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Kevin Thomas Kelly (1910–1994)

by Matthew Jordan

This article was published:

Kevin Thomas Kelly (1910–1994), Catholic intellectual and diplomat, was born on 6 May 1910 at Ballaarat, Victoria, eldest of five surviving children of John Kelly, railway fettler, and his wife Lucy Ann, née Cull, both Victorian-born. Kevin excelled as a scholar, leaving De La Salle College, Malvern, as dux in 1927. Following the death of his father he became responsible for supporting his mother and sisters. After teaching briefly at Toorak Central School, he joined the Victorian Crown Solicitor’s Office in 1928, working in the children’s welfare branch. Balancing study with full-time work, he graduated from the University of Melbourne (BA, 1932; LLB, 1940).

Although in February 1939 Kelly had enlisted in the Melbourne University Rifles, Citizen Military Force, his World War II service was with the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve. Appointed as a paymaster sub-lieutenant on 21 July 1942, promoted to lieutenant in November, and transferred to the Special Branch in January 1943, he performed intelligence duties in Australia (1943–44), Papua (1944–45), New Guinea (1945), and Netherlands New Guinea (1945). He was demobilised in Australia on 13 September 1945, remaining in the RANVR until 1958.

Kelly had joined the Campion Society in 1931, becoming a central personality among a group of Catholics keen to infuse their faith with social activism. Recruiting new members, he promoted the society by travelling throughout Australia, and established the Melbourne Catholic Evidence Guild. A disciple of Joseph Cardijn’s jeunesse ouvrière chrétienne (Young Christian Workers), he played a key role in introducing the JOC’s ideas into Australia and was equally instrumental in the formation of Catholic Action (about which he published a pamphlet in 1939). With one of the earliest Campion recruits, B. A. Santamaria, he helped establish the Catholic Worker.

There were fundamental differences of view, however, between Kelly and Santamaria. Deeply influenced by the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, who defined Catholic Action by its apostolic rather than its political ends, Kelly became increasingly convinced that Santamaria did not appreciate ‘the finer distinctions affecting the frontiers of Church–State relationships.’ After Santamaria established the Catholic Social Studies Movement in 1941 to combat communist influence in trade unions and the Australian Labor Party, Kelly lamented that ‘there existed a profound break on fundamental issues of principle’ (Duncan 2001, 41).

Although deeply critical of ‘the Movement’s’ explicitly political activities, Kelly shared its strident opposition to communism. Joining the Department of External Affairs (DEA) as a third secretary in June 1946, he was unapologetically Eurocentric and convinced that Australia’s foreign policy interests were best served by cultivating relations with ‘natural’ allies, namely, western European, preferably Christian, nations with a deep antagonism to communism. He worked initially in the DEA’s Pacific section and later served as acting consul in New Caledonia (1948–49). Kelly urged the government to oppose the transfer of Netherlands New Guinea to the new Indonesian Republic, saying that it ‘occupies a position of great strategic and tactical importance’ to Australia and that it ‘should not become subject to the control of any Asiatic authority’ (NAA A1838, 309/1/1).

On 21 July 1951 at St Joseph’s Church, Malvern, Kelly married Margaret Mary O’Malley, a stenographer. Appointed first secretary to the Australian High Commission in South Africa (1952–55), he was critical of apartheid. He recognised that, as a consequence of decolonisation, the world was changing and that Australia had to change with it. A counsellor on the Australian mission to the United Nations Organization (1957–60), he represented Australia on its Trusteeship Council and was one of the first officials to warn that Australia’s claims over the Territory of Papua and New Guinea would become increasingly untenable as Afro-Asian nations ‘bend their energies … to ending European hegemony over indigenous peoples wherever they can’ (NAA A1838, 935/1/4).

After a posting to India and Nepal (1960–62) as counsellor, and a brief period in charge of the department’s intelligence coordination branch, Kelly was appointed Australia’s first ambassador to Argentina (1963–66). Returning to Canberra in 1967, he became assistant secretary of the DEA’s policy planning branch (1967–70) before being appointed Australia’s first resident ambassador to Portugal (1971–74). His persistent efforts to emphasise the similarities between the two countries at a time of growing international criticism of Portugal’s colonial policies raised eyebrows in Canberra and led to a formal instruction that ‘wherever possible, you should continue to discourage the Portuguese from attempting to associate Australia with them as a so-called bastion of European culture’ (NAA A1838, 49/1/3).

In 1975 Kelly retired. His aptitude for learning languages led him to become fluent in several European languages while developing a working knowledge of some Asian ones. Kelly's depth of knowledge was rarely disputed, but his manner of communicating it was a cause for concern. Following the coup in Portugal in 1974, he is said to have been sent a cable asking: ‘Please inform urgently on events in Lisbon but don’t start at the Reformation’ (Griffin 1994, 9). A member of the University Club, Sydney, gardening and reading were among his recreations. He was variously described as a ‘chubby dynamo of physical and mental energy,’ ‘an ardent democrat and radical Labourite,’ and ‘perhaps, the best brain in the Catholic social movement’ (Duncan 2001, 15). Survived by his wife and two daughters, he died on 13 July 1994 in Canberra, and was buried in Woden lawn cemetery.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Charlesworth, Max. ‘Australian Catholic Intellectuals.’ In Intellectual Movements and Australian Society, edited by Brian Head and James Walter, 274–88. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1988
  • Cooper, Barbara. Personal communication
  • Duncan, Bruce. Crusade or Conspiracy? Catholics and the Anti-Communist Struggle in Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2001
  • Eddy, John. ‘Intellectual Turned Cultured Diplomat.’ Australian, 22 July 1994, 17
  • Griffin, James. ‘Kevin Thomas Kelly (1910–1994).’ Eureka Street, 4, no.6 (August 1994), 9
  • National Archives of Australia. A1838, 49/1/3 part 5
  • National Archives of Australia. A1838, 309/1/1 part 1
  • National Archives of Australia. A1838, 935/1/4 part 2

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Matthew Jordan, 'Kelly, Kevin Thomas (1910–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 May, 1910
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia


13 July, 1994 (aged 84)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service
Key Organisations
Political Activism