Wednesday 24 April 2019

'Treasure trove' reveals life of mystery heiress

Woman gave €30m to five Irish charities

A young Elizabeth O’Kelly
A young 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 Ms O'Kelly donated €30m to the 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.

Archivist Roisín Berry confirmed that the executors of Ms O'Kelly's estate donated her family archive to Maynooth University Library in September.

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

The archive contains diaries, photos, letters, travel journals, sketch books, legal documents, postcards and financial material. The items include a wedding day photo of 21-year-old Elizabeth 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.

Elizabeth O’Kelly on her wedding day in 1945 aged 21
Elizabeth O’Kelly on her wedding day in 1945 aged 21

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

"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.

"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 Ms O'Kelly "experienced a great deal of tragedy in her early life".

A sketch of young Elizabeth by her mother Alice Marie Sykes
A sketch of young Elizabeth by her mother Alice Marie Sykes

She was born in Tours, France, in 1924. Her father died before she was born, at the age of 59, and Elizabeth's mother died aged 39 when Elizabeth was just two.

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.

"One of the most moving items in the Elizabeth O'Kelly Archive is a sketch book of drawings executed by her mother Alice in the 1920s, just a short time before her death.

Elizabeth O'Kelly
Elizabeth O'Kelly

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

After her mother's death, Elizabeth's paternal aunt Annette Kathleen Sykes was awarded guardianship and the young girl moved from France to her aunt's residence at 39 Lower Leeson Street in Dublin.

Her upbringing was steeped in French culture and she experienced a simple and frugal life in the care of her aunt.

In 1944, however, tragedy was to strike again with her aunt's death.

Ms O'Kelly inherited her estate and a year later 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, Co Kildare.

Ms Berry said that Ms O'Kelly had a great interest in history and architecture, and became actively involved in the Kildare Archaeological Society during her time in Co Kildare.

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

Ms O'Kelly 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, Co Kildare, later that year. This remained her principal residence until 1980 when she purchased a house at Pilhac, Beaulieu sur Dordogne, France.

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

"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," Ms Berry said.

Irish Independent

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