Claire O'Kelly

Michael & Claire O'KellyClaire O'Kelly was the wife and archaeology associate of Michael J. O'Kelly. Claire was born in Cork in 1916 and lived on the banks of the Lee for most of her life. She qualified as a national school teacher and while working as a teacher decided to study archaeology at night in University College Cork under the late Séan P. Ó Riordáin.

Her working career in archaeology began alongside her future husband at Ó Ríordáin's Lough Gur excavation. These were remarkable times, when the foundation of modern Irish archaeology were laid with the uncovering of settlements dating to the Neolithic and the hitherto unknown beaker period.

She married in 1945, and was forced by the dictate of the time to retire from her teaching post. She now devoted her time to rearing her three children, but as soon as possible was helping out, particularly during the regular summer season excavation. Her role spanned the practical, managerial and domestic all in one day. Often she could be cataloguing finds in the morning, filing accounts in the afternoon and feeding the volunteers by the days end.

Amongst her greatest interests was the Irish language which found practical application when she created many of the archaeological terms for the English/Irish dictionary edited by Tomás de Bháldraithe. Her interest in Irish language and literature led her to research the references to Brú na Bóinne in early Irish literature, going back to the original sources and reaffirming its identification as Newgrange.

During the Newgrange campaign Claire developed other research interests, publishing papers on the Roman finds at the site and the megalithic art of the Boyne Valley. She painstakingly traced all the carved stones at Newgrange, thereby creating the first complete corpus of the decorated stones.

She also published together with Michael J., a detailed survey of Dowth, the result of countless hours below ground in the cold and damp, working by candle light and lantern. Her own publication, Illustrated Guide to Newgrange, was the first of its kind in Ireland, aimed as it was at the intelligent layperson.

As if this were not enough, she undertook to feed and house the army of archaeologists, distinguished visitors and international students who arrived every season to work on the excavation at Newgrange, as well as looking after her own three children.

In the years following her husband's death, she embarked on the task of preparing for publication his unfinished manuscript Early Ireland, An Introduction to Irish Prehistory, while also ensuring that his papers and excavation archives were put in order and deposited in the relevant institutions. In recognition of her work she was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquities of London in 1984.

The O'Kellys met for the first time as students at UCC in 1939 in the Department of Archaeology, “I was only there for the craic”, Claire later admitted, “as I already had a teaching qualification, but Brian was a serious student. In fact, the star of the show”. As students both Michael J. and Claire worked on Seán P. Ó Ríordáin's excavation at the Neolithic site of Lough Gur in County Limerick. It wasn't long before a working relationship turned to something more serious.

With their students years behind them and a position for Michael J. as curator of Cork Public Museum, they married in 1945. The times dictated that they should honeymoon in Ireland and it was in Dingle that a long and fruitful partnership in archaeology and prehistory began. Together they spent their honeymoon checking the accuracy of R.A.S. Macalister's records of ogham inscriptions which had just been published in Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum.

Every summer thereafter was spent excavating at sites, ”ranging from megaliths to ringforts, from west Kerry to north Tipperary”. Much of this work was ground-breaking with scientific application and experimental archaeology being introduced for the first time. Together this unique partnership would change the face of Irish archaeology.

Shortly after securing his first-class M.A. at UCC, Michael J. was appointed curator of the recently founded Cork Public Museum in Fitzgerald Park. Both of the O'Kellys were involved in building up the displays and dioramas at the museum. The displays were ground breaking with full sized figures, Michael J. supplying the artefacts and Claire making the clothes in faithful reproductions of the originals. Michael J. remained curator of the museum for over two decades.


Newgrange before excavationExcavations at Newgrange commenced in 1962 and continued every summer for a four month season up to and including 1975. The aim of the excavation was to discover as much as possible about the archaeological and historical context of Newgrange and the people who built it and to discover what its original finished appearance was so as to direct a reconstruction, conservation and restoration of the structure to its former condition and appearance.

As part of the early preparation work on Newgrange, Michael J. and Claire O'Kelly travelled to Brittany and Iberia to study at first hand the European background of Newgrange, consulting with the leading experts in those countries on the various features found at Newgrange.

The O'Kellys also consulted widely in Ireland and brought in experts in different fields to advise on the restoration of the great cairn of stones which covers the tomb.

The last year of excavation was 1975, Michael J. wrote "We determined in 1975 that that should be our last season of excavation at Newgrange. We had investigated approximately one third of the structure and we had discovered much about it that was new, both in its structure and in its ornament, while radiocarbon had pushed its date back by 1,000 years. We felt that the other two thirds should be left for a future excavator, who, working with new knowledge and perhaps with better methods and new scientific approaches, should have large areas untouched by us in which to test, check and re-evaluate our findings." From The Restoration of Newgrange by Michael J. O'Kellly. Antiquity LIII, 1979.

Newgrange - Archaeology, Art and Legend by Michael J. O'Kelly and Claire O'Kelly
In Newgrange Archaeology, Art and Legend Professor O'Kelly presents the full results of his excavations at Newgrange between 1962 and 1975. Every stage in the excavation, interpretation and restoration of the site is described and illustrated with additional contributions from Claire O'Kelly, who collaborated in her husband's work at Newgrange. This book is a must for anyone with a serious interest in Newgrange, while written for the general reader, it is academic in its approach.  More...

Boyne Valley Private Day Tours

Boyne Valley Tours Pick up and return to your accommodation or cruise ship. Suggested day tour: Newgrange World Heritage site, 10th century High Crosses at Monasterboice, Hill of Tara the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, Bective Abbey and Trim Castle the largest Norman castle in Ireland  More ...

Boyne Valley Tours