Medical Student to Restless Soldier - Capt. Michael Joseph Kelly of Drumanangle, Moygownagh.

Capt. Michael Joseph Kelly, Commanding Officer 3rd Battalion, North Mayo IRA, 1921-3.

Capt. Michael Joseph Kelly, Commanding Officer 3rd Battalion, North Mayo IRA, 1921-3.

Last Tuesday, the memorial to a forgotten soldier of the 1916 Rising, Michael Joseph Kelly, was officially commemorated at Drumanangle, Moygownagh - the townland of his birth. 

He was born on 4th August 1896 in Druminangle, Moygownagh, the eldest child of Hugh Kelly and Bridget Quinn. His grandfather Michael Kelly was a respected poor Law Guardian for the area and his father Hugh followed in his footsteps, becoming a Home-Rule party District Councillor in 1898. The family were prosperous farmers, and both grandfather and father had ambitions for young Michael Joseph and his siblings.

He was taught by his uncle Master John Browne in Carn National School, and was subsequently educated in St. Murdeach's College, Ballina, with his brother Thomas. While his younger brother went on to become a priest, Michael Joseph was entered into the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin in early 1916 to sit their entrance exams. On Easter Saturday his name appeared with the select few who would pass the exams, and be called on to pass into the hallowed halls of the RCSI. A successful career as a doctor or surgeon beckoned for the bright 20 year old. However, that week saw the eruption of the Easter Rising, and unknown to his family and parishioners at home the young medical student joined the rebels.

Michael Joseph survived to be interned in England for a month and was then released into his father's care, who regarded the rebels as traitors to his own Home Rule cause. The chastened rebel was sent back to his studies in the RCSI, but he quit a year later and walked into a British Army Recruitment office. He went on to fight in France and was commended to receive two medals for his service in his majesty's forces during the Great War.

On returning before Christmas 1919 to Moygownagh, he soon joined the local Volunteers fighting against the RIC and Black & Tans - men who fought under the very flag he had saluted during World War I. He rose through the ranks and would become Captain Michael Joseph Kelly, the commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion of the North Mayo Brigade (see photo). The soft night air of Druminangle ringing out with the crack and shouts of Captain Kelly drilling the local volunteers. His men would become the part of the backbone of resistance to British rule in Ireland and succeed in creating a separate Republic of courts, taxation, laws, and police, – effectively driving the British to seek a Truce.

In 1922 Capt. Kelly with most of the Mayo Volunteers opposed the Treaty and fought with Michael Kilroy's IRA against the Free State forces, evading arrest but winning the respect of even his enemies for his ability and command of men. Kelly was finally captured with most of the local IRA officers during an attempt to destroy Belvin Bridge, in February 1923. He escaped from the Workhouse Prison in Ballina to go on the run and as the Civil War petered out, he was involved in reviving the local Sinn Fein party. However, along with many of his comrades, he became disillusioned with this new Ireland and exiled himself to the USA in 1925, vowing never to return. 

Michael Joseph with his siblings Bridget, Sadie and Hugh would join their brother Thomas, who was now an ordained priest in Spokane, Washington. However tragedy followed the Kelly family. Fr. Tom died in 1932, followed by sister Bridget and then brother James - a newly promoted Garda who died suddenly in 1935 in Westport. While Hugh returned to Ireland, their other married sister Sadie died in March 1938 after a long illness, leaving a young family. Michael Joseph stayed on their farm in Canton, South Dakota, to help his brother-in-law Elmer, work the land and raise their two kids. He would not return for his heartbroken father's funeral later that year in July 1938.

Meanwhile back in Druminangle, the two surviving Kelly children would have family of their own. The youngest Gertie married Peter Hegarty from Crossmolina in 1940, having their marriage breakfast in the new-slated house, which may yet be seen on the hill within sight of the erected memorial. Hugh junior married Evelyn Loughney of Killala and later sold the Kelly farm, moving to Ballysadare in Sligo - so ending the line of grandfather Michael Kelly in Druminangle. Bereaved Michael Joseph cut himself off from his family and moved on to California where he eventually worked on a ranch at the tiny rural settlement of Winters. It was this address he used when joining up to the US army in the months after Pearl Harbour in 1942, under the compulsory 'Old Man's Draft'. 

Michael Joseph Kelly circa 1966. 

Michael Joseph Kelly circa 1966. 

This was only a reserve force, but would be the fifth army that Michael Joseph Kelly would enlist in over his lifetime.

In later life, his health deteriorated and unable to work as a manual labourer he found himself in US Army accommodation for destitute veterans in Prineville, Oregon (see photo). A lifetime of missed potential and possibilities lay behind him and haunted him with regret and guilt. His only link to his family being the occasional letter he would write to Hugh in Ireland. In one such letter after excusing his avoidance of relatives who came to visit him, he stated, 'Well Hugh, this place seems empty & lonely to me since poor Sadie left us. Often & often I have wished that it were me who went instead of her […] but I suppose the good die young.'

It was a chance meeting of Hugh and cousin Fr. Tony Hannick, who was passing Hugh's shop in Ballysadare that led to Michael Joseph being reunited with his family. Fr. Hannick was then working in Yakima diocese, Washington and sought out the estranged Captain Kelly - eventually locating him in nearby Oregon. Shocked by his conditions and ill health, he ensured Michael Joseph's medical and living costs were paid and dressed him up in new clothes. His conversation with Michael Joseph was likely the last the Drumanangle man had with family, as it was not long after this visit, that Fr. Hannick was summoned for the funeral of Michael Joseph in August 1966 and burial in nearby Redmond, sending back to Ireland the cross from the coffin of their long lost brother and uncle.

So ended a life of a restless soul, of idealism, of potential and possibility, of love of battle and regret of loss, of a man who had forgotten how much he was loved and respected by his family, friends and comrades, now commemorated in the new memorial stone by the river in his beloved Druminangle. 

Memorial to Captain Michael Joseph Kelly, Drumanangle, Moygownagh in Mayo, Ireland. 

Memorial to Captain Michael Joseph Kelly, Drumanangle, Moygownagh in Mayo, Ireland. 

Extracted from Captain Michael Joseph Kelly to be published in February 2017 by Liam Alex Heffron. For more info and to order the book in advance visit