Saint Kelly of Armagh

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Yesterday was the feast day of two martyrs, Saints Nazarius and Celsus, who were slain for the Faith in the year 68, in Milan, under the persecution of Nero. There is a brief account of them on our website for the Saint of the Day.

I am unaware of any Saint Brian (I was named after Brian Boru), but I know that there is an Irish saint also named Celsus, and the Latin name Celsus is “Kelly” in English. Saint Kelly of Armagh was a layman who succeeded in 1105, by heredity, to the Primatial See of Armagh, an abuse that ended under his own reform. His name in Gaelic was Ceallach mac Aedha, Ceallach anglicizes phonetically to “Kelly.”  Saint Kelly had been preceded by eight lay occupants of the holy See of Saint Patrick. He was not married when he inherited the See at the age of twenty-six from the Donalds, and being a pious young man, he had great respect for his office and, unlike his lay predecessors, he took religious vows and, sometime after completing the necessary studies, was duly ordained and consecrated bishop.

Reforming the See of Armagh was a huge task that Archbishop Kelly did not succeed in doing. For over two centuries, following the invasion of the Danes in 845 — the “black heathen,” as the Irish called them — persecution had so ravaged the Irish Church that there was, for the first time since Saint Patrick, a shortage of clergy, priests, and bishops. Many had been martyred, first by the Norsemen (the “white heathen”) in the seventh and eight centuries, and then by the Danes in the ninth, and tenth and into the eleventh. The Danes were fierce and well-organized warriors, intent upon conquering Ireland and driving the Norse Vikings out. It was the stories they had long heard from the Norsemen about the fertile green lands and fish-filled rivers of the big island that drew them to first investigate, and then conquer, sending a massive invasion force of 140 vessels.

The aftermath of the Danish invasions left the Church in a good part of Ireland virtually rudderless. Many Sees had no bishop and few priests, monasteries had no abbot and few monks, churches were despoiled or burned to the ground, convents were depleted, and schools destroyed. Consequently, discipline suffered in a fearful atmosphere of despair and moral laxity fermented. This situation worsened progressively as more and more pagan Scandinavians flooded the country, establishing their despotic rule over most of the land. In this crisis, rather than let the Danes seize unoccupied Church property, the nobility assumed title over cathedral churches and abbeys. What was initially a work of protection of ecclesiastical property, over time degenerated into hereditary proprietorship. These laymen, who inherited the Sees, did not receive holy orders or act in any way as if they were so deputed; they just took advantage of the revenues the properties generated, so long as they were cared for and kept productive. Wealthy nobles ended up as more wealthy employers and realtors, dividing lands and farm animals between relatives and friends, and passing the lot on to their children.

Ironically, the decimation of Irish religious during the Norse and Danish invasions was also due to their greatest scholars and monks leaving for Europe where they would be free to teach and evangelize in those lands that were still pagan or had lost the Faith and become semi-Arians. There was hardly a country on continental Christendom that did not benefit from the Irish missionaries. That is why, to this day, one finds scores of churches named after Saints Patrick or Columbanus in Germany, Italy, France, Austria, and Switzerland.

One of the disciples and friends of Saint Kelly was the great Saint Malachy. He was the one chosen by God to be as it were a second apostle for Ireland, an arch-reformer. The monk and preacher Malachy was an enormous inspiration for the Archbishop of Armagh. His holiness converted thousands, even the chief king Cormac of Munster, who became so attached to the saint, and so renewed in his Faith, that he took a cell for himself in a monastery and renounced his throne. Saint Malachy, some time later, for the good of the Church in Munster, had to command the king to leave the cloister and once again govern his people.

Meanwhile, Saint Kelly persuaded Malachy that he must assume the vacant See of Connor, which he did in 1124. Archbishop Kelly consecrated him. Things went well here for Bishop Saint Malachy and he was able to govern the Church in relative peace while living like a monk in abject poverty. Primate Kelly, on the other hand, was dealing with rampant insubordination and corruption. The diocese of Armagh was the worst in all Ireland. He knew, when he was laid down by a mortal illness, that only Malachy could succeed in the work of reform in this most important See. In 1129, in this final illness, in fact while on his deathbed, he made it known and ordered it published that he had chosen Bishop Malachy to succeed him. It was to be the end of lay investiture for Armagh. Saint Kelly would be the last to inherit the See and the one who put an end to the abuse with the execution of his death will.

That would not happen for three more years. Maurice MacDonald, heir to the Primacy,  refused to recognize Malachy’s election and ruled the See of Armagh by usurpation for the next two years. The bishop-monk of Conner was utterly reluctant to engage in any conflict, even though he knew the good Archbishop Kelly had chosen him for successor. Not even a celestial vision and an army of supporters could convince the great saint that he had an obligation before God and Saint Patrick to go and govern the Church of Armagh.

At length, in 1132, a synod was called, with many bishops and the Apostolic Legate of Ireland present, to determine the matter of Armagh. Malachy was unanimously elected Primate and warned that refusal to accept would win him an excommunication. His pleas that there would surely be bloodshed if he entered Armagh fell on deaf ears: “You drag me to death,” he protested, “but I obey you in the hope of finding the crown of martyrdom.”

When Saint Malachy came to Armagh, in order not to arouse MacDonald and his clan, he took up residence outside the city and worked from there upon the Church’s much needed reforms. Only when the usurper died two years later did Saint Malachy pass through the walls of the city that Saint Patrick first made his archiepiscopal See. He achieved the reform that Saint Kelly so ardently desired, governing the Church of Armagh for sixteen more years until his death in 1148.


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