Next Sunday in the Methodist Church on Woodstock Street Athy Lions Club will host a musical event, part tribute, part celebration, of the musical genius of Ballintubbert born Rev. Thomas Kelly. The son of an Irish Judge he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin and was intended to follow his father and join the Irish Bar. Coming however under strong evangelical influences he decided to devote his life to religious work and was ordained a Minister of the Episcopal Church in 1792 at 23 years of age. Despite his youth and relative inexperience he proved a popular preacher. As an intimate of Rowland Hill and John Walker his sympathies were wholly with the Evangelical movement.
The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Robert Fowler, disapproved of the Evangelical movement and was particularly critical of the ‘Methodistical’ activities of Kelly and his colleagues. The Archbishop inhibited Thomas Kelly as well as Hill and Walker from preaching in the Dublin Diocese. Thomas Kelly embarked on an independent course and continued to preach in unlicensed buildings in the capital city. In time however he seceded from the Episcopal Church and founded a new sect which was known as the ‘Kellyites’. John Walker also seceded from the Church in which he had been ordained and founded the ‘Walkerites’ which continued to have an existence in Dublin up to the 1940s.
Thomas Kelly, a man of independent means, opened places of worship in his home town of Athy as well as in Portarlington, Wexford and Blackrock, Co. Dublin. The Athy Kellyite Chapel was located in Duke Street at the rear of No. 5. It was approached via the archway between what is now the Gorta premises and the adjoining Solicitors practice.
Another acquaintance of Thomas Kelly was John Nelson Darby, a fellow priest of the Established Church who like Kelly and Walker was to turn away from the Church of England. The early 19th century saw the emergence of numerous religious sects and the aforementioned clerics were responsible for establishing three breakaway religious groups. The Kellyites, the Walkerites and the Plymouth Brethren founded by John Nelson Darby with others were, and in the case of the Brethren, still remain important in the religious life of many people.
Thomas Kelly was a hymn writer of considerable merit and during his lifetime he published eight editions of his hymns entitled ‘Hymns on Various Passages of Sacred Scripture’. The first edition in 1804 contained 96 hymns and the final edition which appeared 49 years later had a grand total of 765, all written by Thomas Kelly. The compositions reflect the personal piety of the author and in so many of them the note of praise is a marked feature such as to warrant the description of Kelly’s hymns as hymns of praise.
Thomas Kelly’s best hymns are to be found on the 1820 edition of his published work. ‘The Head that once was Crowned with Thorns’ is one of the comparatively few hymns of the early 19th century which are included in modern hymnals exactly as they were written. It is regarded as one of the finest hymns in the English language.
Another Kelly hymn, ‘We sing the Praise of Him who Died’ is another admirably written hymn and its second verse is a particular favourite:-
‘Inscribed upon the cross we see
In shining letters, “God is love”,
He bears our sins upon the tree’
He brings us mercy from above.’
Kelly was also the author of several pamphlets including ‘A letter addressed to the Roman Catholics of Athy occasioned by Mr. Hayes Seven Sermons’. Another pamphlet of special interest to Athy folk was published in 1809 with the title, ‘Some Account of James Byrne and Kilberry in the County of Kildare addressed principally to the Roman Catholics inhabitants of Athy and its neighbourhood’.
In 1843 the Kellyites in Athy numbered approximately 40 and they met every week in their Duke Street chapel. Thomas Kelly who married Elizabeth Tighe of Rosanna, Co. Wicklow, lived at Kellyville but generally went to Dublin every second week to take service there. He died on Monday, 14th May 1854 and is buried in Ballintubbert. With his passing the Kellyites disappeared as a separate church group as its members joined the ranks of the Established Church and in some cases the Methodist Church.
Next Sunday at 3.00 p.m. Athy Lions Club will celebrate in song the life and work of Rev. Thomas Kelly. Do come along and enjoy what promises to be an enjoyable occasion.
Within the past few weeks Mary O’Sullivan retired as receptionist to Dr. Giles O’Neill. Mary is a most thoughtful and caring individual who made a meaningful contribution to the local community during her time as a Town Councillor and has continued to make that contribution as a member of the Arts Centre management team and as secretary of Athy Lions Club. We wish Mary well in her retirement.