Paddy O’Kelly, a seafarer and soldier turned poet and storyteller, died Friday at his Monterey Park home. He was 81.
Padraic Seamus O’Kelly, born in 1909 in County Mayo, Ireland, was illiterate in 1955 when doctors told him he had lung cancer, tuberculosis and emphysema. He lost a lung and was given six months to live.
Despite the prognosis, he learned to read and write and recovered to survive 35 more years. He started taking poetry classes, writing down ballads based on his life, and, in 1977, publishing a slim volume of verse.
Many of the poems refer to events of O’Kelly’s childhood, in particular the Irish struggle for independence from Great Britain in the first decades of the 20th Century. In “Christmas 1917,” O’Kelly’s mother, at a family celebration, predicts that many family members will die in the Irish revolution. Wrote O’Kelly:
“Rose proved right with her omen
That she’s fortold with such dread
For she and me two baby sisters
Were soon on the list of the dead.”
O’Kelly also wrote of “Rubber-Necked Murphy,” an Irish rebel who had to be shot because no noose could strangle him. And then there was a poem titled “His Majesty’s Hangman.”
“That poem he claims was written about an event in his life,” said Philip O’Brien, the library director at Whittier College. “The Black and Tan (British soldiers) had hung his grandfather. Paddy maintained he killed the hangman as a youth. Whether it’s true or not, I can’t say, but that’s the kind of violence he witnessed.”
As O’Kelly told it, he fled Ireland at the age of 15 and took up a seaman’s life.
“I had as much blood as I could take,” O’Kelly said in a 1978 interview with The Times. “I wanted to see what seafaring life was like.
“The sea, it’s a lovely thing,” he said. “It’s like a woman--you love it and you hate it and you don’t know why.”
His adventures on the oceans would prove his other major source of poetic inspiration. He wrote about gunrunning for Chinese warlords, narrow escapes from wrecks, stormy passages and ghost ships.
Friends say he also told of serving as a courier in the Spanish Civil War and fighting alongside American troops on the European front in World War II.
There was a humorous, satiric turn to many of his poems. “The Beginning of Begot” tells how Eve persuaded Adam of the necessity of procreation. In “The First Thanksgiving” O’Kelly portrays the feast between the Pilgrims and Indians as a subtle Colonial dodge to swindle the natives of their lands.
O’Kelly started to spin rhymes long before he could read or write, often signing onto ships as a “chantey man,” a sailor who composes verses for his shipmates. His book is titled “From the Irish Chanteyman.”
And the quintessential way to experience O’Kelly’s poetry was to hear it recited aloud by O’Kelly himself, O’Brien said.
“The rich brogue he had brought the poetry to life. It made a great deal of difference,” said O’Brien, who first met O’Kelly at one of the poet’s readings in Whittier about 12 years ago.
O’Kelly, who lived for years in Baldwin Park and later moved to Monterey Park, always spelled phonetically in his writing, a characteristic his publisher preserved in order to approximate the experience of an O’Kelly reading. “In everything Paddy did, he had a vitality about him, a love of life,” O’Brien said. “It was this vitality that came across.
“He was delightful to meet. He’d say, ‘Let’s go to lunch and tell lies to each other.’ He always called women ‘Love,’ but he did it in a non-abrasive way, and they always responded to it.”
As for his troubles, O’Kelly would simply say, “That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” O’Brien remembered.
O’Kelly’s hardships included poverty that forced him to seek odd jobs as a dishwasher and jewelry maker between his stints on the sea.
O’Kelly’s wife died about five years ago. He is survived by three children, a sister and three grandchildren, said Pat Huber, his longtime friend who had lived with and cared for O’Kelly in recent years. Friends and family held a memorial service Wednesday at the Church of the Nativity in El Monte.
Before his death from emphysema, the 5-foot-8-inch, barrel-chested adventurer had been bedridden for about a year, Huber said.
About three years ago, as his emphysema worsened, O’Kelly had to give up both his public readings and his poetry-writing workshops with local schoolchildren, an activity he especially treasured.
“The kids can write better poetry than the adults,” he once said, “because they don’t know the rules.”