Kelly Riot



The second item in the James Fenning Sale of Antiquarian Books at Whyte’s was entitled Kelly RiotsSmock Alley Theatre. An appeal to the public by a gentleman of Trinity College, Dublin. Printed by Peter Wilson in Dame Street,
The Kelly Riots took place in Dublin. Thomas Sheridan was playing the title role in Vanbrugh’s Aesop at the Smock Alley theatre in Dublin on January 19, 1747, which he had recently taken over. During the performance, Edward Kelly from Co. Galway, climbed on to the stage. Kelly, a student at Trinity College, was very drunk. He proceeded to the dressing rooms at the back where he found one of the actresses a Mrs. Dwyer, who he tried to rape. Women’s screams and abusive curses from Kelly were soon heard on the stage and in the auditorium. Sheridan stopped the play, went back, confronted Kelly and had him arrested by the stage door guard. The play recommenced but soon Kelly who had made good his escape from the guard reappeared. He hurled abuse at Sheridan and hit the actor in the face with an orange. Sheridan stopped the play once more and remonstrated with Kelly and his friends. When Kelly continued the insults, Sheridan retorted “I am as good a gentleman as you”. This was like a dagger, as at that time actors were considered artisans and actresses only one step higher than prostitutes. After the play had finally finished, Kelly followed Sheridan backstage where he demanded an apology. This was refused. Kelly’s insults continued and Sheridan hit him with a heavy stick and broke his nose. Kelly’s friends were outraged by the fact that that an actor who was equivalent to a mere servant should hit a gentleman, and what was 
even worse he claimed to be a gentleman. Kelly’s friends banded together under the title “the Gentlemen” and went to the theatre two nights later. When it was announced that Sheridan on medical advice was not taking part in the production, “the Gentlemen” started a riot, and went to the back stage area in search of Sheridan. Failing to find him they ransacked the area and proceeded to Sheridan’s home but finding it under guard, they dispersed. Sheridan then closed the theatre for two weeks, for repairs, hoping that when he opened the problem would have disappeared. Sheridan tried to make peace with Kelly’s friends. They insisted that he make a public apology. If he agreed to this it would be tantamount to admitting that he was not a gentleman. He refused this option and instead he went to law and had seven of the “Gentlemen” including Kelly indicted for riot.
Before the trial took place, Sheridan reopened the theatre, playing the title role in Richard II. As soon as he appeared on the stage he was greeted by the “Gentlemen”, with cries of “a submission, a submission, off, off”. Sheridan said he was ready to apologise, if the public wanted him to do so. One of the audience, Dr. Charles Lucas, who was well disposed to Sheridan, called for a show of hands in support of Sheridan. The “Gentlemen” seeing that they were vastly outnumbered, withdrew.
Two nights 
later thirty 
occupied the 
front rows of 
the theatre, 
and ordered 
Sheridan off the 
stage as soon as 
he appeared. As he withdrew insults were traded between the “Gentlemen” and other members of the audience, who were mainly students from 
Trinity College. They were angered by their good name been being dragged in the mud by a small number of spoilt brat sons of landed gentry. The following morning a thousand students attacked the lodgings of the leaders of “the Gentlemen” leaders -a Mr. Martin, Captain Fitzgerald and John Browne of the Neale, Co. Mayo. Both Brown and Martin were forced to apologise on their knees. After this Kelly came to College no doubt in fear of 
expulsion, and made a public apology. The court case saw Sheridan and Kelly suing each other. The general feeling was that no jury would take the side of an actor against a gentleman. Kelly’s counsel addressed the jury thus. “I have often seen a Gentleman Soldier, and a Gentleman Taylor, but I have never seen a Gentleman Player”. At this Thomas Sheridan rose bowed modestly, and said “Sir, I hope you see one now”. This display of a gentleman act of dignity had the desired effect on the jury. Sheridan was acquitted. Kelly and Brown were found guilty of assault. Kelly was fined £500 and sent to jail for a month. [I have not been able to determine what County Galway family Kelly belonged to. J. M. Kelly]