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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Captain James J Kelly
A brief biography


Members of the Kelly Family

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.

He 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.

The career of Captain James Kelly

James 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.

He 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."

Return to Ireland

He 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.

In 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 in 1999.

Jim 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.

Despite the apparent tampering with evidence by the prosecution, all of the defendants were found not guilty by a jury.

Life after the trial

Even 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.

However, 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.

He 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'."

Due 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.

In 1989, he launched a pamphlet "The Courage of the Brave—the 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.

His 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 petered out.

Other interests

Jim 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.

Campaign to clear his name

Jim 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 Hefferon—the 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 1/6".

This 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 evidence.

The 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.

The 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.

Other documents pertinent to Jim's defence were also withheld—essentially, these were Irish Army documents relating to the plans to make incursions into Northern Ireland, including the important Government Directive.

Research by campaigners into the archives and other material is still going on—an 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".

Press Conference

After 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.

On 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.

He 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.

It 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.

Captain James J. Kelly died on 16 July 2003 and was interred in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.

This biography was put together by members of the Kelly family.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


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Index: Current Articles

26 July 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Joe Cahill - Provisional Republican Veteran
Anthony McIntyre

Meet Sean Keenan
Kathleen O Halloran

Captain James Kelly - A Brief Biography
Members of the Kelly Family

The Kelly Affair
Liam O Comain

Kelly Detractors Challenged
Darinagh Boyle

Hope Floats
Mary La Rosa

23 July 2004

I Once Knew a Boy. . .
Dolours Price

Out of the Ashes Arose the um, ah, Equality Agenda
Mags Glennon

New Sinn Fein and the Schomberg Society
Martin Cunningham

A Few Questions for a Hollowed Guest
John O Farrell

Support the Vacumm
Pauline Hadaway

The Rwandan Holocaust and Western Indifference
Anthony McIntyre

Empire-Speak: A Primer in Practical Translation
Toni Solo


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