Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Rev. Thomas Kelly

On Sunday 30th June Rev. Thomas Kelly, the founder of the Kellyites, will be commemorated with the unveiling of a plaque near to the entrance of his early 19th century meeting house in Duke Street. Kelly was one of several notable individuals from Athy’s past whose story, like that of Ernest Shackleton, I rediscovered and so reclaimed as part of our local history. Kelly, the only son of an Irish Judge who resided at Kellyville, Ballintubbert, was born on 13th July 1769. Educated at schools in Portarlington and Kilkenny he attended Trinity College Dublin, after which he studied law in London. He subsequently gave up his legal studies and entered for the priesthood. Ordained for the Anglican church at 23 years of age he returned to Dublin where he soon acquired a reputation for his evangelical style of preaching. The rector of St. Luke’s church Dublin however objected to what he termed Kelly’s ‘methodistical tendencies’. Reported to the Dublin diocesan authorities the Archbishop deemed it necessary to prohibit Kelly from preaching within the Dublin diocese. Rev. Thomas Kelly returned to the Athy area and preached in the town’s Anglican parish church which strangely enough, given Archbishop Fowler’s concerns, was also occasionally used by the recently formed local Methodist congregation. Soon after returning to Athy Thomas Kelly, disillusioned with the Anglican church, formed his own dissenting group known as ‘the Kellyites’. They were to remain a small but active religious group for the next 50 years or so. The Kellyites opened a meeting house off Duke Street approached through the archway, now separating the Gorta charity shop from Donnelly Solicitors. Church returns for 1834 indicate that the Kellyites in Athy numbered between 30 and 40 and met every Sunday for a prayer service in their Duke Street meeting house. The Parliamentary Gazetteer for 1844/’45 confirmed the continuing existence of the Kellyite meeting house. Indeed it would remain in use by the Kellyites until shortly after Thomas Kelly’s death in 1855. The following year the Duke Street premises was sold and the local Kellyites disbanded and re-joined for the most part either the local Anglican or Methodist churches. Kelly, early in his career, had also opened meeting houses in Blackrock Dublin, Portarlington, Wexford and Waterford, but these meeting houses also ceased to be used soon after Kelly’s death. Nowadays Rev. Thomas Kelly is better known as a hymnologist whose published hymns ran to eight editions between 1804 and 1838. The first edition of his hymns entitled ‘Hymns on Various Passages of Sacred Scripture’ contained 96 hymns, while the final edition 34 years later had 776 hymns. Several of his hymns such as ‘Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious’, ‘On the Mountain top appearing’, ‘The Head that once was Crowned with Thorns’ and ‘We sing the Praise of Him who died’ are considered by many to be comparable with the best hymns in the English language. At the beginning of the last century nearly 140 of Kelly’s hymns were in common use. The everlasting popularity of Kelly’s hymns is confirmed by their inclusion in church hymnals to this day. Thomas Kelly was also the author of several pamphlets published during his lifetime. The ‘History of Andrew Dunn, an Irish Catholic’ was published in several editions. He also published ‘A letter to the Roman Catholics of Athy occasioned by Mr. Hayes seven sermons’ in 1823. In that pamphlet Kelly outlined his arguments against sermons in which Hayes had expressed his views on the Mass. Another pamphlet of Kellys titled ‘A plea for primitive Christianity’, an answer to a pamphlet by the Rev. Peter Roe entitled ‘The Evil of Separation from the Church of England’ was published in 1815. Rev. Roe, who was Rector of St. Marys Kilkenny, was a lifelong friend of Thomas Kelly and one of the leading Irish Evangelists of that time. A Kelly pamphlet published in Dublin in 1809 entitled ‘Some Account of James Byrne of Kilberry in the County of Kildare addressed principally to the Roman Catholic inhabitants of Athy and its neighbourhood’ gave an interesting account of James Byrne joining the Kellyites. Thomas Kelly was married in 1794 to Elizabeth Tighe of Rosanna, Co. Wicklow whose mother was a friend of John Wesley and whose brother, Rev. Thomas Tighe was one of the earliest leaders in the Evangelical movement of the Church of Ireland. Thomas Kelly was described by his peers as ‘a man of great and varied learning ….. an excellent bible critic ….. of an amiable disposition and thorough in his Christian piety …..he was a friend of good men and the advocate of every worthy benevolent and religious cause. He was admired alike for his zeal and humility and his liberality found ample scope during the years of the Great Famine.’ Rev. Thomas Kelly died on 14th May 1855 aged 86 years.

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