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Michael Kelly (1850–1940)

by Patrick O'Farrell

This article was published:

Michael Kelly (1850-1940), Roman Catholic archbishop, was born on 13 February 1850 at Waterford, Ireland, son of James Kelly, of Camlin Woods, New Ross, and his wife Mary, née Grant, of Glenmore, Kilkenny. He was educated at the Christian Brothers' College, Waterford, and the Classical Academy, New Ross, receiving clerical education at St Peter's College, Wexford, and the Irish College, Rome. After his ordination on 1 November 1872, Kelly spent the next twenty years attached to the House of Missions, established in 1866 at Enniscorthy, Wexford, by Bishop Furlong of the diocese of Ferns, to conduct missions for the suppression of intemperance. Kelly became a leader in a revival of this campaign, which was to lead on to the formation in 1901 of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart, the most famous and longest-lived of Irish temperance organizations.

His preaching and writing on temperance matters brought him prominence within the Irish Church, and in 1891 Kelly was appointed rector pro tempore of the Irish College in Rome, to assist the aged rector Archbishop Tobias Kirby and to rescue the college from a decline. He had some success in restoring proper order and financial solvency and was confirmed as rector when Kirby died in 1895, but his rectorship lacked the stature of his famous and adroit predecessor. In matters of authority and discipline, he tended towards the arbitrary and the petty. He was not popular, and although his administration was efficient, his decisions were usually extremely cautious as well as occasionally politically inept: these characteristics were all evident in his later Australian career. In Ireland he was credited with 'great piety, but a small share of wisdom'.

On 20 July 1901 Kelly was preconized coadjutor archbishop of Sydney, with right of succession to Cardinal Moran, who treated him with coldness and arbitrary command, a situation which Kelly accepted with uncomplaining humility until Moran died in 1911. He succeeded to the see on 16 August. Having lived in Moran's shadow for ten years, Kelly at 61 had nothing original to offer by way of Church policy, save a much heavier accent on piety and a continuance in Australia of his lifelong crusade against intemperance. His piety was central to his episcopal rule and typified a form of religious life then common in Australia. It was narrow, austere and rigidly disciplined, emphasizing mortification. The result was a strict spirituality of intense, at times tormented, self-questioning in long hours of meditation. Kelly kept detailed spiritual diaries which reveal a man constantly at war with himself and temptation. With Milton a favourite author, he shared that sombre Puritan vision, seeing himself personally besieged by pride, anger, gluttony, avarice. A short, portly man, Kelly fought against the desire to eat too much. He strove to suppress his inclination to ready anger. He craved riches, worldly honour and popularity, and set out deliberately to crush these yearnings. What emerged from this internal struggle, this merciless self-discipline, came across to others as a colourless evisceration of personality, as chill remoteness and inhumanity. His acute sense of episcopal dignity often appeared to be stiff pomposity, and his stilted habit of referring to himself in the episcopal plural 'we' seemed ludicrous and was the basis for many jokes. Even within his Church he had a reputation for insensitivity and tactlessness, which resulted in much needless alienation and resentment. In part, this unfortunate public image reflected the fact that he regarded the daily affairs of men, social problems and the like, as vanities and trifles, distraction from the crucial business of holy living, but it was also a result of his rigorous repression of self.

Kelly's episcopacy spanned nearly thirty years of major events and changes — World War I, Irish rebellion, conscription referenda, social changes of the 1920s, Depression, Catholic Action and the outbreak of World War II. In relation to all of these his position was invariably conservative and hierarchical and, particularly as he moved into his eighties, often uncomprehending. He continued to champion vigorously the claims of Catholic education to state aid, but he was unsympathetic to, and suspicious of, university education and intellectual life generally. He initially supported the war in 1914, but his enthusiasm rapidly waned as it raised divisive issues — particularly conscription — and as the Irish situation worsened after the 1916 rebellion: his uncertain reactions in that regard suggest an inability to cope with complex social problems, particularly when his deep conservatism was in conflict with his genuine Irish nationalism. In these areas, the radical and confident Archbishop Mannix was much more prominent, although Kelly supported Mannix from time to time, particularly when he was visiting Ireland in 1920.

Kelly was much more at home responding belligerently to the wave of anti-Catholic agitation which swept over New South Wales from 1916 to 1925, culminating in the State government legislation seeking to declare illegal Catholic canon law on mixed marriages: in these sectarian engagements Kelly was a strident, uncompromising, but often inept and unnecessarily narrow Catholic leader. The high point of his episcopacy was the International Eucharistic Congress held in Sydney in 1928, a triumphant public demonstration of Catholic numerical growth and piety, centring on the newly completed St Mary's Cathedral and its archbishop.

The 1930s saw Kelly gradually retiring from public view, overtaken by age and ill health. He continued his habit of issuing frequent pastoral letters, usually on matters of spiritual improvement and devotion: his few pronouncements on unemployment counselled Christian resignation, and he saw Catholic Action as meaning greater piety. He was increasingly out of touch with the problems of the day, and the social orientation of his own Church. In 1922 he had taken as coadjutor bishop the distinguished Maynooth catechetical scholar, Dr Michael Sheehan. After fifteen years of waiting for the succession while Kelly moved into his late eighties, Sheehan resigned in July 1937 to return to Ireland; another coadjutor archbishop, (Cardinal Sir) Norman Thomas Gilroy was appointed, who succeeded when Kelly died at Manly on 8 March 1940. He was buried in the Kelly Memorial Chapel in the crypt of St Mary's Cathedral.

By virtue of longevity and the limitation of his own perception, Kelly carried well into twentieth-century Catholic New South Wales the attitudes and style of nineteenth-century clerical Ireland. Immensely strong in areas of simple piety and individual religion, Kelly's was essentially a fortress Church, at war with the world and Protestantism. It was hostile to any lay initiative and insistent on total clerical control. Its concept of Catholicism was Irish separatist and belligerent, opposed to novelty or change and largely impervious to the difficulties posed by new social developments. Set against its strengths in the areas of faith, devotion and certainty, were its weaknesses in failure to accommodate the growing Australian character of the Church and to engage the problems of the day. Kelly's own repressed inner warfare, between absolute certainties and the manifold problems of daily living, was reflected in the ambivalent character of the Church on which he placed his stamp.

Archbishop Kelly had been created count of the Holy Roman Empire and assistant at the Pontifical Throne in 1926. His bronze statue by Bertram Mackennal is on the south-east side of the steps leading to the main entrance of St Mary's Cathedral. A small portrait in oils (artist unknown) of Kelly as a young priest, is held by the Church of Mary Immaculate, Manly.

Select Bibliography

  • P. O'Farrell, The Catholic Church and the Community in Australia (Melb, 1977)
  • F. S. L. Lyons and R. Hawkins (eds), Ireland Under the Union (Oxford, 1979)
  • P. O'Farrell, ‘Archbishop Kelly and the Irish question’, Journal of the Austraian Catholic Historical Society, 4, 1974, part 3
  • Kelly papers (St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Patrick O'Farrell, 'Kelly, Michael (1850–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 February, 1850
Waterford, Waterford, Ireland


8 March, 1940 (aged 90)
Manly, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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