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M J Kelly, Newcastle’s Fenian school teacher.

In February 1869, police in Liverpool arrested Michael James Kelly, a young Irish picture dealer and stationer, at his shop in Tithebarn Street for ‘seditiously exposing to view and selling a certain wicked, malicious, and seditious print against our Lady the Queen and Government’.[1] This ‘seditious print’, a chromo-lithograph imported from New York, was entitled ‘The Fenian Volunteer’ and showed a Fenian soldier in uniform, brandishing a sword and carrying a green flag bearing ‘the Irish harp emblazoned in gold’. Beneath his feet, trampled in the dust, lay the Union flag.

At his initial trial before the Police Court, Kelly was described as ‘an irreproachable character, a good loyal subject against whom nothing can be said’, and who also worked to support his mother and sisters as an assistant master at Liverpool’s Catholic Institute. Granted bail, Kelly was tried at the Assizes a few weeks later, where he pleaded guilty. Portrayed by his defence counsel as being entirely ‘free from Fenian proclivities’ and having no desire to rekindle ‘this unhappy and miserable Fenian excitement which existed during the last few years’, Kelly was bound over and discharged.[2]

Born in Ireland in 1844, Michael James Kelly left Liverpool after his trial and moved to Newcastle upon Tyne and in April 1871 was teaching in Newcastle’s Catholic Collegiate School.[3] This school in Blackett Street had only been opened in September 1870 by the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle as the first secondary school for senior Catholic pupils in the diocese. Its first headmaster, Mr Lafferty, was formerly at Liverpool’s Catholic Institute and Kelly probably moved to Newcastle with him.[4]

After Lafferty’s sudden death during the 1871 summer holidays, Michael Kelly was appointed principal and moved the school to larger premises at 64 Westmorland Road.[5] Ex-pupils remembered their headmaster with ‘affection and respect’[6] and in 1878, at a public meeting in Newcastle’s Irish Literary Institute, Kelly was presented with a testimonial ‘in recognition of his efforts to provide facilities for the higher education of Catholic children in the North of England’.[7] He was also given a purse of one hundred and fifty sovereigns. This, however, did not prevent his being declared bankrupt in 1880 and the school closed.[8]

In Newcastle, whilst still a teacher, Kelly became involved in constitutional Irish nationalist politics. He attended the annual conference in 1874 in Manchester of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain;[9] supported a resolution in favour of freeing all Irish political prisoners at a meeting in Newcastle’s town hall in 1877 at which Charles Stewart Parnell spoke;[10] and chaired meetings and lectured at the Irish Literary Institute in Clayton Street, Newcastle.[11]

Following his bankruptcy, however, Michael Kelly, perhaps no longer restrained by his responsibilities to the diocese, began to express more advanced nationalist views and became active within the Land League in the North East of England. In April 1881, at an anti-Coercion rally on Town Moor, Kelly spoke in support of a motion attacking coercion in Ireland: ‘we have no faith in the British Government legislating for Ireland contrary to the wishes of her people’.[12]

In December 1881, Michael James Kelly was arrested under the Coercion Act at Warrenpoint, County Down, as an organiser for the Land League ‘on a charge of inciting to pay no rent’.[13] This arrest was challenged. Kelly, it was asserted, was entirely innocent. He had been arrested whilst visiting a relative ‘under a warrant bearing another man’s name’ and had been ‘locked up, no appeal had been allowed, no remonstrance permitted’.[14] Kelly’s arrest too was questioned in parliament by Irish MPs John Barry and John Redmond.[15]

After four months in Armagh gaol, Michael Kelly, ‘a gentleman of the highest honour and incapable of committing a crime’, was released ‘unconditionally’.[16] The following month, Joseph Cowen, MP for Newcastle, raised Kelly’s arrest in parliament, asking ‘ardent Liberal Coercionists… how they would like to have been lodged in prison and kept there four or five months by mistake?’[17]

Michael Kelly, however, may not have been entirely innocent. In January 1889, during the Special Commission enquiring into the charges made by The Times against Parnell, a clerk who had worked at the Land League’s headquarters in Dublin testified:[18]

‘I knew a man named Michael J. Kelly. He lodged with me in Dublin for some time. He came from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He came to the Land League office. I saw him receive money. He was paid as a weekly clerk in the office and afterwards as an organizer of the Land League in the country.’

After his release, Kelly spent a few weeks in Liverpool speaking at Land League meetings in Liverpool and Manchester,[19] before he returned to the North East, where newspapers reported this ‘ex-suspect’ speaking at Land League meetings in Newcastle, Hartlepool, Darlington, Tow Law, and Middlesbrough.[20] No matter what Michael Kelly had been doing in Ireland in 1881, after his release from prison he was clearly working as a Land League organiser in the North East of England.

On 6 May 1882, the newly-arrived Chief Secretary of Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his under-secretary, Thomas Burke, were assassinated in Phoenix Park, Dublin. Police investigations eventually uncovered a previously unknown nationalist group, the Irish National Invincibles.[21] Informers and further investigations revealed that the Invincibles had been raised by Fenians active in the Land League in England, including Frank Byrne, the League’s secretary, and John Walsh of Middlesbrough. Before they could be arrested, however, Byrne and Walsh fled to France. Joining them there was Michael James Kelly.

On 20 March 1883, the Freeman’s Journal reported an interview with Kelly in Paris.[22] Described as ‘a fellow-worker and intimate associate’ of Byrne and Walsh and the Land League’s ‘chief organiser’ in Newcastle upon Tyne, Kelly ‘asserted emphatically that he had no knowledge of, much less complicity in, the Phoenix Park assassinations’, and denied that the Land League had any involvement in the killings. Kelly also explained that he had organised Land League branches in the North of England and in thirty of Ireland’s counties. When asked by the reporter about a recent ‘dynamite outrage’ in London, he answered:

‘Having sown the wind, the British authorities may now expect to reap the whirlwind’.

Shortly after this interview, Kelly sailed for the United States of America.[23] There he was joined by his wife and children.[24]

At his trial in Liverpool in 1869, Michael James Kelly had been described by his defence counsel as being ‘free from Fenian proclivities’.[25] His subsequent nationalist activities in England and Ireland, however, suggest that he was ‘an ardent Fenian’, as he was described by one of his ex-pupils from the Collegiate School in Newcastle.[26]

As for the ‘seditious print’ bought by the police from Michael Kelly’s shop in Liverpool in 1869, this is now to be found in the collection of The National Archives at Kew.[27]


Note: Unless otherwise noted, all newspapers have been accessed from the British Newspaper Archive www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

Note: Middlesbrough’s John Walsh, iron worker and Fenian, will feature in a future blog.


[1] Liverpool Mercury, 13 March 1869.

[2] Liverpool Mercury, 26 March 1869.

[3] The National Archives, 1871 England Census, Class RG10, Piece 5088, Folio 36, Page 12, ancestry.co.uk, accessed November 2020. M J Kelly returned to Liverpool in July 1871 to marry Scottish-born Mary Anne Daniel in St Francis Xavier’s church. Liverpool Mercury, 3 August 1871.

[4] Father C Hart, The Early Story of St. Cuthbert’s Grammar School Newcastle-on-Tyne, (London 1941), pp. 2-3. Newspaper advertisements, however, for the new ’Catholic Collegiate School’ in Newcastle name ‘J. B. Lavery (of London)’ as the headmaster. Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 9 August 1870.

[5] Hart, Early Story, p. 3.

[6] Ibid, p. 2.

[7] Northern Evening Mail, 7 November 1878.

[8] Shields Daily News, 21 October 1880.

[9] Freeman’s Journal, 18 June 1874.

[10] Newcastle Weekly Courant, 7 September 1877.

[11] The Nation, 30 January 1875 & 12 October 1878.

[12] Shields Daily Gazette and Shipping Telegraph, 18 April 1881.

[13] The Nation, 24 December 1881.

[14] St. James’s Gazette, 2 March 1882.

[15] Belfast News-Letter, 2 March 1882; Freeman’s Journal, 4 March 1882.

[16] Belfast Morning News, 3 April 1882.

[17] Hansard, HC Deb, 23 May 1882, vol.269, cc. 1448-506. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1882/may/23/committee-first-night

[18] The Special Commission Act, 1888. Reprinted from The Times, (London, 1890), vol.1, p. 771.

Examination of Patrick J Farragher, 22 January 1889.

[19] United Ireland, 15 & 22 April 1882.

[20] United Ireland, 27 May & 28 October 1882; Northern Evening Mail, 12 October 1882; The Nation, 18 November 1882; North-Eastern Daily Gazette, 3 January 1883.

[21] Tom Corfe, The Phoenix Park Murders (London, 1968); Shane Kenna, The Invincibles: The Phoenix Park Assassinations (Dublin, 2019).

[22] Freeman’s Journal, 20 March 1883.

[23] Morpeth Herald, 24 March 1883.

[24] Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900, Chicago Ward 34, Cook, Illinois, p.7, Enumeration District 1109, FHL microfilm 1240290, ancestry.co.uk, accessed November 2020.

[25] Liverpool Mercury, 26 March 1869.

[26] Hart, Early Story, p. 2.

[27] The National Archives, TS 25/1603, ‘The Fenian Volunteer’: Seditious print, purchased in Liverpool. https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C3146434

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