An Irish Republican Mother, Margaret McGuinness Kelly 4th January 1904 –13th April 1983

My Mother 1960s

(above left my mother sitting and Winnie Carney standing this photo was taken after  my mothers wedding.

This is my late mother, Margaret McGuinness Kelly, born 4th January 1904 to William McGuinness and Mary McClean who both were founding members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in Belfast along with her mother’s (my grandmother) brother Alfie McClean who was to become the General Secretary of the Belfast branch of the union and James Connolly’s election agent  when he stood for election in 1907/1911 in  the dock ward for Belfast corporation. It was at this time that my mother met with Winnie Carney and formed a friendship that was to last a lifetime, Winnie  was an assistant to James Connolly and  was later to become his secretary and accompanied him  in  the GPO during the 1916 rising .

 As time progressed into the 1913 to 1926 period her mother joined Cumman Na mBan and my grandfather William McGuinness was murdered by the RIC as he led a strike by Belfast dockers 1915, my grandmother who rose as far as I know to Officer Commanding Belfast. This brought her into contact with Countess Markievicz, Sir John Lavery, Lady Gregory, and other’s.  It was in these years that my mother was to meet Joe McKelvey around 1918  and they were to become as they say ‘good friends’. Joe was later to become leader of the IRA in Belfast during the war of independence which he survived. After the treaty Joe took the republican side and was later murdered by the Free State forces when he was taken from his cell in Mountjoy Jail and murdered.  They also shot Rory O’Connor, Dick Barton and Liam Mellows as an act of revenge for the attack by republicans on Kevin O’Higgins who was Justice Minister of the Free State, who had a lot of republican blood on his hands. After the civil war and the murder of Joe McKelvey she continued her involvement with Sinn Fein.

In 1926 Eamon de Valera  stood as a Sinn Fein candidate and as the Sinn Fein  party which was banned in Northern Ireland he was arrested charged and sentenced to 3 months in jail. It was my grandmother and mother who were designated to look after Dev while he was in jail i.e. his washing and food requirements.  This was done before the founding of Fianna Fail which was to become the final hammer blow to any chance of getting changes to the treaty. 

It was also in this period that she lost her father  who while leading a strike by low docks workers they were attacked by the RIC  and he was killed, leaving my grandmother with 3 sons William, James and John,plus my mother who was the youngest and was very close to her.

As my mother and grandmother got older and the demise of Sinn Fein took hold and as a small family needed to be reared, my mother made contact with her grandfather McGuinness who lived in Portaferry, Co Down  who in turn introduced her to farmers in the area providing the seed money, enabling herself and her mother set up a small wholesale /retail green grocery business in Belfast Market  (which she and my father continued to operate right up to 1970)  

 Around 1930 she met my father John Kelly. At that time he was working in the Irish News, they got married in 1933.   They went on to have 9 children, whom they educated to the highest standards 2 teaching nuns, 2 engineers, a cost accountant, a solicitor, a nurse, my oldest sister and I both at separate times worked in the business, you can see from this that there was not much left at the end of the week for luxuries but we never went without anything. 

This continued right through my younger years up to 1956 when everything for me and my brothers and sisters  changed.  My oldest sister had emigrated to Canada where her husband  Art Gibson who got a job as a ships engineer working in the Arctic Circle,  My other two sisters had entered into the convent to become nuns which both of them did and became teachers. That left John, Billy, Rita , Jimmy, Oliver  and myself  at home.  But things were to change and change utterly, the hunger for justice,  equality and freedom was once again to raise its head in our house and once again it was to take precedence, once again my mother was to step up to the plate.  

It was a cold December 1956 and our home in Adela Street off the Antrim Road was raided by the B Specials and the RUC, John had been arrested in a place called Dunamanagh between Dungiven and Strabane along with 2 other members of his IRA flying column John Madden from Cork City and David Lewsley from Lurgan Co Armagh. All three were charged with arms offences and membership of the IRA and sentenced to 8 years in prison.

About  two weeks later my other brother Billy was also arrested and interned for 4 years.

This was to be the start of a 8 yr period of providing care to the republican prisoners from the country and the Free State of which there was quite few.  This involved providing them with their fruit parcel every week plus she would have made up a salad every Saturday consisting of either salmon or beef which would have been cooked on the Friday night with the scallions and other greens made ready on the Saturday morning along with a large block of cheese  I don’t know how many it catered for but  she was always assured that it was the highlight of the week for the prisoners. At this time our house was an open door to all relatives who where visiting their sons and brothers and many of those coming from Dublin, Cork, Kerry would have stayed at our home, some of them for a week at a time, all of this was done in my mothers quiet way  and very few outside our home would have known about it

This work continued right up to 1964 when John was released, as i think he and John Madden were the last to be released  

A kind of normal returned our house but that was not to last too long as 1969 bore down on us, once again she had to step up to the plate 

As John was the leader of the Citizens Defence Committees in Belfast our home once again became the nerve centre  with all of the worlds press descending on us  along with the various Fianna Fail politicians right up to Paddy Hillary who was at that time Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Based on the information provided to us at that time we all felt that as the world’s press was watching the British and the Unionist  by exposing the various types of victimisation being imposed on the nationalist community that things were going to change and that Lynch and his government were going to help by providing the guns and training for nationalists to enable us to defend our community from further attacks as the talks process was to take place between the British and the Irish governments which would lead to the end of the Orange state of Northern Ireland  and pave the way to a united Ireland 

While all this was going on my father and mother tried to keep our business on the go but even that was to be destroyed in may 1970 when out of the blue Lynch and his free state Fianna Fail government ordered the arrest of john, Charles Haughey( MINISTER OF FINANCE IN HIS GOVERNMENT) Capt  James Kelly Irish Army intelligence, Neil Blaney also  a minister in his government along with a Irish/Belgian  business man who was a close friend of  Neil Blaneys.  All were charged with trying to import guns and ammunition for the north and brought to trial but found not guilty by a jury of 12 people and all charges dismissed.

The result of this on our family was devastating, our business was destroyed and in November of that year my father was found dead in the yard of our home after he suffered a fatal heart attack which we all felt was brought on by the actions of Jack Lynch and the Free State.  Once again the person she loved was taken from her by the actions of the free state government, first Joe McKelvey and now her husband for whom she bore 9 children

As time  went on and the provisional IRA was formed by John and Billy along with others lots of members of what was to become the IRA were frequent visitors to our home  at which time she would drown them in holy water and the rosary as they left the house it became a standing joke around the place .

Then came internment and the war really got hot.  Oliver (  (a qualified solicitor) was interned and the rest of us were on the run or helping in any way we could but she kept helping out in anyway she could, it was in the blood and her hunger for justice and an end of the orange state was ever strong.

The first attempt on her life was in 1975.  I had just been arrested in her home and was charged, 3 weeks after that while i was on remand a Unionist murder gang supported by the UDR /RUC/ British Army blew up our home in an attempt to murder her.  It failed as they left the front door of the house open and the bomb blew away from her out onto the road instead of into the house but enough damage was done to the house that it had to be knocked down. Luckily my older sister had just returned from the US and had bought a house near by and she was able to quickly get back into another house.

As interment was over and things started to settle down for her and as she was at this time a woman of age she became less involved but then came the hunger strikes. It was at this time that the UVF/British struck again as  she was walking to Mass she stopped to speak to her son my brother Billy as he was manning a hunger strike cadge they pulled up in a motorbike and they where attempting to murder Billy she got in front of them they  shot her 5 times  but she survived for a further 2 years, as one of the bullets they could not remove,  shifted and entered her pancreas which ruptured, she died in the Mater hospital Belfast on the 13rd of April 1983  surrounded by all her children.

Due to her relationship with the Belfast Mater Hospital, the nuns requested that we lay her out in state in the hospital chapel overlooked by the nuns. It was a great honour for our family, and we will always be grateful to the Mercy Order of nuns. For me, a true mother of Ireland — strong, quiet, loyal. No talk, just get on with it; and she did until the day she died.

In conclusion as I reflect on my mother and her life I realise just how lucky I am to be her son and to have inherited her commitment to helping others less well off and to have an inherent love of Ireland and its people .

As I enter my own twilight years  I think of my own mortality , the one thing I know for sure is that when its my time to leave this world it will be her standing at the door as she did when I was a child calling me home 

thank you mother for your guidance and your protection in my life 

Rest in peace your loving son 



2 thoughts on “An Irish Republican Mother, Margaret McGuinness Kelly 4th January 1904 –13th April 1983

  1. Philip – your family story is very interesting – you mention your brother or was it your uncle Oliver. He & my grandfather Joe Quinn from Percy St / Mullholland Teracce were comrades during the border campaign – I think.


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