Obituary: John Kelly, academic and former University College Dublin professor of engineering who was a key figure in university life

Professor John Kelly, who died at the age of 87, was a pioneering engineer who also served as registrar at University College Dublin, and reflecting his Northern Irish ancestry, he raised money in Dublin in support of the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP).

He was born in Newry, Co Down, on 11 May 1935. After obtaining a degree in Chemical Engineering from UCD in 1957, he worked in industry for six years as a process engineer and then as a manager in Ireland and the UK.

After returning to the College of Civil Engineering in 1963 as a lecturer, he obtained his Ph. chemical.

He became Emeritus Professor in 2000. Recognizing the value of international collaboration, he was instrumental in ensuring that UCD became one of the founding members of the Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe in 1990.

He was a Senior Fulbright Professor at the University of Maryland (1969-70) and a Visiting Professor at the University of Missouri (1984).

Kelly was a central figure in a Dublin-based group of SDLP supporters who raised money to support the party of John Hume and Seamus Malone from the early 1970s until the 1980s.

As part of his fundraising efforts, Kelly regularly persuaded notable artists to perform at the annual dinner dances at the Burlington Hotel. Dubliners were a regular performer, and actor Niall Toibin also made regular appearances.

Due to his keen interest in the Middle East, between 1981 and 1986 he headed a delegation from the European Community to the Faculty of Engineering and Technology at the University of Jordan. Back home in Ireland, he was a member of the National Science and Technology Council from 1982 to 1986.

A year later, in 1987, Kelly headed the team that helped establish the Higher Institute for Advanced Science and Technology in the Syrian capital, Damascus. In 2012, Bethlehem University in Palestine awarded him an honorary doctorate in humanities.

He was the founding president of the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (Forward), an independent Irish national not-for-profit organization that creates inclusive environments in education and employment for people with disabilities.

Noticing the problems faced by students with disabilities on university campuses, Kelly, as UCD Registrar, did his best to develop a service to help them, which in due course became all-Ireland universities. His due role was recognized when in 2019 Ahead launched the John Kelly Award for Global Design in Further and Higher Education.

In the late 1990s he became a member of the scholarship board for the O’Reilly Foundation, a charitable foundation founded by businessman and former CEO of Independent News & Media, Anthony O’Reilly. He later succeeded the legendary TK Whitaker in the chair.

Very active on the sporting front, Kelly swam at University College Dublin and played a key role in the formation of the Irish water skiing team which he captained at the Northern European Championships in Amsterdam in 1965.

Later in life he captained the Supervets+70 team at Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, Dublin. His greatest sporting interest was sailing, particularly the 22-foot-long Galway hooker called Gleoiteog, which he sailed from Moenish Island in Connemara for over 40 years.

He has been an outspoken critic of the initial decision by City Council and Waldore not to attend the canonization of its founder, Cardinal John Henry Newman in October 2019. After converting to Catholicism from the Church of England, Newman came to Ireland in 1851 at the invitation of the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen, to take over Rector of the new Catholic University, later to become UCD.

Kelly said the college was “extraordinarily narrow-minded in not recognizing this great honor bestowed on its founder, arguing that as a non-denominational university, it would be inappropriate for it to do so.”

In a later statement, the college said: “In light of the government’s decision to send the Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, to represent the government at the canonization of John Henry Newman, UCD will be represented by Vice-Chancellor Professor Orla Feely.”

Seeking to promote gender balance in the College of Engineering, Kelly organized events for secondary schoolgirls that were held in the Royal College of Sciences of Ireland building in Merrion Street which was at that time the home of UCD Engineering.

The number of female students who chose to study engineering at the college the following year increased from 2 percent to 17 percent. A number of them have attained engineering leadership positions in the profession.

Kelly was heavily involved in the successful effort to persuade the government at the time to fund the transfer of faculty from the Faculty of Science to what became known as the ultra-modern UCD Engineering and Materials Science Center, which opened on the Belfield campus in 1989.

He liked to recall a morning tour of the domed College of Science on Capitol Hill by Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who is said to have stood on the balcony above the entrance hall and declared this building “too good for a set of engineers”.

It appeared in later official papers that Haughey had been pressing for a takeover of the College of Science since December 1979 and rejected an alternative plan to build an official residence for the taoiseach on the site of the former Apostolic Nunciature in Phoenix Park.

In January 1991 it opened as the new location for the Taoiseach Department, Government Information Service and 36 offices for TDs. Haughey’s office was once an electrical laboratory and during a guided tour on opening day for reporters, including this writer, he quipped, “It’s still going to run on electricity.”

In 1967, John Kelly met Nora Doyle, daughter of Moira Doyle and Mr. Tommy Doyle. Nora was working at the Italian Institute of Culture in Dublin at the time and they married the following year, celebrating their fifty-fourth wedding anniversary the previous May.

As one family member said: “She was always supportive throughout his life; her compassion, love and wisdom supported him in everything he did over the years.”

When acclaimed Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood came to Belfield in 2018 to receive the Ulysses Medal, John was the guest of honor in recognition of his role with the Canadian University of Ireland Foundation, which provides funding to the University of Dublin’s Chancellor of Canadian Studies.

Tirelessly active, Kelly has written a book about an author Ulysses authorized Student Joyce: University College, Dublin 1898-1902, which was published in 2021 by Gleoiteog Press. The book gives a detailed account of the early life and educational progress of the person he describes as “the most popular student” at University College Dublin.

John Kelly died peacefully after a short illness at St Vincent’s University Hospital on November 12, surrounded by his loving family.

He is survived by his wife, Nora, and children, James and Mary-Louise (Merlot), Michael and John (Johnny).

In accordance with his wishes, Kelly’s body was donated to the College of Medicine’s College of Medicine.

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