A curate’s perspective by Fr Pat Donnellan
‘Bless you my Friend’ are the immortal words associated with Canon James Kelly. When you met him you truly felt blessed by a friend. Born in Westport on April 25,1931, he died in Tooreen on April 1, 2020. Appropriately, for a priest whose love for Our Lady was unwavering, his Month’s Mind fell on May Day. Often I marvelled at his mellifluous tones as he sang ‘Queen of the May’ – and sometimes he sang it too in April and in June.
I ministered with Fr James in Achill from 1986 to 1992. He was a gentle and kind PP and was a very caring pastor towards his three ‘lively’ young curates – Gerry Burns, Peter Connolly (RIP) and Pat Donnellan.
When the sun shone we would be summoned to join him on the Sandybanks in Keel and urged to cancel all else. I still hear his inviting words: ‘Friends, these days will never come again!’ He’d arrive with his pre-Vatican 11 golf bag and five clubs, and sweetly drive a ball straight down the first fairway as his three curates struggled with brand new golf clubs. Afterwards he swam in the sea and then we chatted for hours over tea, apple tart and cake.
In 1991 he fulfilled a dream when he erected a statue of Our Lady on top of Minaun Mountain – one thousand and five hundred feet high with a springy bog mile for the final climb. A convert to Catholicism, Melody Waters from Santa Rosa US, paid for the very heavy statue but how to get it up? Pierse Construction had just completed the Sewage Scheme and Ged Pierse said he’d like to make a donation to some parish cause. In Fr James’s own words: “‘The old penny dropped. I phoned him and said ‘I have a statue to erect.’” ‘I’ll pay for it,’ he said. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I need to get up on top of Minaun Mountain, I’ll need a helicopter.’ ‘I’ll see to it,’ he said.”
Thus it happened coupled with the generosity of locals who spent days up there building the base with infinite patience – like when the statue was already set in concrete overlooking Clew Bay and Fr James asked them to turn it around to overlook the parish!
He was comfortable in every setting, most at home before The Blessed Sacrament, but happy also to venture into the unknown – be that in The Galtymore in London with one thousand revellers late into the night or the following day in full clerical regalia among heavily tattooed Chelsea supporters in Stamford Bridge. He togged out on Highfield in Maynooth, to play soccer for the priests against the students, at the age of sixty.
I know that there are people with different and special memories of a unique human being in every parish that James blessed with his gentle presence – Brooklodge and Errew Monasteries, Headford, Dunmore, Achill, Caherlistrane, Tooreen. Sprinkled in with his genuine holiness was a sharp mind and a quick wit – to the very end. In Ave Maria Nursing home – where he received such wonderful care – he obviously read the letter from the Archbishop mentioning that ‘he asked Pat Donnellan to keep in touch with retired priests’. The following day Monsignor Dermot Moloney visited James and said that ‘Pat hoped to visit soon’. With a glint in his eye James said: “If not for friendship sake is he not obliged to!”
Visiting was never an obligation in any circle that James blessed with his presence. He loved company and he was delightful company. For twenty-five years after leaving Achill and scattering to different parishes we four continued to meet regularly for fraternal nourishment and good food. He liked good food and although a non-drinker (a Pioneer all his life) he enjoyed when the housekeeper was heavy handed with the Crème de Menthe on the melon or with the sherry in the trifle.
Not long before he died Fr Gerry Burns and I went to see him in Tooreen. He was weak and we weren’t sure if he was fully aware of our presence. After about an hour we decided to say a decade of the Rosary. He immediately produced a rosary beads from under the blanket and handed it to me – noticing I hadn’t a beads in my hand. We dutifully said one decade followed by trimmings, prayers for the sick and imparted a strong final blessing. I quietly gave him back his beads – not sure if he was awake. He immediately handed it back and said: “The second decade!” So we ploughed on with the full five decades and more trimmings and blessings.
When it came to prayer there were no short cuts. He was far too humble to admit it but he possessed all the gifts mentioned below by St Paul. Fr James was a prolific writer and regularly published interesting insights in local papers and other publications. I finish with his own words from a poem he published in The Capuchin Annual in 1970:
‘I have no problems’
Why should I?
My life is regulated like
a Tibetan monk
and this is how
I want it to be,
I am appointed to
some place or other
and with the help of grace
I accept it and
try to welcome it,
I am a peacemaker
and feel timid face to face with pressure,
I think serenity is a virtue
that all things
yield to prayer
that obedience is the key
I love and pray the sound
of the words of Paul
modesty, purity and love.’
That is what I want to be,
I want to be courteous
because the grace of God
I think that all things
yield to gentleness
one must be humble
to be good.
Canon James Kelly was a humble and good priest. This world is a better place because he lived and anywhere that gentleness grows his words will live on … ‘Bless you my Friend’.