A chancer in the chancery? – An Irishman’s Diary about the diplomat and wine merchant Gerald O’Kelly de Gallagh

Gerald O’Kelly and his mother, courtesy of Brendan O’Kelly, from “No Way Out: The Irish in Wartime France 1939-1945”, by Isidore Ryan

Gerald O’Kelly and his mother, courtesy of Brendan O’Kelly, from “No Way Out: The Irish in Wartime France 1939-1945”, by Isidore Ryan

 

When Place Vendôme last featured in an Irish political controversy, the problem was shirts: the luxury Charvet shirts that Charles J Haughey was once in the habit of buying there, a symptom of his extravagant and mysteriously funded lifestyle. 

But 60 years earlier, the same chic corner of Paris had also been the scene of a diplomatic incident involving Irish representatives abroad. In that case, the problem was hats – of the metaphorical kind, anyway – and the complications that arise when you wear more than one.

The man at the centre of the affair was a now-forgotten diplomat called Gerald O’Kelly.

Or Count Gerald O’Kelly de Gallagh et de Tycooly, to give him the full title he had inherited from an 18th-century ancestor who served the Hapsburg Empire.

For a time during the early years of the Free State, O’Kelly performed the role of Ireland’s first accredited envoy in France. But by the start of the second World War, he had been downgraded to a more shadowy status, operating an unofficial Irish chancery in Paris.  

His day job, by contrast, involved running an upmarket wine business on the aforementioned Parisian square.

And for a time he carried on both roles from the same address, with his regular customers (for the wine in this case) including a certain Hermann Göring, who lived just opposite, in the Ritz Hotel.

O’Kelly’s story is one of the more entertaining in a new book called No Way Out: The Irish in Wartime France, by Isadore Ryan. As the author suggests, he was in some ways a hero of his country’s early attempts to create a presence on the world stage: a man who, to paraphrase the later visitor to Place Vendôme, did the State some service.  

But he was also, in Ryan’s telling word, “colourful”, which is not always a quality valued among government employees.

Born in Tipperary, to a mother from Toulouse, O’Kelly went to school in a pre-independence Clongowes College.  

Clongowes was not a noted stronghold of nationalism, never mind republicanism, then. It was a place, for example, where in words of one former pupil, Irish was disdained as “the language of the kitchen”.  

But after general abstention from the Easter Rising, its graduates came into their own a few years later when the newly independent country needed well-connected sophisticates to establish a diplomatic corps.  

O’Kelly was part of a “Clongowes Mafia” that dominated the Free State’s early foreign missions. And although sometimes seen as too fond of socialising with British diplomats, he proved himself Ireland’s man-in-the-gap more than once.

At a 1926 athletics meeting in Brussels, for example, he was “aghast to see the Union Jack raised and hear ‘God Save the King’ ring out just as the Irish team entered the stadium”. After urgent representations, the hosts found a Tricolour instead.  

Their band might even have improvised Amhrán na bhFiann if the Clongowes man had been able to hum it, which he couldn’t. So instead, as Ryan writes, the Irish athletes paraded “to the tune of the Norwegian national anthem”.

Alas, despite such heroics, O’Kelly fell from favour when Fianna Fáil came to power. In 1935, he was “unceremoniously removed” from his French plenipotentiary job. Soon afterwards, he founded the wine business, aiming for a high-society clientele, especially in the UK, from a suitably prestigious address.  It was in this capacity that, when Paris fell to the Germans in 1940, with the French government and most of the embassies relocating to Vichy, O’Kelly made his diplomatic comeback.

For a year, his unofficial chancery made him a busy man, giving assistance to the Irish still in Paris and communicating (in French, via unsealed letters, as required by the censors) with the official legation in Vichy.  

In the meantime, his Vendôme Wines business was busy too. And although it purported to be still aimed mainly at the British market, in practice some 80 per cent of the wine went to the occupiers, among whom Göring was a top customer.

The chancery moved addresses in March 1941 and closed later that summer. Vendôme Wines carried on, however. It was still in business when, 73 years ago this weekend, Ernest Hemingway (by his own account) liberated the nearby Ritz.  

In later years, O’Kelly resumed a diplomatic career of sorts, in Portugal. But he never quite lived down that wartime accommodation with the Nazis, despite his claims that had used the wine business to gather information for the Allies and that, in his own words, he had never sold “the good stuff” to the Germans.

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