Captain James Kelly, known to his
family as Jim, the eldest of ten children, was born
in the townland of Leiter, Bailieboro, Co. Cavan,
Ireland on the 16 October 1929.
came from a family with strong nationalist and republican
traditions. His father, also called James Kelly, was
a miller and farmer, who later had a small pub in
Bailieboro Town. He had stood for Sinn Fein in the
local Elections in 1918, topping the poll. An ancestor
from the late 18th century, Robert Kelly, was a member
of the United Irishmen, who detested landlordism and
the Established Church and its Tithes. These officially
sanctioned taxes, were fundamentally linked to the
suppression of both Presbyterianism and Catholicism.
Robert Kelly was Officer Commanding, or General, of
the United Irishmen in the East Cavan/South Monaghan
area and was a delegate to the "Directory"
of the UI. He was present at the meeting of the Directory
in Dublin in March 1798 which was raided by the notorious
Major Sirr. Ten Delegates, and members of the National
Executive, were seized. Other leaders were arrested
at their place of work. Some of the Provincial Delegates,
including Kelly, escaped. He later emigrated to America,
where today, eight generations later, the family survives.
career of Captain James Kelly
Kelly joined the Irish Army in 1949, and was stationed
at Griffith Barracks, Dublin. He was commissioned
as a Lieutenant in 1951. After his marriage to Sheila
(nee Kane) in 1956, he was appointed as Training Officer
to the North Meath Battalion of the Local Defence
Force (FCA) working in Kells, Co Meath. Then he was
called back to Dublin to serve in Army Intelligence.
While there, he became editor of the Army magazine,
An Cosantoir, and had articles printed in many army
magazines around the world.
started corresponding with military historians like
Liddell Hart and General Dorman O'Gowan. In 1963 he
was sent as an Observer to the United Nations in the
Middle East, (UNTSO) and spent time in Tiberius and
Damascus. He became OIC of the Kunneitra Control Centre.
His official report of the time described him as "a
warm and friendly officer well liked and respected
by his associates. He possesses a sharp wit and astute
intelligence. He is a clear and logical thinker, cool
and unruffled in emergencies."
returned to Ireland in 1965 and was sent on a Command
and Staff Course to the Curragh. This course was to
facilitate promotion to higher rank. While working
in Intelligence he attended a course of lectures at
Manchester University with his boss Colonel Hefferon,
Director of Intelligence. These lectures focused on
revolution and its causes all over the world. Jim
was instrumental in getting the Irish Revolution on
to the agenda for a later series of lectures but this
idea was turned down by the British establishment.
August 1969 he was in Belfast on holiday and witnessed
the start of the Troubles. He reported to his superiors
on his return and was instructed to keep up his contacts.
He reported, in writing to Col. Hefferon who took
the reports to the Minister of Defence, James Gibbons.
This was the start of a chain of events that led to
him being charged with the illegal importation of
arms in 1970. This period is graphically described
in his two books, Orders for the Captain, published
in 1971, and its sequel The Thimbleriggers, published
Kelly always maintained his innocence as regards the
importation. He claimed in court that it was a Government
sponsored importation, and that when the Government
changed its mind, and attempted to cover its tracks
that both he and Colonel Hefferon became pawns in
a very sordid episode.
the apparent tampering with evidence by the prosecution,
all of the defendants were found not guilty by a jury.
after the trial
though he had been acquitted, Jim Kelly's career was
in ruins. He retired from the Army, and was a marked
man. He was vilified by the establishment of the day,
and was looked on as persona non grata. His army colleagues
cut him dead on the street. He could not get employment.
life went on. Despite the fact that he was living
on a meagre pension, and now had a wife and six children
to provide for, he kept up contact with people in
Northern Ireland. He wrote letters to the papers at
every opportunity, and spoke at length about the position
of nationalists in the Six Counties. In 1972, he attended
the Congressional Hearings on Northern Ireland in
Washington as Vice Chairman of Aontacht Eireann, a
party founded by Kevin Boland, a former Minister in
the Fianna Fail Government.
became chairman of Irish Civil Rights in 1975. He
campaigned for prisoners' rights and led a campaign
against extradition. In 1976, he went on a six-week
tour of Australia, as guest of the Committee for Civil
Rights in Melbourne. Of this period it was written:
"He did much to inform Australian audiences,
and his book, Genesis of Revolution, is dedicated
to 'groups of Irish and Irish Australians in Melbourne,
Adelaide, Churchill, Geelong, Sydney and Wollongong,
and those many Australians not of Irish descent who
have shown their concern for a just and lasting solution
to the conflict in Ireland'."
to the fact that he had no income, and despite many
attempts to get employment, he was forced to sell
his house in Dublin. He went to live in his hometown
of Bailieboro. His father's pub was for sale and he
bought it. He worked very hard for seven years. He
later became editor of The New Cavan Leader, a weekly
newspaper, which gave him scope to air his views on
Northern Ireland. The paper was not successful and
it closed. He also visited Australia again to speak
on Northern Ireland.
1989, he launched a pamphlet "The Courage of
the Bravethe Anglo Irish Agreement: a politico-military
analysis", in Conway Mill in Belfast. The theme,
renegotiating for peace in Ireland, was well received
in the North, but treated with indifference in the
South. He formed a 'Peace Action Committee' under
the auspices of the Committee for the Reform of the
Extradition Laws and opened up talks with Sinn Fein
in January 1990.
aim was to get the IRA to call a cease-fire, but it
was not yet ready to do this. In the Irish News on
12 March 1990 Sinn Fein "dismissed claims that
it was discussing terms for an IRA cease-fire with
a Southern based peace action group". The talks
always had an interest in sculpture, and in the 1980s
started to carve bog oak. He began by making pieces
for his family and friends. He was never very commercial,
and worked for the joy of it. Eventually he held an
exhibition in Cavan and was very surprised when all
the pieces sold, and the Revenue Commission gave him
status as an artist. However in 1997 when he and Sheila
went on a holiday to visit their son in Boston, on
the proceeds of the exhibition, he was very angry
to be stopped at Shannon and questioned by the American
authorities. The plane was held up for about half
an hour, but eventually they were allowed to travel.
This incident was to set in train a deeply held conviction
that somewhere there was a file on him, supplied to
the Americans by the Irish Government.
to clear his name
was always aware that documents which would have helped
his defence during the Arms Trial had been withheld.
He was unable to prove this until, under the thirty-year
rule, some documents were released by the National
Archives in 2001. In a file he found the two statements
of Colonel Hefferonthe original one and the
doctored one, with handwritten amendments, now known
to have been made by Peter Berry, then the Secretary
of the Department of Justice. On the front of this
document was a stamp, which said "seen by Minister
made him more determined to clear his name, if only
for his family's sake. He took the papers to a number
of journalists, and received publicity first in the
News of the World and then in an RTE Prime Time news
special. The public response to the latter programme
forced the issue back onto the front pages of the
nation's newspapers again and the Attorney General,
Michael MacDowell, was forced to conduct an enquiry
into the circumstances in which the Hefferon statement
was altered. The Attorney General's report and the
report of John O'Donoghue, Minister for Justice, muddied
the waters by stating that there was not enough evidence
to show that there had been any attempt by the Prosecution
to suppress evidence, that there was no other material
available to show that evidence was suppressed and
that there was no evidence of any conspiracy to suppress
disclosure to the defence of documentary evidence
in the possession of the prosecution is a fundamental
principle of criminal law. It is counsel's opinion
that, had the documents been available, it is unlikely
Jim would have been sent for trial.
Minister for Justice at the time of the Arms Trial
was Mr. Desmond O'Malley who has since stated that
he has no recollection of seeing Colonel Hefferon's
statement. He also maintains that the alterations
were in line with the rules of evidence of the time.
However, there was one sentence which was completely
altered to give a different meaning to what was intended.
All references to Mr. Gibbons' knowledge of the affair
was deleted. It has now been suggested that a Mr.
Quigley, who served on the prosecution team, altered
the document. It is difficult to believe that he would
have altered it without some instruction to do so.
documents pertinent to Jim's defence were also withheldessentially,
these were Irish Army documents relating to the plans
to make incursions into Northern Ireland, including
the important Government Directive.
by campaigners into the archives and other material
is still going onan old tape was unearthed recently
which contains yet another significant revelation.
It contains a recording of a Vincent Browne programme,
which focused on the evidence of Charles J. Haughey
during the arms trials. In his cross-examination he
stated clearly, "with the authority of the Government
Captain Kelly had a special job to do". He later
repeated this, by referring to that "special
role by authority of the Government".
Attorney-General McDowell's report was issued Jim
held a press conference with a detailed refutation,
outlining all the documents that had been denied to
the court. He wrote to every opposition TD accusing
the two ministers of misleading the Dail, but to no
avail. In April 2003, he wrote to the newly formed
Commissioner for Human Rights, and in June issued
a plenary summons to "Ireland and the Attorney
General", on the grounds that he did not receive
a fair trial and that his civil rights had been breached.
15 May 2003 the first break came when he was awarded
50, 000 euro in a libel action at the High Court,
and an apology. Comments had been made in a book and
newspaper articles alleging that the Jury at the trial
was intimidated into giving a "not guilty"
verdict. He described it as his "first public
vindication in 33 years". He still wanted his
name cleared by the Government.
was ill with cancer by this time, and hoped that the
government would clear him before he died. He waited
in vain. The day of his death, however, the Taoiseach
issued a personal statement saying that Jim was prosecuted
in "circumstances of great controversy"
and that he had "honourably served his country".
No apology was made and no one was held responsible.
is hoped that by the publication of the petition
on the Internet that the Irish government will
recognize the public anger that people feel over the
injustice meted out to this former military servant
of the State, and give an apology to this great man
of integrity, or, at the very least, give him some
recognition for his services to Ireland.
James J. Kelly died on 16 July 2003 and was interred
in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
This biography was put together by members of the
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