O’Kelly’s story is largely entangled with that of his older brother, the intrepid soldier, revolutionary, journalist and politician James J. O’Kelly (of whom more below). Two other O’Kelly brothers were sculptors, and all were ardent revolutionaries. That the O’Kelly family was steeped in Irish nationalism can be gained from the fact that when Aloysius first came to Paris in 1874 to study art, one of the first people he arranged to meet was the Fenian chief, James Stephens.
In spite of being a foreigner, O’Kelly somehow was granted admission to the state-backed Ecole des Beaux-Arts (14, rue Bonaparte, 6th arrondissement), while he also took courses at the studio of Léon Bonnat at 30, avenue de Clichy (18th arrondissement, building no longer exists), where Toulouse-Lautrec was to study a couple of years later.
In 1884, O'Kelly managed to have one of his paintings, Messe dans une chaumière de Connemara, accepted at the Salon, a showcase for official French art. The painting would have been of considerable interest to the Paris Irish, according to Niamh O'Sullivan, because it was "the first painting of an Irish subject ever shown in that all-important venue." Interestingly, the painting was submitted on Aloysius’ behalf by the rabid communard veteran, Henri Rochefort, who was a friend and supporter of James O’Kelly and other Irish revolutionaries. Messe dans une chaumière disappeared frolm public view for over 100 years until it was 'rediscovered' up in a priest's house in Edinburgh in 2000.
Perhaps Aloysius O’Kelly’s slippery identity stemmed from his close ties to his brother, a member of the supreme council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). For as interesting as the case of Aloysius O’Kelly is, that of James J. O’Kelly (Dublin, 1845—London, 1916) is doubly so. James’ childhood friend John Devoy devotes an entire chapter to the man in his memoirs, while Niamh O'Sullivan writes that his life "reads like a Boy's Own adventure story”.
When his father died in 1861, James moved to London to train as a sculptor in his uncle’s studio. In 1863, he decamped to Paris, where he studied law for a short time before joining the Foreign Legion, thus following in the footsteps of his friend John Devoy, who had enrolled (briefly) two years earlier. After a period in Algeria, O’Kelly fought in Napoleon III’s disastrous expedition to install the Austrian prince Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico. O’Kelly deserted and, despite being captured by Mexican guerrillas, made it to the United States, from where he campaigned against the equally ill-fated 1867 Fenian rebellion. In the late 1860s, O’Kelly was appointed secretary to the ultra-secret Supreme Council of the IRB and became a leading arms agent for the movement in Britain.
O’Kelly was back in Paris by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. He was appointed a colonel in the French army and sent to raise an Irish brigade to fight against the Prussians after the French authorities believed his claims that he had not deserted from the Foreign Legion in Mexico after all but had been captured by guerrillas. However, O’Kelly’s scheme became in some way mixed up with a separate one launched by the inimitable James Dyer MacAdaras who, in the general confusion of war, was auhorised to recruit volunteers to the French cause among the London Irish.
O’Kelly returned to Paris after the war in 1871 “only to find that his pay had already been drawn and spent by MacAdaras”, according to Devoy, and so travelled via London to New York where he quickly found a job writing for the New York Herald. Because of his knowledge of French, he was able to land an exclusive interview with Henri Rochefort, who had escaped from New Caledonia. O'Kelly was caught by the Spaniards but was spared execution because of his American citizenship.
O'Kelly visited Paris frequently during the 1870s and it was there that in 1877 he met Charles Stewart Parnell. Thereafter, O’Kelly, along with his friend John Devoy, acted as a go-between between Irish revolutionaries and constitutional nationalists via the Land League. But journalism and his constant search for what Niamh O’Sullivan describes as "ingenious schemes of foreign complications which would bring about the assured downfall of England" were not the only reasons for O’Kelly’s visits to Paris in the 1870s. For O’Kelly was a bigamist. In New York in 1875, he impregnated a 17-year-old called Edith Bowes, whom he married and then quickly packed off to Paris to stay with his younger brother, Aloysius. However, even before his son was born in Paris, James married his long-standing fiancée in New York. This marriage swiftly collapsed after James' secret was uncovered. According to O’Sullivan, police records also suggest that the Stauss-Kahnesque O'Kelly was subsequently "run out of New York when he seduced the wife of his employer", and he may have had a child by yet a different woman when he was living in France. Edith and her son died within a year of each other in the late 1870s.
In February 1880, James O'Kelly came to Paris along with Michael Davitt and Patrick Egan to expose to the French press the wickedness of British landlordism in Ireland. Thanks to his friendship with Henri Rochefort, editor of L'Intransigeant (which employed the Irish revolutionary Joseph Casey as a typesetter), O’Kelly managed to stir up a lot of interest in the Irish cause and managed to place a number of his brother’s Irish illustrations in magazines such as L’Univers Illustré. A year later, he was again in Paris, this time with Parnell, who accompanied him and Rochefort to dinner at Victor Hugo’s house.
O'Kelly seems to have been disliked and mistrusted by both John O'Leary and James Stephens on the IRB's Supreme Council (even though his sister, Julia, married James Stephens' brother-in-law, Charles Hopper), which may explain why O'Kelly increasingly drifted away from the revolutionary organization over time and became an ardent Parnellite. In his dotage, he supported Britain’s military effort in World War I, something that "utterly disgusted" his old friend John Devoy.
Inscription register for the Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux Arts for Aloysius O’Kelly (1874)
Inscription register for the Académie Julian for Arthur Oakley (1901)
Aloysius O’Kelly—Art, Nation, Empire (2010)
La Justice, March 5, 1883
“From the files of the DIB….Originator of the ‘New Departure’”
History Ireland, volume 16, issue 6, Nov./Dec. 2008
“A Training school for rebels: Fenians in the French Foreign Legion”
History Ireland, volume 16, issue 6, Nov./Dec. 2008
“The mystery of the lost painting”
Irish Times, Nov. 2, 2002
“Aloysius O’Kelly: The Scarlet Pimpernel of Irish painting”
Catherine Marshall in
Irish Arts Review, vol. 27, no. 2; June/August 2010
“Double Identity: Aloysius O’Kelly and Arthur Oakley”
Julian Campbell in
Irish Arts Review Yearbook 2000, vol. 16
“Aloysius O’Kelly in Brittany”
Julian Campbell in
Irish Arts Review Yearbook 1996, vol. 12