Northern Ireland

Tributes to Belfast community worker who counted Hilary Clinton and Mo Mowlam as admirers

Kathleen Kelly.
Kathleen Kelly.

A Belfast community worker who was praised for her efforts by Hilary Clinton and Mo Mowlam has been remembered for her kindness and generosity.

Kathleen Kelly (90) passed away peacefully at a south Belfast nursing home on Monday, with her funeral service planned for Thursday at St Brigid’s Church, Derryvolgie.

She was born in the Beersbridge Road in east Belfast where her father had worked as a publican.

“In those days when you were a Catholic the only opportunity for work was either in the licence trade...or the bookies,” she recalled in a previous interview.

With pubs in the unionist Sydenham and the Cregagh Road area, the sectarian friction at the onset of the Troubles soon made it too dangerous for her father to continue in his trade.

She later spent ten years teaching at a primary school in North Queen Street, which highlighted the poverty in which the children she taught lived.

“It was very bad. The redevelopment (of Belfast) was just beginning and the children lived in very, very poor conditions,” she said.

“I suppose the thing I remember the most of all about that time is the children loved school.”

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Describing herself as a “foot-soldier” in the Civil Rights Movement, she joined the newly-formed Community Relations Commission in the 1960s after suggesting that a vacant army site on North Queen Street could be used to build a children’s playground.

Taking part in a series of government initiatives to regenerate Belfast, she said her role had often been about nudging civil servants in the right direction.

“I saw how a lot of them changed their own views, you could see them becoming more aware of the needs, and that’s where you begin, if you want to create a society in which people feel equal and also feel they are respected,” she said.

Her later work included serving on the advisory committee of the Ireland Funds, a global philanthropic initiative which funded projects like a musical bursary in west Belfast. 

Speaking to the Irish News, her sister Rosaline said Ms Kelly had a gift for bringing people together.

“We always felt she had fallen into the job she was born to do, she just had a feel for it,” she said.

“She was very sociable and gregarious and she loved to entertain,” she said.

As “an enthusiastic amateur actress,” she said her sister had also been part of Mrs O’Malley’s group, formed by the Lyric Theatre founders Mary and Pearse O’Malley.

“In her files we actually have personal hand-written letters from Hilary Clinton, Mo Mowlam and Richard Needham (former under-secretary for Northern Ireland) telling her how terrific she was,” she said.

“She was extraordinarily modest and a lot of this was news to me. She didn’t go around talking about it at all."