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
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.
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.
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.
Claire O'Kelly obituary - Irish Times November 6th 2004
Scholarly archaeologist with a passion to communicate
Many women born in the first half of the 20th century had the talent, vision and drive to be scholars but, because of the social norms of the time, were unable to avail of the professional opportunities and recognition afforded by a university post.
Claire O'Kelly, who has died in Dublin aged 88, was one such. Her achievements illustrate that it is impossible to suppress the scholarly urge and the passion to communicate.
Born in Cork, the third child and only daughter of Edward and Johanna O'Donovan, Claire remained a staunch Corkonian all her life. She qualified as a national school teacher and in the late 1930s achieved her ambition of going to university.
She studied archaeology in University College Cork under Seán P. Ó Ríordáin and there met her future husband,
Michael J. (Brian) O'Kelly
, later to succeed Ó Ríordáin in the chair of archaeology in UCC.
One of the first of their many joint enterprises was the setting up of the Cork Public Museum in 1945. She described vividly the night prior to the official opening when, following long days single-handedly finalising the exhibits and too tired to cycle the 10 miles home to Monkstown, they camped on army-style camp beds in the museum and had cornflakes with water for breakfast.
That didn't matter to her, but his comment: "Of course you know there are rats here?" was a bit too much.
In the manner of many a scholar's wife before her, she acted as his right hand and supported all his enterprises.
However, Claire O'Kelly's prodigious reading and appetite for knowledge meant that right from the beginning, she carried out her own scholarly projects. A fluent Irish speaker with a great grá for the language and culture, her contributions to the English/Irish Dictionary edited by Tomás de Bháldraithe, for which she created many of the archaeological terms, are a case in point.
When Brian was asked in 1962 to excavate the great Boyne monument of
, she undertook as a matter of course the feeding and housing of an army of international students and fellow archaeologists each summer, in addition to raising three children. Her own intellectual curiosity though led her to independent research on two important aspects of the monument: the Megalithic art and the literary and antiquarian references to the site.
Before the benefits of present-day technology, her pioneering corpus of the decorated stones at Newgrange was undertaken, painstakingly and in all weathers, by tracing the motifs at actual size from the enormous
, recording a level of detail that no photograph could achieve.
Her interest in Irish language and literature led her to research the references to Brú na Bóinne in early Irish literature and to reaffirm its identification as Newgrange.
It was her research into these older traditions that led her to encourage her husband to investigate the persistent references to Newgrange and the sun, with the subsequent discovery in 1967 of the phenomenon of the
, all documented in their book,
Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend (1982)
She wryly commented on the inconvenience of being left without the family car with all the Christmas preparations to do, as Brian made his annual pilgrimages 200 miles north to observe the Newgrange solstice.
Other important published areas of research included a detailed and as yet unsurpassed study of
, the third of the three great Boyne monuments, which was the fruit of many cold and damp hours inside the tomb, working only by candles and lanterns.
She was also a communicator.
Long before anyone thought that Newgrange and the Boyne Valley monuments would become some of Ireland's leading tourist attractions, she saw the need for reading material for the intelligent layperson. Her guide books to Newgrange and to Lough Gur, Co Limerick, were among the first to be written for Irish archaeological sites.
When Brian died in 1982, leaving behind the manuscript of the book that was to become the standard text,
Early Ireland, An Introduction to Irish Prehistory
, she set out on the major task of preparing it for the press. It appeared in 1989.
Claire O'Kelly's work was recognised by the academic community when she was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1984.
Beyond prehistory, interests which she maintained up to her death took in everything from languages and international history to poetry, current affairs and the arts.
Casts of Claire's hands and feet, for instance, were used in many of the sculptures of her late friend, the distinguished artist Gabriel Hayes (wife of Seán P. Ó Ríordáin), most notably the stations of the cross in Galway cathedral.
As a person, she was characterised by her sense of humour, her vigorous opinions, her courage, her persistence, her warmth and her passion for standards.
She is survived by her daughters Helen, Ann and Eve.
Claire O'Kelly: born July 21st, 1916; died October 23rd, 2004.
Boyne Valley Private Day 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