James Kelly, who celebrated his 100th birthday earlier this year, was one of the best-known journalists in Northern Ireland.
In a long and distinguished career as a newspaper reporter and columnist, he covered many of the historic developments in Ireland in the past 83 years and he did so with insight, courage and self-deprecating humour.
He contributed significantly to the Irish News, to the former Irish Press and to the Irish Independent. Known to close associates as Jimmy, he earned the rare distinction of becoming a journalistic institution in his lifetime.
He continued writing his weekly Irish News column until very recently and for decades he could be relied upon to hand-deliver (and well on time) his carefully-typed copy to the paper every week.
He was a true professional of the old school of journalism and, in 1995, he recalled many of his experiences in his autobiography, Bonfires On The Hillside.
Kelly was a familiar figure to journalists of several different generations and although he latterly used a wheelchair, he remained a fine figure of a man whose distinctive bearing belied his greatly advancing years.
James Kelly was born on the Falls Road in Belfast in 1911.
An early memory was of taking supper to his uncle, an assistant editor in the Irish News. He said later: “The whole atmosphere of the place fascinated me.”
He obtained a job as a junior reporter with the newspaper in 1928, on five shillings a week. After some two years he was appointed northern editor of the newly-established Irish Press, which was based in Dublin.
He told how he received two letters after he applied to the paper — one from the editor telling him that there were no vacancies and another from the news editor telling him the opposite and inviting him to Dublin for interview.
Kelly stayed with the Irish Press for two years and then became northern editor of the Irish Independent until his ‘retirement’ in 1983. In that year he began his long association with the Irish News as a columnist, where his articles appeared every Saturday.
Jimmy Kelly covered many stories and his career was a virtual encyclopaedia of Irish politics and journalism. He often recounted the day when he reported on the opening, in 1932, of Stormont’s Parliament Buildings by the Prince of Wales. The Prince’s somewhat dull speech was interrupted by a loud crashing of crockery dropped by a hapless waitress.
As a senior correspondent, Kelly was well-placed to report and comment with authority on such major developments as the O’Neill-Lemass talks, the outbreak of the Troubles, the fall of Stormont, the advent of direct rule, the journey towards the Good Friday Agreement and the current peace process.
Kelly’s 75 years in journalism was marked some time ago by a reception at Stormont, which had been at the centre of so many of his newspaper reports over so many years.
At that reception it was arranged he would sit, for a brief period, in the Speaker’s chair — an experience he greatly enjoyed.
Jimmy Kelly remained a committed nationalist and he was an advocate of power-sharing.
Kelly’s good fortune was to live long enough to see that process slowly become a real and lasting possibility.
He was predeceased by his wife Eileen. he is survived by his daughters Patricia, Grainne and Eileen, and by the wider family.