Thomas (Tom) O’Donnell, who served as the member of parliament for West Kerry from 1900 to 1918, was born on 30 November 1871. A native of Ballyduff near Castlegregory, he and his family were evicted from their farm during the Land War. O’Donnell became a vocal advocate of land reform and joined the Land League in 1879. He qualified as a teacher and taught in Killorglin national school for eight years. He married Nora Ryan from Killorglin in 1897.
O’Donnell, who lived at Lower Bridge Street, Killorglin was elected MP for the West Kerry constituency in 1900 and had a significant political influence in the town to such as an extent that the relative weakness of the IRA in Killorglin during the War of Independence is attributed to his towering influence. Controversially, when he attempted to speak in Irish in the House of Commons in 1901, he was censured by the Speaker of the House. During his career was active in promoting Home Rule, land reform and farming and fishing rights in his constituency.
O’Donnell was a strong critic of Sinn Féin, whose surge in support pressured many Irish Parliamentary Party to leave politics. He stepped down at the 1918 general election, along with the three other Irish Parliamentary MPs in Kerry, and was replaced as an MP by Austin Stack who became a member of the First Dáil. O’Donnell left Killorglin in 1921 during the War of Independence, apparently concerned for his personal safety during the conflict.
He attempted to revive his political career at the August 1923 general election, standing as an Independent in the Kerry constituency. He told voters that as an MP, he had ‘started the growing of flax in Kerry … built libraries in Tralee, Dingle and Killorglin; built a secondary school for poor children … got free grants amounting to over £50,000 for railways and harbours in the county …’ but he was not elected.
O’Donnell subsequently joined Fianna Fáil and was close to Éamon de Valera. A barrister, he became a Circuit Court judge in 1941 and died two years later. Kerry priest and historian, J Anthony Gaughan published an excellent biography of O’Donnell in 1983.