Timothy Kelly

Fr. Tim Kelly began his education at St. Mary secondary school in September 1969. Nowadays he works as a spiritual director and professor of theology at Saint Marys Seminary in Houston, Texas.

At my mother’s funeral in 2016, I spoke to Mrs Hawkes for the first time in about 10 years. I told her then, and I say again, “is ag dul in oige ata tu.” ‘‘Tis younger you’re getting”.
I saw her on TV for the Rose of Tralee celebration in August 2018. I was very proud when a local station in Dallas carried the story, and I got to see my principal wearing her sash. I boasted about her to anybody who would listen.

I almost missed my Leaving Cert, in fact I almost missed the rest of my life really. In May  1974, we escaped from St Mary’s one afternoon and sneaked our way to the Leap. We played, joked around and acted our age. Like the rest, I jumped into the water. But I began to panic when I felt something pull me down. I still shudder to recall that awful moment, when I could not get my breath. Then, as if out of heaven, I saw an arm in the murky water, and I grabbed it. Ken Hanley pulled me out of the water. I hope he reads this and smiles to remember saving Tim Kelly out of the mighty waters of the Deel. May Ken rest in God’s peace.

I loved Latin. I could not really tell other people that because you are not supposed to love Latin when you are 13 or 17 years old.  But, to this day, I can parse a 4th declension noun as well as any Latinist in Oxford or Rome. You will rightly say that parsing obscure Latin nouns is about as useful as a hole in your head, but it takes all kinds to make this crazy world go round.

And I found Shakespeare in St. Mary’s. In the downstairs classroom, in September 1969, I encountered the Bard of Avon in Mrs. O’Mahony’s English class. He smiled at me, a 400 year old Englishman met a geeky farmer’s son from Askeaton, and the rest is history. I have brought more Sunday congregations to bored slumber over the last 20 years by throwing Shakespeare at them! “Ah, there’s the rub”.

“O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers…… Cry Havock! and let loose the dogs of war!…”. I suppose there were a few in the classroom who loved him, but me and Will became bosom pals in Mrs. O’Mahony’s English drama class.

It was there that I began to learn the power of beautiful words. Mrs. O Mahoney had beautiful words at her command.  In later years, I enjoyed visiting her and listening to her great stories.  I think I can say that she and I shared a good friendship that started with love for the English language. Looking at Askeaton and my generation, there were not too many poets or orators among us. The Bawneagh Ryan’s have kept the old flame of country bards alive, with a mix of witty social commentary and an eye for God’s presence. Ita McDonell would bring in the Irish Times and she would read with us the editorials, usually written in beautiful English. It was there that I learned the word “mediocre” and “maudlin” and what a “Virago” was.

Apart from geometry, I hated and despised Maths and Science. I dreaded those classes so much because I simply could never figure out how they could ever impact on a person’s daily life. To this very day, I have nightmares about being in a classroom where everyone else understands permutations and trigonometry, while I sit there worrying in case I get asked a question. “Too high for me, O Lord, too far above my understanding.” (Psalm 1) I still do not understand what a slide rule is for.

Everyone agreed how brilliant Sean Curran, our math teacher was, and indeed I’m sure he held the admiration and respect of all of the mathematical community. But, for me, dear Mr. Curran, going to math class was torture. Sorry Sean. And to John Egan also. There is just no other word to describe it. I’m sure that they remember me as one of the most stupid kids they ever had to teach. Words cannot describe how my heart and my stomach ached when I had to face 45 minutes of pretending to know what was going on.

Throughout my life, I have been a historian of some variety. In the 1980’s I wrote a lot of articles on local history around Askeaton. Now, aged 61 and greying at the temples, I finally get an appointment teaching history in a Catholic University.

But that love for truthful retelling of the past came firstly from my grandmother, Catherine (Comba) O’ Shaughnessy, who told about pots of gold, secret tunnels, Black and Tans and her unrequited love. She taught me “Dangerous Dan McGrew” and my prayers. She taught me really naughty rhymes about “The king and the queen were sleeping together. …” after she had helped me with my catechism questions. I got the itch for history in the corner of of our kitchen.

And then I met Rosie Doupe. She later became Rosie McElligot but to me, she is in my memory as Rosie Doupe. I sat there enthralled by her in my first weeks in St. Mary’s. She captured my imagination and that captivation with history has never gone away. Even after Masters and Doctorate, dissertation and thesis, I still remember her telling me about medieval knights and peasants, cathedrals and castles, reformers and inquisitions. She was a great teacher.

Emily. “Mother, I am engaged to be married to Mr. Worthing”.
Lady Bracknell. “Engaged! You are nothing of the kind. If you do become engaged, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come upon a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant as the case may be. It is hardly a matter she should be allowed to decide for herself”.
Oscar Wilde’s great play “the importance of being Ernest” is forever tattoos inside my brain. When a few of us gather for a drink or a meal, Lady Bracknell or Dr. Chasuble often leap out of Wilde fantasy and sup with us. For us 5th Year students in the Spring of 1973, life became pure magic and fun as we preened and strutted and pranced and played on stages around West Limerick. Months of practice and tough tutelage by Miss Ita McDonnell gave us such confidence and joy. Others must write that story for this Algernon Moncrief has forgotten too much.

I remember the sense of excitement in the school when Wyeth opened in Askeaton. Mrs. Hawkes made it her business to get to know the bosses, and she recommended some of my friends who spend much of their career working there.

I arrived in St. Mary’s in September 1969, just as the world was boiling up for the greatest social revolution in history. You can laugh and say that social revolutions were far away from us in little Askeaton in Little Ireland in September 1969. You would be wrong! There were knees! You could see knees without going to Ballybunion! Miniskirts has arrived in Askeaton by September 1969. Unlike the 12 year olds of today, our awakening to adolescence came late, at least mine did. When I was looking at some photographs the other day, my wonder was just how cold it must have been in a miniskirt in a March gale in Askeaton 1973. “Blow, blow, thou winter wind, thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude”.

Bellbotoms for the guys – they were truly the most ugly invention, but we thought we were fab!

Ok let’s get something clear to those of you who were not even born then. I never listened to the Beatles. That was for old people Martin Hawkes and the Sheehan Brothers on Church St. They were so old that we wondered how sad it was to be them. Forgive me, but when you are 13, the men in Leaving Cert are old, really old!

Then there were the happy lunchtimes in Miss Brandon’s tea room. Friendships that have survived separation, tragedy and different lives were formed there. Caroline Naughton, Berna Mann and myself discussing the morning’s events, Mrs. Hawkes’ look, either cross or relatively benign, how dreadful the Irish grammar class was, and whether we could successfully distract Mrs. Hawkes off topic by asking a question. (Because, believe it or not, if you got her off topic, she was pretty interesting.)

Of course, like happens all over the world, we made fun of our teachers. Never to their faces though! We had nicknames for them all, and we thought we were terribly smart sniggering at them behind their backs.

Now, all these years later, I realize just how smart they really were, they really, really were a smart bunch of teachers at St. Mary secondary school in Askeaton, Co. Limerick. Now 50 years later and working in a Catholic seminary, dealing with men who have come through the educational systems of United States, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Nigeria, Mexico and other countries, I am so proud to be able to say that I can hold up my head with any of them. When we Irish go abroad, we take with us the greatest legacy Ireland can give, a great education.

It should go without saying, but I will say it anyway, our lives take us into places and situations that we never dreamed of. I end up here in Texas, a priest in a whirlwind moment for the Catholic Church, trying to lead men on a road to priesthood, while I myself am often as bewildered as they are. Some days, I have to ask God for eyes of wisdom so that I am not a blind man leading the blind. Age does not assure wisdom, certainly not in my case.

When I was about 15 years old, I went to see Mrs. Hawkes in the staff room to tell her that I wanted to be a priest. She was the first person to whom I’ve ever spoken about this. I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember that she made some contacts for me with a number of religious orders. Two years later, following my leaving certificate, I wanted so badly to be a priest. But Dr. Noel Fitzgibbon warned me that it was going to be very hard for me to get into a seminary once a bishop or a religious group discovered that I had suffered from epilepsy since I was 13 years old. I’m sure that Mrs. Hawkes does not remember any of this, but I remember how angry she was that the Church still considered epilepsy as a impediment to becoming a priest. Thankfully, 10 years later, the Code of Canon Law was updated to reflect reality. In 1974, my parents and I were deeply ashamed of the fact that I suffered from epilepsy, and nobody, nobody was told about it. It was truly a different world, a world of shame and blame.

In our house, any criticism of the clergy was reserved for my father alone; we were never to say something like that. Imagine trying to stop me from expressing an opinion! But imagine trying to silence me at 17 when the topic was the Catholic Church, the greatest love of my life, and at the same time, the object of my enlightened destain.

One Sunday, when we arrived home after 11.30am Mass, my annoyed father vented , “if I have to listen to that sermon again, I’ll give up going to Mass. The gospel of the day was the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and my father was tired of hearing the same sermon trotted out year after year.

My generation really considered ourselves the radicals of the century, and certainly we saw and brought into being a new Ireland. But now, looking back, I see that the generation of our parents were already unhappy with the insularity and remoteness of post-war and 1960s Ireland.

My father and his generation reserved the right to speak under their breaths about the “Mother and Child Scheme”. No anti-clericalist by any means, certainly no radical, my father kept a resentful memory of the Catholic hierarchy’s interference in politics during the First Inter-party government of 1948-1952. Strange to say, that memory of my father stays with me to this day. I recall how he murmured under his breath when Archbishop McNamara got into it with Garrett Fitzgerald’s government on the issue of the referendum on divorce in 1986. Ireland did not just change overnight, but bitterness simmered underground for decades. “Uisce faoi thalamh”.

When I come home on holidays, I inevitability get to talking about Texas and priesthood. People ask me about my life, and about the differences between Ireland and Texas.

I have spent many years in the Bible Belt,, although now I live and work in more sophisticated Houston. Whereas in Askeaton, people don’t even talk about their Catholic faith in private, in East Texas, indeed all over the southern states of America it would not be unusual to find people doing Bible study sitting around the table drinking coffee in a restaurant. When someone moves into a neighborhood, it is considered polite to welcome them with an apple pie and an invitation to join us for church on Sunday morning.. For 13 years, my Thursday morningg was Mens’ prayer group, where I joined about 15 of my parishioners, mainly high-roller professional types, who gather to pray in a local cafe before going to work.

I have done prayers for Mayor’s lunches, Governor’s Galas, marathon races, opening sports clubs, and once I blessed and prayed at the opening of a Tattoo Parlor. Public prayer is normal in Texas.

Just to illustrate how prevalent public expressing of prayer is in Tyler,TX. Listen to this very personal tale. I had to have surgery in April 2018 in Mother Frances Catholic Hospital in Tyler, TX. When I woke up from the anesthesia, the cardiologist was holding my right hand, The nurse was holding my left. Both were dressed in black scrubs and they were saying the rosary. My first thought was that I was dying. “Oh sweet God, I’m dying?” My Catholic doctor and Baptist nurse pray with all their patients before and after surgery. It’s how life is in East Texas and all over the southern states of America. It is indeed a long way to Tipperary!

In the summer of 1982, I visited. Mary’s in order to have a conversation with Mrs. Hawkes . I found her in the men’s bathroom, paintbrush in hand, white washing the walls. Of course the walls were decorated with lots of lewd cartoons and jokes. What I remember most is Mrs. Hawkes’ wonderment that somebody had managed to draw a very rude cartoon on the high ceiling, “ if that ‘great folbo’ put as much effort into his studies as he does drawing dirty pictures, he might get a few honors in his Leaving Cert.”

Which leads me to another difference between living in Texas and living in Ireland. When I come home on vacation, I am horrified to hear what passes for comedy on Irish TV. As I look back on my years at St. Mary’s, I realize just how high the standards of behavior and speech Mrs. Hawkes expected from us. Men opened doors for women, we stood up when the principal entered the room. Teachers insisted on gentlemanly behavior. Of course, we didn’t always act like gentlemen or ladies once the teachers back was turned. I remember how horrified Mrs. Hawkes was when she heard that we used foul language. (I suspect that she was using a little drama also. “Nora Bean” was not that naïve.)

At home in Lismakeera, bad language was simply out of the question. My father, though by no means a prudish man, and certainly not a saint, gave me a sharp rebuke when, a 15 year old know-it-all, I used a dirty word. Bad language and vulgarity were for the kind of people you did not mix with. It was simply outside the pale in Bill Kelly’s house.

I have lived for 25 years in Texas, most of it in the deep Bible Belt.. And I can honestly say that I have never, ever, not even once heard a person using the F word or similar vulgarity. In a place like Tyler, Texas, you would lose your job if you used language like that in the workplace. I have seen public school high school footballers taken off the field by their team managers because they used such language. I sometimes think to myself that Mrs. Hawkes is alive and well in Texas.

But I must admit that my dearly departed mother slipped into profanity on one memorable morning. She was milking the cows when one of them lashed out at her with a very dirty tail, covering my mother’s face with “organic material”. She might not have used that language a lot, but she certainly had a sailor’s tongue that day.

One of my fondest memories of going to school in St. Mary’s was that we were allowed to debate issues in English class, and other forums as well. To this day I love debating issues like politics and religion. Our teachers encouraged us to think for ourselves, and I never remember Mrs. Hawkes complaining about the modern world. She was very clear about the equality of men and women. We boys knew better than to cross that line with “She who must be obeyed”.

Unfortunately I live in an American society which is very closed today, a society wounded by alienation and intolerance, where public debate in Texas accepts a very conservative line as normal, especially for Christians.

Here in Texas only conservatives watch Fox TV, liberals watch CNN. Nobody listens to anybody else’s point of view. I learned at St. Mary’s that debate and disagreement is a sure sign of a healthy society. When I first arrived in Texas, I had to learn that the word “liberal” is a bad word. It seems that people want to herd together, like cattle in a storm, seeking warmth and shelter. There seems to be an unhealthy fear of difference.

But the exact same intolerance and lack of respect is true of modern Irish society also. It is just as intolerant as the Bible Belt. There is a rush to uniformity. The only difference is that in Irish society, all public debate accepts a liberal, secular agenda as if it is normal. And it certainly is not.

I think my first exposure to true “liberal education” was in St. Mary’s in Askeaton.
I give thanks to the Lord God for having been able to go to school there at a moment in history when a real revolution was changing Ireland and the world. Even though Mrs. Hawkes and her staff held the line on moral and social values, I believe I learned to be open to change in my formative teenage years in St. Mary’s Secondary School in Askeaton, Co. Limerick. I watched a great leader at work, wielding real power in our small corner of reality, and yet also showing true witness to Christ in her kindness and care. We knew that she worried about us. Mrs. Nora Hawkes had leadership skills and she had vision.

Our memories play tricks on us and we refine our past experiences so that we exclude hurtful or unwelcome realities. But that rose-tinting of our past does leave us with some great vignettes that are so tellable. When I read Fintan Ryan’s poem, I smiled to recall that vision of Batwoman swooping down those great Victorian steps. I can still see the quintessential Mrs. Holy Terror Hawkes swooping into the classroom, black-robed as any mythical, medieval wizard, bulging handbag on arm, magnificently magisterial, quelling the demons of Pan-demonium with “Back to your desks and sit down. Now! You should be ashamed of yourselves, you uncouth, uncivilized little savages!”

A few weeks ago, confronted by a student with the temerity to challenge his all-knowing professor on a point of fact, I hurled at him the same thunderbolt that was heard in St. Mary’s all those years ago. In a classic put-down line worthy of great drama, I rebuked my over-mighty, over assertive student thus: “temeo hominem unius libri”. (I fear the man who has only read a single book). The blank look on the man’s face made me feel so superior that I drew the bow one more time. “A little learning is a dangerous thing, drink deep, or touch not the Phyrian spring. ….”. Zeus had hurled his lightning bolt, but there were no sparks. My dagger had struck home, but the wound did not bleed. The poor misguided Millenial had no idea in the world what I meant, but he gathered from my tone of voice that this Irishman is not to be messed with! I walked out of that classroom feeling sinfully superior, and such attitude is wrong. So I did go to confession later that day. It is Mrs. Hawkes’ fault. I had waited 40 years to use that line.

As a priest, it was my honor to give the last sacraments to Mrs. Peggy Dooley, who had taught History, Geography and Commerce for many years. I still remember how excited Miss Peggy Sheehan from the Old Mill was to show us her engagement ring in 1970. She was a good woman.

As I finish this memoir of other times, I remember Mrs. Mary Meade, my Latin teacher. We enjoyed her classes because she could be amusing and sharp-tongued. But nobody wanted to sit in the front desk, because when she laughed at one of her own jokes, she showered us with – shall we say saliva.

For our 14th birthday Mother and Dad bought Tom and I two bicycles. They were ones with small wheels and they were very fashionable at the time. Of course, by the time I was 16, I was considerably larger – but the bike did not get any bigger. Mrs. Mary Meade, never one for hiding her opinions or short on giving advice, advised me to get a bigger bike. She told me I looked “like an elephant riding a scissors”.

And to return to the riveting topic of Latin, 35 years after doing badly in my Leaving Cert, I told Mrs. Meade that I had just passed my Ph.D. Latin equivalency exam in Rome. Her reply was so characteristic, “And why wouldn’t you? Didn’t you have the finest Latin teacher in all Ireland!”