Dr. Gertrude B . Kelly (1862-1934)

Gertrude B. Kelly was born on February 10, 1862, one of twelve children, to Jeremiah and Kate (Forrest) Kelly of Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Waterford, Ireland.  Both of Gertrude's parents were teachers, who according to some accounts may have had been associated with the Irish Republican Brotherhood. For what ever reason, be it political or economic, the family immigrated to the United States in 1873. They took up residence in Hoboken, New Jersey where Jeremiah secured a teaching position in the public school system and, presumidely, where Gertrude and her siblings attended school.

There is scant information available regarding how many of Gertrude's siblings survived their childhood; how many were born in Ireland or if any were born in the United States

The only sibling, other than Gertrude, who attracted attention in their adult life was her older brother, John Forrest Kelly.  After obtaining a PhD from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, at the age of 22, he became an assistant to Thomas Edison in the Menlo Park laboratory.  During his lifetime he held over seventy electrical related patents and helped pioneer high-voltage electricity generating and transmission systems. In addition to his professional endeavors he was a prolific writer, a lifelong advocate for Irish freedom and a generous contributor to that cause. After his death in 1922  Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington said of him, “Ireland has lost in him one of her best, staunchest, and ablest champions”; his “work for Ireland will never be forgotten.”

After graduating high school Gertrude studied at the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children from whence she graduated with a M.D. degree in 1884. The Women's Medical College of the New York was founded by English-born Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician in the United States.

Throughout her life Gertrude held strong anti-establishment views on many of the accepted norms of that time. Her attitude towards established order was greatly influenced by the oppression she witnessed during her childhood in Ireland, her parents Irish nationalistic activism both in Ireland and in the United States and her own keen intellect, sense of worth and fairness. Her views on many issues were unorthodox; for instance she believed that capitalism was the root cause of poverty and social injustice, that individual autonomy and responsibility were the building blocks of social order and cohesion , that gender, race, beliefs or individual attributes had no impact on the equal and inalienable rights of the individual, and that  in Gertrude' own words: “the woman’s cause is man’s—they rise or sink/together—dwarfed or god-like-bond or free,"

During her student years Gertrude kept abreast of unfolding events in Ireland from articles in both the Irish World published in New York and the Boston Pilot published in Boston. Both of these newspapers reported on the overall state of affairs in Ireland including the failure of the Irish Land Act of 1870 to improve the lot of tenant farmers, the formation of the Irish Land League in 1879 the subsequent Land Wars, the No-Rent movement and the indiscriminate evictions of Irish tenant farmers from their land by agents of absentee English landlords whose claims to the land came from conquest and legal privilege.

Gertrude did not remain silent in light of the misery and suffering endured by the oppressed tenant farmers in Ireland or the poor and exploited tenement dwellers in New York. In articles published in the individualist periodical Liberty and the Irish World  she gave expression to her indignation and abhorrence at the lack of fairness empathy or sense of humanity inherent in the attitude of the ruling elite towards the poor. 

Benjamin Tucker, editor of the Liberty stated that Gertrude by her articles in Liberty: "has placed herself at a single bound among the finest writers of this or any other country".

Although Gertrude campaigned for many deserving causes during her lifetime her primary focus was on the downtrodden and poor working women and their families. To that end she set up a medical clinic in Chelsea to provide their basis medical needs. For patients to ill to visit the clinic she went to their homes and, oftentimes, instead of charging for her services gave them money for medicine or food.

Gertrude was a renowned surgeon who, in addition to her work at the clinic, was a member of the surgical staff at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the training institution from whence she received her medical training.  During her long and illustrious medical career she authored and co-authored numerous papers on surgical procedures and other medical and healthcare related issues.

In 1879, John Devoy of Clan na Gael in the United States forged a new initiative dubbed the “New Departure,” with Michael Davitt of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Charles Stewart Parnell of the Home Rule League to create a united front that would include a combination of physical force, agrarian agitation and constitutional nationalism to alleviate the suffering of the Irish tenant farmer and wrest a modicum of Home Rule from England.  Parnell and Davitt were also members of the Irish National Land League. The short lived initiative produced little other than the escalation of the Land Wars of the 1880s and the founding of the Irish National Land League. 

In support of that initiative Fanny and Anna Parnell founded the Ladies Land League in America. Branched were established in Hoboken, Jersey City, Newark, and Patterson. Gertrude was an active member of one of the branches, probably the Hoboken branch where the family settled after arriving from Ireland. She was an enthusiastic and effective fundraiser and a vocal proponent of a No-Rent Manifesto published by the National Land League in 1881. 

In 1901 John Redmond, who assumed leadership of the reunited Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), established the United Irish League of America to raise funds for the IPP and promote it's Home Rule agenda in the United States. As a product of the Catholic gentry Redmond was an imperialist who embraced class stratification and gender stereotyping, archaic mores emblematic of the British social order.

 The Irish Home Rule legislation Redmond promoted would keep Ireland within the confines of the British Empire and require that it be governed in accordance with British law and customs. Despite the fact that Gertrude was an ardent proponent of unbridled Irish independence, she, nonetheless, supported Redmond's campaign in the absence of other options. In so doing she reasoned that Home Rule could be used as a platform to launch a nonviolent, anti-British, grassroots campaign that would lead to a sovereign Irish Republic.

In October of 1914 Gertrude issued a call to "the women of Irish blood" to join the first chapter of  Cumann na mBan in the United States. Hundreds of women responded and shortly afterwards at a meeting at the Hotel McAlpin, Gertrude, Mary Colum and Kathleen Gifford a recent arrived émigré from Dublin outlined the aims of the organization. Simply put they would follow the lead of Cumann na mBan in Ireland which was to raise funds and garner support for the Irish Volunteers formed in 1913 in response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers the previous year.  The declared aim of the Volunteers was "to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland".  As President of the organization Gertrude helped set-up other branches and arranged for speakers from Ireland to address its members, conduct lecture tours and help in fundraising efforts.

Towards the end of 1914 Gertrude led the opposition to Redmond's endorsement of  WWI  and his pledge to supply Irishmen to augment the forces of the British Empire. In rebuking Redmond's pledge Gertrude issued the following statement; 

May I, as a woman, an Irishwoman and physician, spokeswoman of hundred, thousands of my sisters at home and abroad ask our leaders what it is they propose to Ireland to do - commit suicide?  Admitting for the moment that this is "a most righteous war" not - "a war of iron and coal" - a war between titans for commercial supremacy - why should little Ireland have to do what the United State, Switzerland , etc, do not. Is Home Rule to be secured for the cattle and sheep when the young men of Ireland are slaughtered, the old men and old women left sonless, the young women obliged to emigrate to bring up sons  for men of other climes.

After the Easter Rising, Cumann na mBan fundraising efforts were redirected to the support of the families of imprisoned Volunteers that numbered in the thousands. Gertrude and other Irish women activists including Margaret Moore, a Land League veteran and labor leader Lenora O'Reilly led that fundraising campaign.

In 1917, Gertrude, Peter and Helen Golden, Leonora O'Reilly, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Padraic and Mary Colum, Liam Mellows and other leading Irish-American activists founded the Irish Progressive League (IPP).  At that time any individual or organization who criticized British policy in Ireland was considered pro-German by the Wilson administration and subject to scrutiny and possible prosecution. The IPP viewed Clan na Gael, whose members were on the government watch list, too compromised to function as the voice of Irish freedom in America. They believed they could better handle that role.

Members of the IPP including Gertrude were not intimidated by the government pro-British bias and went about their business lobbying the government in Washington D.C. to recognize the Irish Republic declared a sovereign nation by the first Dáıl Éıreann in 1919.

In 1920 Gertrude was among a group of women who organized the American Women Pickets (AWP) for the enforcement of President Wilson's "War Aims"   i.e.,  "self-determination for small nations" and "the war to end all wars". To that end the AWP journeyed to Washington D.C. where they blockaded the British Embassy in order to draw attention to Britain's denial of self-determination to Ireland, a clear violation of Wilson's rationale for entering the war in support of the British and its empire.  

In December of  1920, the AWP and the Irish Progressive League organized a strike at the Chelsea Pier in Manhattan to protest the arrests of Irish Archbishop Daniel Mannix, an outspoken foe of British rule in Ireland, and Terence MacSwiney the Lord Mayor of Cork. Gertrude,  Leonora O'Reilly, Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, and Eileen Curran of the Celtic Players organized a group of women who dressed in white with green capes and carried signs that read: "There Can Be No Peace While British Militarism Rules the World."

The strike which, lasted three and a half weeks, was directed at British ships docked in New York. Striking workers included  Irish longshoremen, Italian coal passers, African-American longshoremen and workers on a docked British passenger liner. According to a local newspaper report it was "the first purely political strike of workingmen in the history of the United States".  Before it ended it had spread to Brooklyn, New Jersey, and Boston.

In December of 1921 when the Anglo-Irish Treaty (Treaty) was signed Irish-Americans including Gertrude, who had worked so hard and so long for a sovereign Irish Republic, were, to say the least, sorely disappointed.  The British-drafted Treaty provided for the partition of Ireland and the establishment of a Free State government for the 26 southern counties. The Free State government was required to swear allegiance to the English Monarch and his/her heirs.

At a meeting chaired by Diarmaid Lynch in New York on Dec. 17 1920, Gertrude stated the following regarding the terms of the Treaty: 

“The thing itself is absolutely unthinkable.  We have always been slaves, but unwilling slaves. Now we are subscribing to our slavery. I cannot believe that the Irish people will do this. The whole thing is a fake from start to finish.”

Summed up I would say that after 750 years we have given England moral standing in the world when she has none: it’s a tremendous defeat.”

The lopsided treaty caused a split in the Irish Republican Army that resulted in a bloody war that lasted from June of 1922 thru May of 1923.  Free State forces, consisting mostly of ex-British soldiers, equipped with an unlimited supply of military equipment left behind by departing British army,  prevailed.

The atrocities and summary executions carried out the Free State during the war was a despairing development and major concern for Irish-Americans particularly women who feared that the Free State was considering executing some of the women prisoners that numbered in the hundreds. In an attempt to head off such a development and stop the wholesale execution of male prisoners,  members of the AWP including Gertrude sent a telegram to President Warren G Harding imploring him to intervene to stop the slaughter.

Throughout her lifetime in the United States Gertrude was a ubiquitous presence in Irish-American circles including those associated with culture, politics, suffrage, labor and philanthropy. She was  a towering figure in organizations that fostered health and education for the underprivileged irrespective of  race or origin. In the first quarter of the 20th century she was on the "must meet" list of every Irish political and literary figure who came to the United States. Despite all of that her contributions have been ignored or forgotten by the Irish-American community that she so faithfully served for over 50 years. 

Gertrude passed away on February 16, 1934.  In 1936 Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia named a playground in her honor. The  Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly playground is located in the Chelsea district, west of 9th Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets. 

Contributor;  Tomás Ó Coısdealha


NAME:    Hoboken Cemetery                 PHONE NO.  201-867-0635  

ADDRESS:   5500 Tonnelle Ave, North Bergen, New Jersey 07047



photo added by Frank McGady

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Posted 6/6/2015 : Updated 3/12/2017