Kelly's in uniform / The British Army - Thomas Kelly-Kenny

 Clare General who befriended a king

British Royal family connections to West Clare: the future George V stayed in Doolough Lodge in the Kilmurry Ibrickane parish as a guest of his friend, Lieutenant General Thomas Kelly-Kenny in 1906

Thomas Kelly-Kenny, a Clare man who had a long military career, was a notable figure in 19th century history. At a time when senior military figures were aristocrats who saw war as a sport, Kelly-Kenny worked his way up through the ranks and was respected by the rank and file soldiers.

Kelly-Kenny was born Thomas Kelly on 27 February 1840 at Doolough Lodge, Treanmanagh, near Mullagh, Co Clare*. He later took the surname Kelly-Kenny upon inheriting the estates of his uncle, Mathias Kenny.
He was appointed ensign without purchase in the 1st Battalion, 2nd (The Queen’s Royal) Regiment of Foot at the age of 18 and was ADC to the general officer commanding Cape of Good Hope by 1860. He was further appointed lieutenant and later captain by 1866. He was Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General in Bombay from 1869-70. He took part in the Afghanistan campaign, the Opium wars in China and the Abyssinian War of 1867-68. Promoted to colonel in 1887 he was assistant adjutant general in Aldershot until the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1901.


His most prominent role came in the Boer War by which time he was a lieutenant-general in command of the 6th Division. He was twice mentioned in despatches and received the Queen’s South African Medal with four clasps. He was involved in the relief of Kimberley, the battles of Paardeberg, Poplar Grove and Driefontein and was well regarded by historians for his role.
The war was a major engagement for the British Empire and Irish troops played a large role. At the conclusion of the war, the triumphal arch was built at the corner of St Stephen’s Green in Dublin and can be seen there to this day. (get photo)
At the battle of Paardeberg, he had a conservative plan to besiege a Boer army of 5,000 soldiers under General Piet Cronje and bombard his force from a safe distance with superior artillery. The Boers were entrenched in a bend of the Modder River near Kimberley, having advanced from south of the Modder River.
When Field Marshal Frederick Roberts became ill, he appointed Lieutenant General Herbert Kitchener as commander, even though Kelly-Kenny was a senior officer. Historians have suggested that Kelly-Kenny would not have been in good favour with the aristocratic officers and that differences had emerged on the outward voyage, Kitchener had become known as ‘Kitchener of Khartoum’ due to his success against the Dervishes in the Sudan, which was a campaign against a much less organised type of African than the Boer. The Boer soldiers were sharpshooters and were well equipped with Mauser rifles. They were citizens of a republic fighting in defence of their own country and were not easily beaten in battle. They were superior horsemen and were adapted to the climate and the conditions.

Kitchener overruled Kelly-Kenny and ordered an assault on the Boer trenches on ‘Bloody Sunday’,18 February 1900. The advance was over 800m of ground with no cover and the Boers held their fire until the British soldiers were within 100m. The British were pinned and the battle continued until nightfall when the British withdrew. Kitchener issued contradictory orders and did not use the proper chain of command in giving his orders. The result was that the British side suffered 1,250 casualties, with another 2,000 poisoned later by drinking the polluted water from the Modder River. Historians agree that had a professional solder like Kelly-Kenny retained command at Paardeberg, the term ‘Bloody Sunday’ would not have been coined on that day.
When Roberts heard about the losses he left his sick bed, sent Kitchener to look after a railway line and retook command that evening. With the Boers trapped, he ordered the digging of trenches and a bombardment, which continued for nine days. The surviving Boer soldiers – around 4,000 in total – surrendered.
After that point, the war became a series of guerrilla skirmishes. The British Empire went on to win the war by coercion of the non-military population, which mainly involved burning the Boer farms and imprisoning the Boer women and children in concentration camps. This policy was run by Kitchener.
After the Boer War, Kelly-Kenny became adjutant general to the forces. He toured Japan as part of a mission to present the Order of the Garter to the Emperor during a period when Japan had begun to open up to the outside world and the British Empire was trying to gain influence.
King George V was a friend of his and the king took a keen interest in Irish affairs, including trying to avert civil war in the period after the Curragh mutiny. It is recorded that the king visited Doolough Lodge in 1906**.


Kelly-Kenny’s orders, decorations and medals included the Star of a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, Royal Victorian Order (GCVO cr 1906), Queen Victoria Jubilee medal, Coronation medal 1902, China War medal 1857-60, Abyssinian War medal 1867-68, Queen’s South Africa medal 1899-1902, The Order of the Red Eagle (Knight Grand Cross) of Prussia and the Order of the Rising Sun awarded by the Mikado Emperor of Japan.

The General retired in 1907 and in 1909 agreed to sell over 5,000 acres of land to the Congested Districts’ Board. He died in 1914 in Sussex, England and is buried in a graveyard in Hove, Sussex.

Article reproduced with the kind permission of the Clare Champion.


The Fusiliers Arch, St. Stephens Green, Dublin. In memory of Irishmen who died during the Boer War.
Note; ¬Amongst Gen. Sir Thomas Kelly surviving relatives is Joe A Kelly, of Northampton.
* He was born in Kilrush
** Doolough was first a herdsman's hut and later a hunting Lodge.