O’Kelly is born James Kelly in Mobhill, Loughrea, County Galway, youngest of seven (or possibly eight) children of Michael Kelly, corn merchant, and his wife, Catherine Fitzgerald. His date of birth is uncertain. Some commentators believe he is the James Kelly whose birth was registered on November 16, 1875, but relatives claim this was a sibling and namesake who died prematurely. His death certificate implies he was born in 1878, and family members maintained he was born in 1880.
Loughrea is at the centre of the bitterly-fought plan of campaign agitation on the Clanricarde estate from the late 1880s. Many tenants in the town and surrounding rural districts are evicted for non-payment of rent, and Lord Clanricarde resists reinstatement until the estate is purchased by special legislation shortly before World War I. According to one source, the O’Kellys are themselves evicted during the Plan of Campaign, though they seem to retain a degree of financial stability. A widespread perception that nationalist politicians had exploited the evicted tenants contributes to the relative strength of Parnellism in the area, and the early appearance of Sinn Féin. This background inspires such works as O’Kelly’s 1917 play, The Parnellite.
While growing up in Loughrea, O’Kelly is profoundly influenced by contact with older relatives and country folk from whom he learns some Irish and the folklore/storytelling tradition that shapes many of his stories. The example of his mother and friendship with the local Carmelite fathers, whom he serves as an altar boy, gives him a strong commitment to Catholicism. This coexists in his work with an Ibsenite-Parnellite insistence on individual defiance of conformity, and a gentle exaltation of the sensitive dreamer isolated from the life around him. The mixture is sometimes uneasy. His observations on domestic violence, the sexual exploitation of servant girls by hypocritically pious employers, and prejudice against children born outside marriage or raised in the workhouse are unobtrusive but biting. His play, The Bribe (1913), gives a devastating depiction of the social and economic pressures which induce a small-town shopkeeper and poor law guardian to accept a bribe to appoint an underqualified dispensary doctor, with disastrous results. The corrupt and snobbish doctor is called Power O’Connor, an unsubtle hit at the nationalist MP, T. P. O’Connor. This element of social observation distinguishes him from the more symbolist city-born Daniel Corkery, to whom he is often compared. Much of his writing is recognisably set in Loughrea.
O’Kelly begins working as a journalist on local papers, including the Midland Tribune, the Tuam News, and the Connacht Leader. He becomes editor of The Southern Star, based in Skibbereen, County Cork, in 1903, and is said to be the youngest newspaper editor in Ireland at the time. He moves to Naas, County Kildare, in 1906, as editor of the Leinster Leader. Here he lives in a house by the canal, which provides the inspiration for his linked series of short stories, The Golden Barque, along with his father, a nephew, and his brother Michael. Already a contributor to The United Irishman published by Arthur Griffith, and later its successor, Sinn Féin, he is active in the Naas Sinn Féin club and makes regular weekend visits to Dublin, where Griffith introduces him to Dublin literary circles. Here his closest friends are James Stephens, whose influence is visible in the more whimsical and fantastic elements of O’Kelly’s work, and Seumas O’Sullivan, who recalls O’Kelly as a man of remarkable gentleness and integrity.
O’Kelly’s journalistic career is accompanied by his development as a writer, publishing stories in a variety of outlets, including the Irish Rosary and the Irish Packet. From 1908 he has several plays produced by the Theatre of Ireland, a nationalist-oriented rival to the Abbey Theatre. Lustre (1913), written jointly with Casimir Markievicz, later becomes the basis for a Soviet film.
Around 1911, O’Kelly suffers a severe attack of rheumatic fever, which leaves him with a chronic heart condition and a strong sense of mortality. He continues to write extensively and with increasing skill. He becomes editor of Dublin’s The Saturday Evening Post in 1912 and moves to Dublin, where he lives in Drumcondra. At this time he is an occasional contributor to The Manchester Guardian, turning down a permanent job on that paper. He leaves the Post in 1915 because of continuing ill-health and is offered the editorship of The Sunday Freeman but has to retire after two weeks. He then returns to Naas. At this time his play Driftwood, commissioned by Annie Horniman, is produced in Manchester and London.
When O’Kelly’s brother is interned after the Easter Rising, he resumes the editorship of the Leinster Leader until his brother’s release at Christmas 1916. He also contributes topical articles to the Sunday Independent. His literary reputation continues to increase with a short story collection, Waysiders (1917), and his best-regarded full-length novel, The Lady of Deerpark (1917), a melancholy story about the last heiress of a declining Catholic gentry family. Another novel, Wet Clay (1922), is published posthumously and is the story of the tense relationship between a “returned Yank” and his small-farmer cousins, which shows deeply unresolved ambivalence about the nature and prospects of Irish rural society after the Land War.
When Griffith and many other Sinn Féin activists are arrested and imprisoned in May 1918, O’Kelly returns to Dublin to edit the Sinn Féin paper Nationality. During the days after the Armistice of November 11, 1918, a crowd of soldiers and women whose husbands are serving in the British Army attack the paper’s premises, which are also the headquarters of Sinn Féin. As a result of these attacks O’Kelly suffers a cerebral haemorrhage which leads to his death on November 14, 1918.
O’Kelly’s funeral turns into a major political demonstration and his status as a nationalist martyr leads to the posthumous publication of many of his works. These include the novella, The Weaver’s Grave (1920), generally regarded as his masterpiece. It has been reprinted regularly and translated into several languages. A 1961 Radio Éireann adaptation by Micheal Ó hAodha wins the Prix Italia. The twenty-fifth and fiftieth anniversaries of his death see various commemorations in his honour and a short-lived Seumas O’Kelly Society is founded in 1968. O’Kelly never marries but is said to have cherished a hopeless passion for the actress and nationalist activist, Máire Níc Shiubhlaigh, for whom he writes the play The Shuiler’s Child (1909).
(From: “O’Kelly, Seumas” by Patrick Maume, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie, October 2009)