Emigrant NYC, June 18, 2004
Irish America Remembers Captain Kelly
By Patrick Hurley
Captain James Kelly, the Irish army officer caught up in the alleged Arms
importation plot of 1969 – 70, died in Ireland last year. He was remembered
by the Irish American Community, in a
Memorial Weekend ceremony, on Saturday May 29th, at the Michael J. Quill
Park in East Durham, N.Y. Up to his last breath, Captain Kelly had battled
with the Southern Irish establishment to have his reputation restored. To
the plain people of Ireland, of course, his integrity was never in doubt. He
had courageously executed his orders to the fullest, in difficult times.
Unlike his persecutors, he was not only loyal to the Southern State but his
fealty to the Irish nation, in its full realization, was absolute. In the
pervasive, official equivocation of the early “Troubles”, his courage and
constancy were an inspiration.
In the end, the captain was expendable, thrown to the wolves, as political
chameleons scrambled to save themselves. Although acquitted at trial, the
fact that the establishment continued to withhold its imprimatur of
exoneration troubled him greatly.
James Kelly was born in Baileboro, Co. Cavan, in 1929, into a staunchly
republican family. He was commissioned into the Irish Army in 1951. In the
turmoil of the evolving northern Irish crisis, he achieved an unwanted
These were emotional, violent and volatile times. Nationalist areas were in
a state of permanent siege from unionist mobs, acting with the full
complicity of the northern statelet's security apparatus. Each new atrocity
added fuel to the fire of Southern fraternal emotion.
IRA leaders liaised openly with ministers of the Southern government. IRA
volunteers were brought across the border to receive weapons' and tactical
training from the Irish Army. Emotive rhetoric, such as Taoiseach Jack
Lynch’s dramatic “we will not stand idly by” speech was the order of the
day. And, as materiel was moved towards the border, speculation was rife
that the army would be ordered to annex peripheral areas of the northern
statelet. Confrontations were frequent between Southern civilians, outraged
by the injustices being perpetrated north of the border, and British Army
patrols, which strayed into the South. In one incident, in County Louth, a
British army armored car, and its crew, was nearly overturned by an angry
crowd before the intervention of Gardai.
Ambiguity was pervasive. Historians would later allude to the role of the
Southern government as a midwife in the birth of the Provisional IRA.
Implicit, if not express, support was given, with the proviso that the
Provisionals restrict their campaign to the northern side of the border. In
a homogenous Catholic state, such support also had the effect of stifling
any potential of Cathal Goulding's socialist Official IRA.
In the context of the era, an official government plan to import weapons for
distribution to northern nationalists was not as outrageous as Dessie
O’Malley, or other political opportunists, would subsequently paint it to
be. Indeed, to those, like Captain Kelly, caught up in the turmoil on the
ground, it must have seemed like a logical extension of government policy.
One of the captain's co – defendants in the Arms Trial, IRA leader John
Kelly, no relation, would later say on the stand: "We did not ask for
blankets or feeding bottles. We asked for guns - and no one from Taoiseach
Lynch down denied our request or told us that this was contrary to
At the very least, an ambiguous environment was created, which encouraged
the actors, who were caught up in the volatility of the times, to believe
that they were executing government policy. An elusive chain of executive
authority, if not deliberately created, was conveniently allowed develop so
that those at the very senior level of government could have resort to
plausible deniability, in the event of exposure. Potential political rivals
and unwitting servants of the State would be the scapegoats. This was not
Taoiseach Jack Lynch’s finest hour.
It was into this cauldron that Captain Kelly was thrust. As a military
intelligence officer, with relatives in the northern statelet, he was
dispatched north of the border, to liaise with the nationalist citizen
defence committees and to gather intelligence.
Kelly served as a conduit between the beleaguered nationalist population and
the Dublin cabinet subcommittee chaired by Charles Haughey, and comprising
Kevin Boland, Neil Blaney, and Jim Gibbons, which had the brief of
ameliorating the distress of northern nationalists. Certainly, Captain Kelly
had every reason to believe that he was operating with the full approval of
his political superior, Minister for Defence Jim Gibbons.
In early 1970, according to the official version of events, the Fine Gael
leader, Liam Cosgrave, divulged to an apparently unsuspecting Taoiseach Jack
Lynch, a plot by some government ministers to import arms, through Dublin
Airport, for distribution north of the border. Lynch was allegedly horrified
at the plot, which had apparently evolved towards fruition under the
unsuspecting nose of Micheal O Morain, the minister for Justice.
Lynch acted decisively. O Morain was replaced as Justice minister by the
young, ambitious Dessie O’Malley, who zealously effected a damage control
exercise. Charles Haughey, his brother Jock Haughey, Neil Blaney, IRA leader
John Kelly, Captain Kelly and Belgian businessman Albert Luyx were arrested
and charged with an attempt to illegally import arms. The charges against
Blaney were dismissed at a preliminary hearing. The other five were
acquitted at trial.
O’ Malley would be ruthlessly Machiavellian in his endeavor to circle the
wagons around the taoiseach. His name still conjures up bitterness for his
callous disregard for the plight of northern nationalists, and his suspected
chicanery in manufacturing a protective cover up for Lynch. As recent as
2001, indications emerged that evidence crucial to the prosecution in the
Arms Trial, which had been in O’Malley’s nominal control, had been “edited",
so as to further distance Gibbons, and thus Lynch, from the alleged plot.
As the orator at Jack Lynch’s funeral, in a Freudian slip, O’Malley would
once again display his constricted, barren “Free State” mentality. His smug
assertion that Lynch had saved the "State" from a bloody conflict, begs the
question from those who recognize a de jure, though de facto unrealized, 32
county state, as to how one would describe the strife, which has raged in
the northeastern part of the island over the last 30 years.
Kevin Boland resigned his ministerial portfolio and Dail seat, in principled
protest. Blaney was fired from the cabinet. He resigned from the Fianna Fail
Party but remained on in the Dail as a self described "Independent Fianna
Fail" T.D., consistently been re elected by high margins. He would
continually pronounce over the subsequent years: "I didn't leave Fianna
Fail. Fianna Fail left me". Charlie Haughey was also fired from the cabinet.
He remained in Fianna Fail and, like Blaney, continued to be reelected to
the Dail by a loyal constituency. Exiled to the backbenches, he doggedly
laid the foundation for his vengeance against Lynch and O'Malley, and his
ultimate control of the party.
The most tragic figure to emerge from the Arms Trial was Captain Kelly. His
subsequent life betrayed the frustration of an anxious, unsettled soul.
Resigning his army commission, he became obsessed with restoring his
reputation. He tried his hand at various professions, one time publican and
one time newspaper publisher. He tried emigration to Australia for a short
period. The captain became a member of Kevin Boland's fledgling Aontacht
Eireann party. However, he later rejoined Fianna Fail, becoming a member of
its national executive. He eventually broke with the party over its
capitulation on extradition.
In death, Captain Kelly achieved what had eluded him in life, the
exoneration of the establishment. In the immediate hours after he passed,
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern described him “as a dedicated officer who honourably
served the interests of the country… at all times during those difficult
days… Captain Kelly acted on what he believed were the proper orders of his
The Southern State fired no volley over the grave of the captain. To
paraphrase Michael Collins, those shots would have been the only words
necessary over the grave of a dead Fenian. In these politically correct
times, such an act, of course, would have been unacceptable to the
Europhillic sophisticates of Dublin 4. Devoid of any sense of nationhood,
they could never comprehend the patriotism of "The Captain" from Baileboro.
Here in Irish America, the last redoubt of Irish nationalism, Captain Kelly
has not been forgotten. On Saturday May 29th, at 1.p.m., a committee of
veteran Irish activists under the leadership of Ken Tierney and Tommy
Enright unveiled a memorial to him at the Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural
and Sports Center State in East Durham, New York. In attendance were Captain
Kelly’s widow, Mrs. Sheila Kelly and other family members.
An international lobbying effort, the “Captain Kelly Justice Campaign” is
underway to have the Irish Government officially acknowledge that Kelly was
innocent of all charges and that he was at all times acting faithfully in
accordance with his oath of allegiance to the Irish State. In the United
States, veteran activists Ken Tierney, Tommy Enright, Bob Loughman, and
Pearse O’Doherty, among others, are spearheading the effort. One can receive
more information and sign the international petition by logging on to the