Friday 16 November 2018

The heiress who never hesitated to give back her immense wealth

Generous spirit: Elizabeth O’Kelly lived frugally while helping others. Photo: Alf Harvey
Generous spirit: Elizabeth O’Kelly lived frugally while helping others. Photo: Alf Harvey
Elizabeth O’Kelly’s grave at Moyglare near Maynooth. PHOTO: STEVE HUMPHREYS
Fr Sean Kelly. Picture: Alf Harvey
Allison Bray

Allison Bray

She was born into wealth, and amassed a personal fortune of her own through both luck and canny investments.

But never in her 93 years did Elizabeth O'Kelly think she was entitled to a cent of it.

The quiet and unassuming heiress left her entire €30m estate to five charities and those close to her were not too surprised.

"I expected it," said her close friend, Fr Conor Harper SJ, of Clongowes Wood in Naas.

Friends with Ms O'Kelly for more than 30 years, he said she was an intensely private woman who rarely spoke of herself, let alone treated herself to luxuries she could easily afford.

When she was orphaned at the age of two and made a ward of the court in order to protect the family's trust fund, she never felt the family fortune was hers to spend.

"She considered the money to be a trust to be donated to worthy causes," he told the Irish Independent.

While she lived frugally, she was generous with others in every respect of the word, said Fr Conor, who was himself a beneficiary of her estate.

"I think it was the influence of [growing up during] the war years when you could lose everything," he said.

He also described her as a very devout Christian who attended Mass on a daily basis before she became too frail in her later years.

Even when she made a €30m profit from the 2005 sale of the 'Leinster Leader' group of newspapers - of which she was the largest shareholder - she never believed she deserved the windfall, he said.

"She always said the money was from the work of the 'Leinster Leader'," he said.

Former Labour senator John Whelan, who was an editor at the newspaper group when it was sold, said everyone at the newspaper toasted Ms O'Kelly when all 180 staff received a €3,000 Christmas bonus cheque from an "anonymous" source, as they knew it was from her.

"We all toasted her even though we never met her. She was such a generous spirit. She was decent to a fault," he said.

He later learned that she had discreetly enquired how she could thank the entire staff for their efforts and was told she could make a maximum gift donation of €3,000 without the recipient being liable for tax.

Fr Sean Kelly, who was parish priest in Stradbally before his retirement, saw Ms O'Kelly frequently before her death in December 2016 as he would call over to her house to give her communion.

Ms O'Kelly gave him a €12,000 bequest in order for the church to be painted, even though she had been too frail for years to attend Mass there herself.

"There was such a gentleness and friendliness about her," he said. "She was very kind and generous. She was such a lovely elderly person."

The only time any of her many friends heard her complain about anything was when her friend Elizabeth Connelly visited Ms O'Kelly after she moved from Dower House at Emo Park in Co Laois to a house on Market Square in Stradbally.

The house was very close to the site of the Electric Picnic music festival, prompting Ms O'Kelly to decamp to her house in France during the weekend festival.

"She'd go to France because the racket was 'awful'," Ms Connelly said.

Ironically, the last time Ms Connelly saw Ms O'Kelly was when she was invited to attend a picnic at Stradbally, "but it wasn't an electric one," she laughed.

Ms Connelly, who is the past president of the County Kildare Archaeological Society - which received a €10,000 bequest from Ms O'Kelly's estate - credited Ms O'Kelly for supporting her as the first-ever woman to be elected as president in the society's 127-year history.

With a keen interest in archaeology, history and architecture, their friendship evolved over the years since they first met in the early 1990s, she said.

"There was a great level of politeness. She went to so much trouble," she said.

Even though she knew many people of wealth and standing, she never let someone's socio-economic status affect how she viewed them, she added.

"She was friendly with anyone she met. When you went to a lunch or dinner, you never knew you would meet."

Ms O'Kelly lost her husband Major John William O'Kelly in 1962.

Widowed for more than 50 years by the time she passed away, Ms O'Kelly had asked that she be laid to rest alongside his remains in Moyglare Cemetery, Co Kildare.

Major O'Kelly's first wife Mary O'Kelly - who died three years before he married Elizabeth in 1945 - is also laid to rest there.

Irish Independent

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