Seán Thomas O’Kelly (Irish: Seán Tomás Ó Ceallaigh) is elected the second President of Ireland on June 18, 1945. He serves two terms from 1945 to 1959. He is a member of Dáil Éireann from 1918 until his election as President. During this time he serves as Minister for Local Government and Public Health (1932–1939) and Minister for Finance (1939–1945). He serves as Vice-President of the Executive Council from 1932 until 1937 and is the first Tánaiste from 1937 until 1945.
O’Kelly is born on August 25, 1882 on Capel Street in the north inner-city of Dublin. He joins the National Library of Ireland in 1898 as a junior assistant. That same year, he joins the Gaelic League, becoming a member of the governing body in 1910 and General Secretary in 1915.
In 1905 O’Kelly joins Sinn Féin who, at the time, supports a dual-monarchy. He is an honorary secretary of the party from 1908 until 1925. In 1906 he is elected to Dublin Corporation, which is Dublin’s city council. He retains the seat for the Inns Quay Ward until 1924.
O’Kelly assists Patrick Pearse in preparing for the Easter Rising in 1916. After the rising, he is jailed, released, and jailed again. He escapes from detention at HM Prison Eastwood Park in Falfield, South Gloucestershire, England and returns to Ireland.
O’Kelly is elected Sinn Féin MP for Dublin College Green in the 1918 Irish general election. Along with other Sinn Féin MPs he refuses to take his seat in the British House of Commons. Instead they set up an Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann, in Dublin. O’Kelly is Ceann Comhairle (Chairman) of the First Dáil. He is the Irish Republic’s envoy to the post-World War I peace treaty negotiations at the Palace of Versailles, but the other countries refuse to allow him to speak as they do not recognise the Irish Republic.
O’Kelly is a close friend of Éamon de Valera, and both he and de Valera oppose the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921. When de Valera resigns as President of the Irish Republic on January 6, 1922, O’Kelly returns from Paris to try to persuade de Valera to return to the presidency but de Valera orders him to return to Paris.
In 1926 when de Valera leaves Sinn Féin to found his own republican party, Fianna Fáil, O’Kelly follows him, becoming one of the party’s founding members. In 1932, when de Valera is appointed President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State he makes O’Kelly the Minister for Local Government and Public Health. He often tries to publicly humiliate the Governor-General of the Irish Free State, James McNeill, which damages O’Kelly’s reputation and image, particularly when the campaign backfires.
In 1938, many believe that de Valera wants to make O’Kelly the Fianna Fáil choice to become President of Ireland, under the new Irish constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann. When Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alfie Byrne, says he wants to be president there is an all party agreement to nominate Douglas Hyde, a Protestant Irish Senator, Irish language enthusiast and founder of the Gaelic League. They believe Hyde to be the only person who might win an election against Alfie Byrne. O’Kelly is instead appointed Minister of Finance and helps create Central Bank in 1942.
O’Kelly leaves the cabinet when he is elected President of Ireland on June 18, 1945 in a popular vote of the people, defeating two other candidates. He is re-elected unopposed in 1952. During his second term he visits many nations in Europe and speaks before the United States Congress in 1959. He retires at the end of his second term in 1959, to be replaced by his old friend, Éamon de Valera. Following his retirement he is described as a model president by the normally hostile newspaper, The Irish Times. Though controversial, he is widely seen as genuine and honest, but tactless.
O’Kelly’s strong Roman Catholic beliefs sometimes cause problems. Éamon de Valera often thinks that O’Kelly either deliberately or accidentally leaks information to the Knights of Saint Columbanus and the Church leaders. He ensures that his first state visit, following the creation of the Republic of Ireland in 1949, is to the Vatican City to meet Pope Pius XII. He accidentally reveals the Pope’s private views on communism. This angers the Pope and Joseph Stalin and is why he is not given the papal Supreme Order of Christ which is given to many Catholic heads of state.
O’Kelly dies in Blackrock, Dublin on November 23, 1966 at the age of 84, fifty years after the Easter Rising that first brought him to prominence. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Glasnevin, Dublin.