Finding Bella Kealy

A few months ago, when reading the infamous “Blue Book” of CCLA History, I stumbled upon the bit about the first CCLA librarian. Her name was Bella Kealy (alternatively spelled Kealey, but Kealy seems to be the correct spelling), and it said:

The first County librarian was engaged in 1889. She was Miss Bella Kealy. The early minutes not only record and confirm her spinsterhood but also, by painfully slow degrees, the increases in her salary which started at $0.75 a day for each day’s attendance. The terms of her contract required that she attend in due time five days a week, starting ultimately at 9:00 in the morning and staying until 4:00 p.m. ‘”except during the sittings of the Court when she must remain until the Court rises.”

Immediately, I was intrigued. The old spinster cat lady librarian trope is well-worn, but for me, well-loved. “Confirmed spinster” Bella Kealy, what was her story?

Through the excellent (who are absolutely not paying me for this blog post – I just think it’s a splendid website), I was able to dig into this. I had spent some time looking at census records before, but somehow missed our Bella. Finding more about her in old news articles certainly helped.

From what I can piece together, Isabelle Kealy was born in Ottawa on June 15, 1875. Her father was Thomas Kealy, and her mother Mary (nee Kilt). They were a fairly traditional working class Irish Catholic family, from what the census records show: several children (most of whom lived to adulthood), and her father was listed as a carter (which, from the brilliant occupation naming conventions of old, meant he moved things around in a cart).

“Hold up, Jen,” you’re thinking. 1875? But she was hired in 1889? This has stymied me too, but unless the census is wrong, and the writing on her entry is quite legible, it looks like 1875 was indeed her birth year, making her 14 or so at that time. The 1881 census lists her birth date as considerably earlier, but from the 1901 census onward, she is listed as being born in 1875. If she was indeed older, and fudged the number for the census, the reason for that is lost to me (to history?) for now.

I’ve since gone back to the minute books to try and tease this out more, and from what I can gather, she actually started working, in some capacity, for the Association in 1888. I like to think she was a bookish and bright girl at the Rideau Street Convent, and someone-who-knew-someone-who-knew the Mother Superior asked them for someone to help straighten books and tidy up in the library.

As the minutes do confirm, she was offered her permanent position as librarian in 1891, though she had been working for the Association continually before then.

The news reports on her are scant for the next several decades. She was heavily involved in the Catholic community, serving on several boards and serivce groups.

I wish this story had a nicer ending than what I found online, but regretfully it doesn’t. On December 17, 1944, Kealy had a heart attack on her way to church. She was with one of her sisters, and brought immediately to a doctor, but unfortunately that wouldn’t be enough. Her funeral was held two days later, and from the news article, was well attended by judges and lawyers from the community. The paper describes her as the “librarian for Carleton County Law Association for many years,” which, if she was still employed at that time, and my math is right, means she worked for the association for 56 years. I would hope that would have earned her a 50 Years umbrella. The blue book confirms that “she served as County librarian for over 30 years” – her retirement date (were she so lucky to have had one) is currently unknown to me. A curiosity of our Association is we don’t always have the most complete set of records from the 20th century, so as time permits, and the record allows, I’d love to continue to dig more into our history (and perhaps close the loop on Kealy’s tenure here).

It is mind-boggling to me that we’ll be moving back into the newly renovated space some of the very books she acquired and processed over 100 years ago, but such is the unique beauty of a law library collection.  We plan to have a nice tribute to Isabelle Kealy in the library once we’re done renovations – but for more on that, you’ll have to wait and see!

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