Thursday 19 September 2019

Fascinating life of 'deeply private' Elizabeth O'Kelly who donated €30m fortune to charity revealed in archives

Elizabeth O'Kelly
Elizabeth O'Kelly

Gordon Deegan

A family archive on Elizabeth O’Kelly, who donated her €30m fortune to five Irish charities, has been described as a ‘treasure trove’ of information on the "fascinating and deeply private woman".

Earlier this month it emerged that Elizabeth O’Kelly donated her €30m fortune to the five Irish charities - the Irish Cancer Society (ICS), the Irish Heart Foundation, the Irish Society for Autism, the RNLI and the Irish Kidney Association (IKA).

Ms O’Kelly died in her 93rd year in December 2016 and Archivist at Maynooth University Library, Roisín Berry confirmed on Monday that the executors of Ms O’Kelly’s estate donated Ms O’Kelly’s family archive to the university library in September.

Ms Berry described Ms O’Kelly as "a fascinating and deeply private woman" and she said that the archive will provide researchers with "a treasure trove" for researchers.

The archive across eight boxes contains diaries, photos, letters, travel journals, sketch-books, legal documents, postcards and financial material.

The material includes a wedding day photo of 21-year-old Elizabeth O'Kelly and her husband, Major John William O'Kelly who was 41 years her senior and a heartrending sketch of Elizabeth when she was a toddler by her mother, Alice Marie Sykes.

Photograph of Elizabeth with a lion cub, c. 1930s (Photo: Maynooth University Library)
Photograph of Elizabeth with a lion cub, c. 1930s (Photo: Maynooth University Library)

Ms Berry said that the donation "has provided us with the opportunity to learn more about the fascinating life of this enigmatic woman".

Ms Berry said: "Elizabeth valued her privacy but the archive allows us to get a glimpse of some of the people and places that meant something to her."

She said: "What is fascinating about Elizabeth is her courage, to live her life according to her own rules, and her extraordinary generosity in her dealings with others."

Ms Berry said: "Elizabeth was a deeply private woman who avoided the limelight at all costs. She captured the imagination of Irish people because of her incredibly generous actions but also because of this desire to remain hidden and unknown."

Elizabeth and her husband on their wedding day, 1945 (Photo: Maynooth University Library)
Elizabeth and her husband on their wedding day, 1945 (Photo: Maynooth University Library)

She added: "The Archive will shed new light on this fascinating woman, her early tragic life and the loved ones that she lost, and how this shaped her into the exceptionally thoughtful woman that she became.

"Her great love of family, friends and home shine through in each document, as does her respect for the past and preserving her family heritage.

"The Elizabeth O’Kelly Archive captures the very essence of this enigmatic figure."

Ms Berry said that Elizabeth "experienced a great deal of tragedy in her early life".

Sketch of Elizabeth as a young girl by her mother, Alice Marie Sykes, c. 1925 (Photo: Maynooth University Library)
Sketch of Elizabeth as a young girl by her mother, Alice Marie Sykes, c. 1925 (Photo: Maynooth University Library)

Elizabeth was born in Tours, France 1924 and her father, Otway Richard Sykes died the previous year on June 24th 1923 aged 59 and Elizabeth’s mother, Alice Marie died on March 4th 1926 aged 39 when Elizabeth was in her second year.

Ms Berry reveals that the Sykes couple had already endured tragedy when they lost their son, Richard at the age of four months in March 1923.

Ms Berry has posted a blog on the archive at MU Library Treasures blog containing photos of Elizabeth as a young girl and on her wedding day with her husband Major John William O'Kelly.

Ms Berry said: "One of the most moving items in the Elizabeth O’Kelly Archive is a sketchbook of drawings executed by her mother Alice in the 1920s, just a short time before her death."

She said: "Amongst these sketches is a very poignant pencil drawing of Elizabeth’s infant brother Richard just weeks before he died in March 1923."

Ms Berry said that after her mother's death, Elizabeth’s paternal aunt Annette Kathleen Sykes, was awarded guardianship of Elizabeth and the young girl moved from France to her aunt’s residence at 39 Lower Leeson Street in Dublin, Ireland.

She said that Elizabeth’s upbringing was steeped in French culture and she experienced a simple and frugal life in the care of her aunt.

Ms Berry said that in 1944, however, tragedy was to strike again with her aunt’s death.

Elizabeth inherited her estate, and a year later, aged 21 years, she married Major John O’Kelly, who was 41 years her senior.

Passionate about hunting and horses, Major O’Kelly was a qualified veterinary surgeon. He joined the Royal Army Veterinary Corps in 1907, and was awarded an OBE for his service during WWI.

After their wedding, the couple moved to Ballygoran Park in Maynooth, County Kildare. Ms Berry said that Elizabeth had a great interest in history and architecture, and became actively involved in the Kildare Archaeological Society during her time in County Kildare.

In March 1962, Major O’Kelly died aged 79 and left his estate to his wife Elizabeth and her brother-in-law Charles.

Elizabeth sold the marital home, Ballygoran Park in 1964 and moved to Buenos Aires in Argentina and then Uganda for a time.

She returned to Irish soil in 1966, and bought a house at Knockaulin in Leixlip, County Kildare, later that year. This remained her principal residence until 1980 when she purchased a house at Pilhac, Beaulieu sur Dordogne, France.

Elizabeth moved between her Irish and French properties throughout the years that followed before purchasing a home at Market Square in Stradbally, County Laois in 1997 where she remained until her death in 2016.

In her blogpost, Ms Berry said that despite her wealth, "Elizabeth lived a simple and humble life devoted to the church and to helping others. Her only indulgence was a great love of travel which she enjoyed throughout her life".

She said: "The family archive had a very special meaning to Elizabeth throughout her life, and she kept it with her, carefully organised, wherever she lived.

"The care and respect that she showed for her documentary heritage will continue now that it has been deposited in Maynooth University Library, and this important collection will be safeguarded for generations to come."

Ms Berry explained that the Archive has only recently been acquired and as a result it is not currently open to the public.

However, it will be fully catalogued at a later date and will form the basis for future outreach projects.

Online Editors

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News