Rev Fr Tony Kelly, S.C.A. who was called ashore by the Great Referee on August 8th having played a starring role in the game of life, could be said to have lived a double life.
The quiet, shy and retiring cleric who came home to his native Thurles each September in time for the All-Ireland Final, enjoyed going to the local games, meeting with the people of the Cathedral Town and reminiscing about great days wearing the blue and white of Thurles Sarsfields.
But, alongside this life was the daily reality of a man who played such a key and central role in the lives of an entire community in Mount Carmel, Manhattan, new York, where Fr Kelly was a revered figure. Indeed, family members have only recently become aware of the huge influence he has had on his flock and the send-off he received at his passing was truly remarkable. But then, Fr Tony Kelly was, in many respects, a remarkable man.
By the time he entered the Pallotine College in Thurles, the son of Thomas and Mary Kelly of Leugh, had already made a name for himself on the GAA fields of mid and county Tipperary. He had won Croke, Dean Ryan and Dr Harty Cup medals with Thurles CBS, having progressed from Leugh National School, and was establishing himself with the great Thurles Sarsfields teams of the era also -legendary Manager John Lanigan was a great admirer of his talents.
The strong and dashing Tony Kelly, had started out his career playing for Rahealty and actually won a Mid football championship with Loughmore-Castleiney. But, it was with his beloved Blues that he was really to make a mark and he went on to win County senior hurling medals in 1958 and 1959, at a time when he was at the height of his clerical studies.
It wasn’t always simple to “get him out” for the big games though and the story goes of how John Lanigan, in the eyes of the College authorities, supposedly invited him out “for dinner” on a particular Sunday. There was no dinner, but an all important championship match in which Tony starred and claimed rave reviews in The Tipperary Star - an article which found it’s way to the desk of the Pallotine authorities, and subsequently resulted in questions being asked. It didn’t matter - the game had been won and it had been worth it.
Fr Kelly was ordained on June 14th 1959 - a great day of celebration for the Kelly family - and he was sent to Argentina in early 1960 where he remained for 12 years. His fluent Spanish meant that he was a vital cog in the Pallotine wheel and he made a huge impact in Argentina, even managing to bring the caman to the natives. Upon departure for his first assignment, Thurles Sarsfields presented him with eighteen hurleys and a supply of sliothars to help spread the hurling gospel, but Fr Kelly was disappointed to find that the local championships had been abandoned, despite their being some fourteen clubs in existence at the time.
Of course, Fr Kelly, on his visits home always linked up with his former hurling colleagues and he actually lined out in the 1965 championship replay clash with Carrick on Suir in front of 12,000 spectators - six years after he had last hurled for the club. John D Hickey wrote at the time that he “added to the winners attack, a drive that had been patently lacking in the drawn game,” -Sarsfields won out by 3-11 to 2-7 thanks in no small way to the visiting cleric.
It wasn’t always sunshine and roses on the hurling field for him though and since his passing, recollections of his dismissal in a clash with Moyne were resurrected. Imagine the talk of the division when a priest (Fr Kelly) and a memebr of An Garda Siochana ( Murty Collins) were both sent off during a typically robust encounter with the Moyne men- to add to the intrigue, they were dismissed by a man who was later to become a colleague of the cloth, current Canon Liam Ryan, PP in Killenaule and Moyglass. That incident was to lead to great debate, discussion and fun in later years.
While based in Argentina, the Pallotine Order needed to appoint a Spanish speaking priest to the parish of Mount Carmel in Manhattan - Fr Kelly was dispatched, on a temporary basis, on loan to the Italian Pallotines. Forty years later, he left the parish as Pastor of Mount Carmel to return home to Ireland, to be buried beside the flowing waters of the River Suir in the Pallotine graveyard in Cabra.
New York was to become his adoptive home and while there he became chaplain, and a real driving force, to the Tipperary Association. Indeed, alongside another Thurles native Therese Crowe, Fr Kelly was to be instrumental in helping so many Irish men and women as they tried to make their way in a new world. He had been an active officer and member of the Tipperary hurling club in New York and actually won a New York senior hurling championship medal as well, to go along with his Tipperary crowns, of which he regarded the Harty Cup medal as one of the best. He had many a debate with Jim McLoughney on his visits home about that Harty Cup medal as they recalled those great days in Thurles CBS.
One of Fr Tony’s weekly visits in New York was to Seskin lady Alice Hayde and her family, the Minogues. There, the contents of The Tipperary Star would be swallowed up and digested and they ensured that they knew as much about the goings in Tipperary, as those at home. Alice Hayde was to lose her brother Mickey and her best friend Fr Tony in a matter of days - a bitter blow to a lady who made her life in the US, but maintained a special place in her heart for Thurles.
The impact Fr Tony had made in Mount Carmel would be unknown to most in Thurles because he never spoke of it. It was only on a recent visit to Manhatten that the true extent of his service became known. He was so highly regarded as a man of God, a Pastor, a helper, and a friend. He was a champion of the under-privileged and the underdog, and went out of his way to ensure that social injustices were not tolerated. He truly was a man on a mission and just as he showed drive and dash on the playing fields, he brought the same attributes to his pastoral work, his spreading of the Gospel and his determination to do his best for his people.
Fr Tony Kelly breathed his last on August 8th leaving his sister Rita, his brothers Sean and Albert, and all the extended family with a real sense of loss in their lives. But, they have been comforted hugely by the great tributes paid to their brother - the man who would pick up the phone so regularly to hear about all the goings on. His enquiries about the younger Sarsfields hurlers always had the ‘ Is he a grandson of.....?’ attached.
His family has been touched to see the send-off he received in Mount Carmel with a hurley and sliothar being placed in his coffin and the players flanking him on his final journey home. They were honoured to see the Sarsfields flag on his coffin and the guard of honour of former players and colleagues at his funeral Mass in the Pallotine College, Thurles where his lifes mission started all those years ago. And, they were pleased to see so many friends and neighbours as Fr Tony was laid to rest in the soil of Tipperary as the crystal clear water of the Suir flowed by, as they have done for all of his 79 years.
Few enough people probably knew everything about Fr Tony Kelly’s remarkable life - many though, knew something. But, all agree that he made a remarkable contribution to his native games; achieved greatness in his commitment to the Gospel; served his Order with distinction; went out of his way to help his parishioners; and loved his home town, it’s people, his family and wide circle of friends, very dearly.
Yes, he was a remarkable man.
Ar dheis De go raibh a Anam dilis.