James Joseph Kelly regarded himself as first an Irishman, then a Catholic, then a Christian. He divided his life equally between Ireland and New Zealand, but was at heart always an exile. He was born on 11 November 1877 in New Ross, County Wexford, Ireland. His parents were Mary Gannon and her husband, Philip Kelly, a merchant. A clever boy, Kelly won scholarships at the local Augustinian school and later at St Peter's College, Wexford.
In 1895 James was sent for seminary training to the Irish College in Rome where his uncle, Michael Kelly, was rector. James Liston, later bishop of Auckland, was a classmate. During his residence of seven years Kelly demonstrated a flair for languages and a deep love for books. He won gold medals in science and Classics and was ordained in May 1901, staying on in Rome for an extra year to complete a doctorate of philosophy.
After returning to Ireland in mid 1902, Kelly spent an uncomfortable couple of years stationed at the House of Missions, Enniscorthy. His health and scholarly inclinations soon proved unsuitable to the demands of itinerant preaching. In 1904 he was appointed to teach science and mathematics at his Alma Mater, St Peter's College. This was work more in Kelly's line and several of his students secured notable successes. Unfortunately, his reluctance to accept authority, together with a weakness for drink and unsuitable company, necessitated a transfer.
A chance meeting with Archbishop Francis Redwood of Wellington during his visit to Ireland in 1912 led to Kelly's move to New Zealand in 1913. He served as assistant priest in Palmerston North and parish priest at Opunake before being appointed editor of the New Zealand Tablet in February 1917. It was from the helm of the Dunedin weekly, then the sole organ of the Catholic church in New Zealand, that Kelly was to exercise a powerful influence over Catholic life for some 15 years.
Kelly brought to his new post an uncompromising attitude towards the perceived enemies of his faith and of his fatherland. Despite an unfavourable political climate in the war-weary country, Kelly voiced Catholic economic and social grievances, particularly over the lack of state aid for religious schools. He spoke out against the conscription of religious and conscientious objectors, and endeavoured to balance the uncritically pro-Allied war reportage of the secular press. Kelly's sympathy with the underdog helped to forge an informal alliance between his church and the emergent New Zealand Labour Party.
A passionate Irish nationalist, Kelly urged the Catholic community in vitriolic style towards an uncritical commitment to Sinn Féin. His sense of outrage at the denial of Irish self-determination led him to turn the Tablet into a vigorous apologist for the new Irish nationalist orthodoxy. For Kelly and the numerous Irish-born clergy the struggle in Ireland was as much religious as it was political; the suppression of nationalism amounted to religious persecution. His anti-British diatribes provoked deep anger, as in November 1917 when he described Queen Victoria as a 'certain fat old German woman'.
Kelly's strident advocacy was one factor in the rise of Howard Elliott and the anti-Catholic Protestant Political Association. Sectarian strife became so bitter that Henry Cleary, bishop of Auckland, founded the Month in 1918 as a moderate rival to the Tablet. With the Irish question seemingly solved by the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, Kelly's last decade as Tablet editor was increasingly fractious and unhappy. He resigned in December 1931 by mutual agreement with the paper's directorate. His last years were spent as parish priest of Pungarehu, Taranaki; he died in hospital at Hawera on 1 February 1939.
In addition to his writings in the Tablet, Kelly published a volume of Occasional verses (1921) and two other books, A pilgrim year (1926), an account of a trip to Europe, and The story of the faith in Ireland (1927). His literary notes in the Tablet were much admired, and he was remembered as a skilled editor and critic by the poet and journalist Eileen Duggan.
Pugnacious and scholarly in appearance, Kelly was a fluent and forcible writer of devastating wit. He did not know the meaning of neutrality; his editorials were viewed with reverence or rage, but never with indifference. Above his grave in Okato cemetery stands a magnificent Celtic cross, erected in his memory by devoted parishioners who were aware that Kelly had broken his strength for Ireland.