Fr Paddy Kelly CSsR always wanted to be a priest and 50 years on he’s still itching to get to work once the lockdown ends. Much of those 50 years Redemptorist Fr Kelly devoted to ministering with Ireland’s traveller community, for whom he has worked tirelessly.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic, he said that both his parents were religious, and his father’s Faith impressed him when he was young.
“My father and mother were good parents, very religious, my father especially,” Fr Kelly said. “My father was big into GAA and wrote on it for years. Every night, after writing his column for the Limerick Leader, he’d sit down at the table – it could be 11.30pm at this stage – and he’d say his prayers for a quarter of an hour or so. That impressed me, it really did.”
Fr Kelly explained that he “always wanted to be a priest”, and the Redemptorist’s encouragement set him on the road.
“I’m from Limerick and was an altar boy at the Redemptorist church,” he said. “Some of the priests there must have thought I had some potential! They sent me to St Clement’s College, a Redemptorist college at the time, and that set me on the road.”
After a period of study which took him to Dublin, Fr Kelly was sent to the Philippines, where he learned the language and got to work in the missions near Iligan.
“I enjoyed that a lot,” he said. “We had a church in Iligan and a mission team. I got to work in the missions there, heading out into the barrios.”
Fr Kelly returned to Ireland in 1976 to be with his ailing mother. He stayed in Limerick for a year, being sent to Dublin and then back to Limerick again to the Redemptorist retreat house.
“I enjoyed the retreat house in one way, but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted,” Fr Kelly explained. “I always wanted to work with Travellers, because I had been doing a little bit of social work with them before I was ordained.
“I wanted to spend some time working with them, but I wasn’t allowed, I was told ‘no, no, that’s not our job’. Even though I felt it was very much our job, our ministry,” he recalls.
A new provincial was sympathetic to Fr Kelly, having worked with him in the Philippines. He told Fr Kelly: “Look, go do it so for three years and get it out of your system.”
Ah sure, I got to know Travellers very well and I’ve been working with them ever since. I love it, and I love the Travellers to be honest”
“So, I went and got a job in St Joseph’s Training Centre in Finglas, run by Sr Patricia, a sister of Holy Faith,” Fr Kelly said. “I’ve been working with Travellers ever since!”
Fr Kelly worked for 25 years in St Joseph’s and through that did a lot of work outside in the sites, where he got to know many young Travellers
“When you get to know the kids and teenagers in the centre,” he said, “they’d want you to marry them, they’d want you to Christen their children, they’d want you to bury their parents.
“Ah sure, I got to know Travellers very well and I’ve been working with them ever since. I love it, and I love the Travellers to be honest.”
The highlight of Fr Kelly’s career working with the Travellers was a series of solidarity pilgrimages which they did in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“I got involved in the Irish Traveller Movement, with Pavee Point and the like,” he said. “We had a number of solidarity pilgrimages. We walked from Maynooth to Galway one year and the next from Mullingar to a lovely shrine in Sligo.
“The last one went from Limerick to Gouganebarra, Co. Cork. That was one of the highlights of my work with the travellers, those pilgrimages, because it linked up their faith and work for justice. I think that was very important.”
Everyone should get to know them as people…you’ll discover there’s beautiful people among them. I find them great, very friendly and open”
Fr Kelly believes they are very Faith-filled people, with their own culture and form of expression.
“They express the Faith in their own way,” he said. “It comes more from the emotions and the heart I think than the head. In that sense, I found it difficult at the beginning, it was a little foreign to me.
“But now, I accept it totally. Now I work with them to express their faith in whatever way they feel comfortable.”
Fr Kelly believes that the best way to get past stigmatising travellers is to get to know them “as people”.
“Everyone should get to know them as people,” he said. “You’ll discover there’s beautiful people among them. I find them great, very friendly and open.
“I would hope that in that sense that if people got to know Travellers, I think that they may change their attitudes.
“I’m locked in here at the moment, but I’m itching to get out and work again with the Traveller community,” he said.