Identity Statement for Professor John Kelly

  • Reference code: IE UCDA P147
  • Title: Papers of Professor John Kelly TD (1931–91)
  • Dates: 1954–89
  • Level of description: Fonds
  • Extent: 6 boxes
  • Context
  • Content and Structure
  • Conditions of Access and Use

Biographical History

John Maurice Kelly was born in Dublin on 31 August 1931. His father was the chief executive officer of the Agricultural Credit Corporation, and his mother was a civil servant. He was educated at St Conleth’s College, and later at Glenstal Abbey School. In 1949 he began his undergraduate career at UCD, and graduated with a first-class honours BA in ancient classics in 1952. After obtaining his MA, he studied Roman law at the University of Heidelberg and was awarded a doctorate. 

He was internationally known as the author of three major works on Roman law: Princeps Iudex (1957), Roman Litigation (1966) andStudies in the Civil Judicature of the Roman Republic (1976). While studying at Pembroke College, Oxford, he established his position as the foremost Irish scholar on constitutional matters with his thesis Fundamental Rights in the Irish Law and Constitution (1961). He was called to the bar in 1956 and practiced on the Leinster and Eastern circuits. 

He returned to academic life in 1961 as a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, remaining at the college until 1965, when he was appointed professor of Roman law and jurisprudence in the faculty of law in UCD. He became dean of the faculty just two years later. While he was reorganising the teaching of law in UCD, he also revived the Irish Jurist, a journal dedicated to current and historical jurisprudence. He edited this journal from its revival in 1966 until 1973.

Having always had a great interest in politics, in 1966 Kelly became a member of the Fine Gael Party. After standing unsuccessfully in the 1969 general election, he was elected to the Seanad on the Cultural and Educational Panel later that same year. In 1973 he was elected Fine Gael TD for the Dublin South Central constituency. His first day in Dáil Éireann saw Kelly selected by newly-elected Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave to serve as his Parliamentary Secretary.

In 1977, Kelly was appointed Attorney General, succeeding Declan Costello on the latter’s appointment to the high court. He held the post for just four weeks before the Dáil was dissolved, and the 1977 general election saw Fianna Fáil return to government. Life in opposition did however allow Kelly to give more time to his academic duties, and in 1980 the first edition of The Irish Constitutionwas published. With its article-by-article commentary on the constitution, this work became the authoritative text on the subject, and remains so to this day.

Kelly was to return to a government post in 1981 when Fine Gael formed a coalition government with Labour. During this brief spell in power, Kelly served as Minister for Trade, Commerce and Tourism and as acting Minister for Foreign Affairs. This period, with his having had to shift departments and titles several times, somewhat disillusioned Kelly, and he declined to accept ministerial office when the Fine Gael-Labour coalition returned to power in December 1982. 

Kelly held his seat in 1987, but decided against contesting the 1989 general election in order to devote himself more fully to his academic work. To that end, he undertook his final major work, A Short History of Western Legal Theory (1992). He also wrote two works of fiction during his career, Matters of Honour (1964) and The Polling of the Dead (1993).

Kelly married Delphine Dudley in 1961, with whom he had three sons and two daughters. They spent the majority of their married life at their home on Ailesbury Road, Dublin.

John Kelly died in Dublin, after a short illness, on 24 January 1991, aged 59.

Archival History

This collection was deposited by Delphine Kelly, his widow, in May 1997.


Scope and Content

Legal career: major research; general legal writings; small amount of correspondence; items specifically related to Kelly’s extensive work on Irish constitutional matters.

Seanad Éireann: electoral campaign (1969); correspondence; speeches and articles written by Kelly during his term as senator; small number of political files compiled on several subjects by Kelly, and maintained in original order; media related material.

Dáil Éireann: electoral campaigns (1969–87); correspondence; speeches and articles written by Kelly during his terms as TD; small number of reports and memoranda; media related material.

Fine Gael: electoral campaign material; educational policy documents; party material on Northern Ireland; FG committees; media-related material; FG publications.

  • Access: Available by appointment to holders of a UCD Archives reader's ticket. Produced for consultation in microform.
  • Language: English, with some material in Irish and German.
  • Finding aid: Descriptive catalogue