Sir, – I am a great admirer of Frank McNally’s column, but family honour compels me to point out that he has got the wrong man when he identified the Seamus O’Kelly in the UCD graduation photograph of 1902 as the writer of short stories, plays and novels who died young (“A Group Portrait with the Artist – Frank McNally on the story behind (and in front of) James Joyce’s graduation picture”, An Irishman’s Diary, October 26th). That writer spelled his name with two “u”s (“Seumus”). Richard Ellman in his biography of James Joyce made the same mistake.
In fact, the photograph shows my grandfather, Séamus Ó Ceallaigh (as he preferred to be known), a passionate nationalist and Irish speaker, a published scholar of early Irish history, and an obstetrician and gynaecologist with a private practice who became Assistant Master at the Coombe and a lecturer at UCD. He appears in another published photograph as a young man, this time with his fellow student George Clancy together with their mentor, the great Celtic scholar, Father Edmond Hogan SJ. His history is as interesting as that of his namesake.
He was the son of a publican in the Falls Road with family roots in Draperstown, Co Derry. Like Joyce (whom he disliked for his supposed “profligacy” and habit of creating recognisable portraits in his books of people who had befriended and helped him), he too was educated at Clongowes and UCD. But unlike Joyce, my grandfather was deeply involved in the Gaelic League, and so close an associate of the leaders of the 1916 rebellion that Patrick Pearse, for whom he acted as school doctor at St Enda’s, warned him that a Rising was imminent. He was also such a good friend of his fellow Ulsterman and early Irish historian Eoin MacNeill, that as leader of the Volunteers MacNeill held the meeting to countermand the 1916 rebellion in his house at 53 Rathgar Road (for my grandfather’s account of this event see the Bureau of Military History, WS0471). Later, during the Civil War he and MacNeill, who had got wind of the plan to blow up the Public Records Office, went together to the Four Courts in a vain attempt to persuade Rory O’Connor to spare the building and its precious documents. I refer those who would like to know more about his life to my introduction to his book, Gleanings from Ulster History (Ballinascreen Historical Society, Draperstown, Co Derry, 1994).
Frank, please carry on with the good work; even Homer nods. – Yours, etc,
Dr NIAMH WHITFIELD,
(née Niamh Ní Cheallaigh),