other Claremorris Shopkeepers, Sweeney and O’Kane, were members of the first Land League Committee in Claremorris. Mr. James Daly of Castlebar was the initiator and co-founder of the land League. Young Conor had a great tutor in his father, and years later got very involved in the Land League and later on again, in The United Irish league.
Conor O’Kelly was an unrepentant Parnellite, he was shattered by his death, and he and his colleagues in 1892 formed the 'Young Ireland Society'. From then on, Conor had many enemies in the Catholic Church, most notably Archdeacon Kilkenny, who condemned Conor and his associates, as a secret society. This Society eventually folded and Conor took himself off to America between 1892 and 1895, to observe the American scene, meeting Michael Davitt there.
He then returned to Claremorris, where he met William O’Brien, the founder of the United Irish League, and became the secretary of the Claremorris Branch. There was strong opposition from most of the Clergy - they favouring the Catholic Landlord, Tighe. Conor was subsequently elected President of the United Irish League, a District Councillor and Chairman of Claremorris District Council.
In April 1899 he was unanimously elected the first Chairman of Mayo County Council, still being opposed by the Clergy. In the General Election of 1900, he defeated William Martin Murphy, of 1913 'lock out fame'. Address of welcome by M C Henry, Chairman of the Swinford District Council, on the release of Conor O'Kelly from prison, 22nd February, 1902.
"On behalf of the Swinford Rural District Council, we offer you a cordial welcome on the termination of the sentence of imprisonment imposed on you by two Removable Magistrates at the instigation of those foreigners who misgovern this Country from Dublin Castle. The determination to convict you, no matter on what evidence, is best shown by the refusal of the Court selected, to even state a case in circumstances in which the first living Irish lawyer has held you were convicted illegally.
We assure you that our Council join most heartily in the feeling of widespread rejoicing which to-day prevails amongst your National fellow countrymen, to know that your services will once more be given to the cause which your untiring and self sacrificing exertions and your eloquent advocacy have done so much to advance. We sincerely hope that no injury to your health has followed your long incarceration, and we earnestly trust that the gruesome memories of Mr Wyndham's plank bed will be soon effaced by the associations of your old friends and the many enduring ties of attachment which your enforced absence has only bound more closely.
Your imprisonment under the Coercion Act has once again drawn public attention to the hateful tyranny which goes under the name of Government of Ireland. In a Country supposed to be free, you have been prosecuted for vindicating the right of free speech and after being given a mock trial at the hands of a Tribunal, selected and paid by your Prosecutors, you have been sentenced to imprisonment for two months in a British Bastile.
The people amongst whom you live have conferred on you the highest honour at their disposal by electing you to represent them in Parliament, and the peoples' representatives have on three successive occasions unanimously chosen you as Chairman of the chief governing body of the County. What a strange commentary on the much vaunted 'blessings of British Rule'. Is the action of a Government which in prosecuting a representative so honoured and esteemed, not only abrogates the common law of trial by Jury, but sets up its own Tribunal to pronounce judgement. Such mockery of Justice constitutes in our opinion one of the grossest scandals that ever tarnished the administration of law in a free Country.
We wish to take this opportunity of expressing our grateful appreciation of the splendid services which you have rendered to the National cause. We have observed with the warmest admiration and most cordial approval the manly stand you have made on behalf of the tenant farmers of this Country and the earnest and sustained support which you have given to the efforts to effect a remedy for the miseries which result from a dual ownership in the land. We are confident that the imprisonment of you and your colleagues will materially tend to force the demand for legal facilities for compulsory purchase to a speedy settlement, and not withstanding the prophetic "never" of a flippant Chief Secretary, we are convinced that the time is now near at hand when the rule of the Rack Renter and the Bum-Bailiff will disappear for ever, and when the "Tillers of the soil" will settle down in peace and contentment to enjoy the rights which have been so long usurped by others.
Assuring you of our highest esteem we beg to subscribe ourselves on behalf of The Swinford Rural District Council". MC Henry, Chairman. John Davitt, vice-Chairman. Joseph A Mellett. Peter Langley, Thomas Roughneen.
Conor became Secretary of the Irish Parliamentary Party from 1903 to 1907. In 1904 he was selected unanimously by John Redmond, John Dillon and Devlin as envoy to the USA, on a seven month mission to generate moral, political and financial support on behalf of the United Irish League and the Parliamentary Party. The mission was a great success.
In the 1906 general election, he was returned unopposed to the British Parliament. He is acknowledged as responsible for obtaining the Dudley Royal Commission on congestion 1906-1908. He succeeded in having the whole of Connaught scheduled as congested, as well as the Counties of Clare, Donegal, Kerry and Cork included in the commission work.
It should be added here that Conor and his fellow County Councillors had successfully prevented Priests from interfering in County Council matters. Archdeacon Kilkenny called Conor "the greatest ruffian this side of hell" from Claremorris Church Altar, which was donated in 1836 by Thomas William O’Kelly, Conor’s grandfather.
It is worth noting the words of John Devoy, the great Fenian Leader, who said: The British Government on it’s own we would have beaten, the Irish Bishops on their own we would have beaten, but against a combination of the two, we had no chance.
If one is to gauge a man’s stature, character and history by the size and manner of his funeral, perhaps a look at Conor O’Kelly’s funeral, five years later, might prove informative. He died aged 42 years on Wednesday the 13th of October 1915. The numbers that attended and the outpouring of emotion was unparalled in Connaught. Conor O’Kelly to-day should be remembered unequivocally in his own native region as a Champion, a man of the people and truly bears the accolade of a patriot.
In July 1997, a plaque in his honour was unveiled in Crossboyne Cemetery, where he is buried.
Article by Cathal Henry, Charlestown, County Mayo - © Cathal Henry