Gentleman Jim Kielty
(Photo: James Fennell)
‘Gentleman Jim’ Kielty reckons he’s clocked over two million accident-free miles during his 80-years behind the wheel. It began in the summer of 1932 when, aged 15, this publican’s son from Ballymote took the wheel of his fathers’ Model A Ford for the first time. ‘Cars have always been my passion’, he explains. His father owned one of the very first Model T-Fords in the town, a sturdy ‘Tin Lizzie’ built in 1916. ‘TGI 709’, says Jim, emphasizing each letter and digit with pride.
During the War of Independence, the IRA commandeered the family car. Indeed, Jim’s father, James Kielty, regularly drove Countess Markiewicz to political rallies in the county. They were often accompanied by a plucky young woman from Ballymote, Miss Baby Bohan, nicknamed ’The Green Countess’. Countess Markiewicz’s brother, Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth, owned most of Ballymote. His aristocratic credentials did not stop British Auxiliaries setting fire to the town in 1920 in reprisal for the murder of Sergeant Fallon. Amongst the houses burned that night was that of Baby Bohan’s mother, a district nurse.
‘This was always a tough town’, says Jim. One of his first memories is of General Farrelly’s Free State troops storming the barracks at Ballymote in July 1922, and capturing the garrison of Irregulars within. ‘The things that man can remember’, laughs his wife Catherine. ‘I’d say he could remember being born’.
Jim was born in the family pub on O’Connell Street in 1917. When his father first took on the pub in 1901 (after abandoning a career in insurance), Ballymote had a population of just 997 people, and 27 pubs. Kielty’s pub was a popular tavern for war veterans. ‘I heard a few traumatic stories about Gallipoli and the Dardanelles’, recalls Jim. ‘Some of the men were badly scarred and that left quite an impression on me’. One local legend was Martin Moffat, a Private with the Leinster Regiment, who won the Victoria Cross when he single-handedly killed two Germans and captured another thirty in Belgium in 1918.
Like most of the town’s children, Jim was educated in the local National School, close to Ballymote Castle, the magnificent fortress built by the powerful Red Earl of Ulster, Richard de Burgh, in 1300. The ruined Franciscan foundation nearby was once a celebrated seat of learning. Its’ resident monks penned an epic collection of historical, genealogical and romantic writings during the 14th century. The Book of Ballymote, as it is known, is now in the possession of the Royal Irish Academy.
During Jim’s childhood, O’Connell Street was a sandy track, full of horses and carts laden with turf. ‘We used to look forward to the big fairs when all the farmers came in to town to sell their animals. The street was literally black with cattle at times.’ He has fond memories of playing in the corn mills and bleaching greens of the Keenaghan mills with their Alpine-style pylons. ‘They closed down in 1940 on account of the war as there was no Indian corn coming in’. In October 1941, the mills caught fire and burned to the ground although their ruins still stand today.
Jim remembers his father kitted out for a game of football with the Round Towers, the local team who met on Davey’s Field beneath Carrownanty Hill. The team was named after a 30-foot high obelisk built on the hill’s summit by Lady Arabella Denny, founder of the Magdalen Asylum and an aunt of Lord Shelbourne, the British prime minister. When the rent was due from Lady Annabel’s many tenants, a white flag was hoisted high upon the tower, visible for miles around. During the 1970s, diggers quarrying sand from Carrownanty Hill undermined the tower’s foundations and down it fell. The Round Towers peaked in 1938 when they reached the FAI Junior Cup quarter-final but lost 6-5 to Killybegs. In time, Davey’s Field was incorporated into the ever-expanding Ballymote cemetery.
In 1932, while Ireland geared up to host the Eucharistic Congress, Jim obtained his driving licence and started work as a hackney driver. His first job was to meet a funeral coming from Carrick-on-Shannon. He drove an Austin 19-6 and, later, a gleaming Austin Cambridge (‘a very strong model and ideally suited for hackney work’). He kept the bills down by doing his own repairs, but even then the price of petrol stung. ‘The Austin’s were built like tanks, but you would need a tank coming behind to keep them filled up’.
‘Fair Day was very busy for us’, he says. ‘And I used to deliver barrels of beer out to country house weddings and wakes all over the county’. His longest journey was to Cork City and back in one day, a round trip of 420 miles. And arguably his closest escape was during the Night of the Big Snow in 1947 when he narrowly made it home to Ballymote from Dublin before the roads became impassable. ‘It was hard to get a few bob then so you’d do all the hours you could’.
Although the sound of stout being tapped in the barrels echoes through his childhood memories, life as a barman never really appealed to Jim. ‘I just didn’t like it’, he admits. ‘There was nothing to it’. In 1960, he shut the pub down. Six years later, eager to spend more time with his family, the 50-year-old quit the hackney game and began a 16-year stint driving buses for CIE – ‘the school run and local journeys’.
In 1951, Jim met Miss Kathleen Hopkins, a farmer’s daughter from Baltinglass, Co Wicklow. ‘I got a fishing hook onto her and got her up here’, says he. The couple had a son, who died of cystic fibrosis, and four daughters, three of whom are now teachers.
 James Kielty’s family were farming people. Jim has a classic photograph of his great- grandmother Bony Ann Costello.
With thanks to Catherine Whitehead, John Coleman, Tom Crowley and Andrew Davidson.