Latest news
Home > General > Fighting the good fight a long, long way from home

Fighting the good fight a long, long way from home

Michael Kelly SJ honoured for response to HIV/AIDS pandemicFirst published in the Offaly Independent, this is an interview by Eoghan MacConnell with Tullamore-born Michael Kelly SJ, who was recently honoured by the Irish government for his lifelong contribution to the effort to defeat HIV/AIDS in Africa.


It’s not every day you meet a Tullamore man with a Zambian passport, let alone one who is at the fore in the battle against the single most destructive force at play in his adoptive country. A world-renowned expert on HIV/AIDS, Fr Michael Kelly was recently awarded an honorary Doctorate from UCD in recognition of his dedication and work in the field of education on AIDS. Long gone from Co. Offaly, Fr. Michael remembers Tullamore with great affection although he has lived elsewhere for the past 60 years.

I was born in the square in Tullamore, O’Connor Square. We were seven in the family, four boys and three girls. Well, three of us went to the brothers at the time and the three of us became Jesuits eventually. One of them died in Africa last year, in Zambia. The other one is in the United States, New York. So I grew up there until 1946, then I joined the Jesuits. At that time the initial training house, the Noviatis, was in Emo Park outside Portarlington.

A lovely place. Very scenic but it wasn’t a posh place when we were there, it was an old land commission property that had been neglected for a long time. Anyhow that’s where I began, I spent two years there and then I went off to do another. Then after that I went to Rathfarnham Castle after there we attended UCD. I did maths and maths physics, I did my masters there, so that was four years. Then after I moved back down towards Tullamore, to Rahan – Tullybeg we used to call it, St Stanislaus College – a big place there where we did Philosophy. After the philosophy you moved off. I moved to Africa. My brother had been there, my older brother was just back, and a year after his return I went out. They had just started a secondary school and they needed a teacher in mathematics; that was my area, so I went out. I spent just three years there at that time. Then I came back and went to Milltown Park, which we still run in Dublin for theology studies.

After that I went back to continue work. I went back there to the school because having started at school they were moving on into sixth form in the school and they needed somebody for maths and science in the sixth form and I was equipped for that. I became headmaster of the school and it kept me there until the early seventies.

Although already highly trained, Fr Kelly thrives on knowledge and this led him to continue studying.

Then I felt the need for some formal training in education, I had my university degrees but I had no formal training in education as such.

I went to Birmingham to do what originally was going to be a one year course there but it involved into a PHD. It was four years, I did a thing in child psychology and then I did PHD in educational psychology.

Then I went back to Zambia, but by then I thought the University would be a better location and I was already by then a Zambian citizen and they were keen to get Zambians into the University at that time. That was in 1975 and I stayed in the University there teaching until I retired in 2002.

Fr. Kelly has a deep understanding and love for his adoptive country which has now become his true home. He explained that unlike the majority of African countries Zambia has not seem a great deal of conflict.

It’s an extraordinary country in that way, it has had practically no conflict in all its written history. That gives a certain character to the people.

They are very laid back, easy going and very acceptable of other people, they are warm. It got its independence in 1964 and obviously in all these periods there was a bit of conflict but nothing like the conflict that would have been in Ireland coming up to independence.

It is quite unusual, that makes them a very laid back sort of people and the result, I suppose, is that if there is any sort of problems they do believe – well we’ll get through them – because we have got through things in the past and we will move through them in the future as well when they turn up.

It began as quite a wealthy country because it had copper reserves and good copper mines and in the sixties, there was the war in Vietnam and there was a tremendous demand for copper.

Then in the early seventies when the wars ended and the oil shocks began, with oil prices rising so that what was coming in from copper was not sufficient to support the country. It began falling into a great deal of poverty so it went from a wealthy country to being one of the poorest countries in the world, and still is one of the poorest in the world.

Poverty affects different places in different ways and Fr. Kelly through his studies was soon to discover some of the effects that this was to have on Zambia.

About three quarters of the people would live on less then a dollar a day. I was in the University there from 75 to 2002, I was professor of education. I was dealing a lot in the field of education and how it is impacting on the development of people, helping them to improve their health and pulling them out of poverty, slowly but very steadily.

Naturally when AIDS thing began to develop I began to see that this thing was going to impact on this and because of my mathematical background I did a few sums.

You could see what it was going to mean for teachers in this area. I began to first of all incorporate it into my lectures so that the students were getting some insights into this area.

Then later I began to do a bit of writing and talking about it. It was a new disease, I mean it only broke 25 years ago this month, June 81 it broke. There were very few writing about it.

Conflict aside, AIDS has become the most serious issue Africa has yet encountered. It is one of the most critical ones for Southern and Eastern Africa. With us it’s about one in six infected, which is very very heavy indeed. I don’t think there would be a family that’s not affected in some way or another, and of course many families would have lost many members.

The ones who die of this disease, for the most part, are the ones who are the most productive, the most energetic, the young people, between the ages of 25 and 40 – and younger in women.

Since they are dying at that age, as well as being the productive adults they are also the reproductive adults. You are losing a tremendous number of parents and so you have children left orphaned and there¹s no social systems to take care of them, there is no social welfare.

It affects the whole economy, but it also affects who is rearing them as well. The middle generation is lost. It is only one fifth of them, but still it’s a massive loss. You have the older people who are having to look after them.

The social system that used to work was that your children would look after you, now your children are gone for many of them, and they are having to look after their grandchildren and they haven’t got the energy to plough as much land or to go out far looking after cattle, that support is all gone.

They are cultivating less land, growing less crops and there is no one to pass on the skills to. The depths of this problem are difficult to fathom from an outsiders perspective but Fr. Kelly has made it his mission to properly articulate the extent that African countries are suffering.

There is a whole fabric of society unravelling entirely, and nobody is quite sure what¹s going to turn out, how it’s going to turn out. About one and a quarter million children (in Zambia alone) will have lost children because of AIDS.

In every school one in seven, or one in eight children have lost their parents due to AIDS, one or other of their parents, maybe some of them would have lost both and that of course is a huge trauma.

Nobody is terribly sure how those children are going to turn out. The thing I keep asking is, what kind of parents are they going to be? They have not known proper parenting themselves. That is one that the Government are not addressing.

In reference to international efforts and particular the 2001 UN Special Assembly on AIDS, he said that financial targets had been met and even exceeded but he explained.

They said 50 per cent of the children would be receiving social services, they estimate that one in ten are receiving that.

There would be about 15 million children worldwide who would have lost their parents because of AIDS and they are only reaching ten per cent of those.

You can stop the transition from mother to child very very easily. There’s a simple drug that will stop it, it’s not very expensive but there is a resistance against disclosing it. They’re scared to check and also there is a great deal of stigma associated with the disease. They wanted to reach 80 per cent of the mothers by 2005, they’re reaching five per cent.

I’ve said this to some of the donor agencies, there must be some lesson there? you are able to raise the money but you are not able to get the services out to the people, okay, the money is going and it’s being consumed by these vastly expensive drugs but the simple services to the people, getting food onto the table for a poor family or a family with only elderly people and maybe five or six grandchildren in it, getting the food to them.

We are not succeeding either are we succeeding in getting the understanding of it. They estimate that maybe 50 per cent of the young people still don¹t have a good idea of the disease.

They wanted 95 per cent of 14 to 24 year olds to know about it. They estimate that only about between 20 and 50 per cent of that. One of the very simplest of things to know is that a person who looks healthy can still be infected. During the first five or six weeks a person is at there most infective.

Speaking about the present approach being taking by international agencies, he believes that things could improve.

No I don’t think it’s as effective as it should be because in terms of the approach, it’s give them the information and let them know the risks and they will protect themselves. That’s not the way of human nature, no matter what culture.

I don’t think there has been enough done to tackle the underlying things they are tackling independently, the poverty. You are more susceptible to this if you are malnourished. Women are much more susceptible, I don¹t think we are taking that into account enough at all.

In these areas I think the church could do a lot more. It’s not aware that it could be doing more.

Through his studies Fr. Kelly has believes that HIV/AIDS should be tackled systematically on a number of levels. He has been privy to some very illuminating facts about the disease. In terms of preventative measures he explains that only abstinence is 100 per cent safe although he acknowledges it is not that simple.

One that we are only after finding out in the last two years is circumcision. Male circumcision is highly protective, highly protective and that maybe why the Muslim population has been so little effected. You can¹t just say, go get circumcised because people will think it’s a vaccine. It’s not.

As a mathematician Fr. Kelly is frighteningly aware of the bleak future, which if unchecked, HIV/AIDS presents for Africa and the world. Working through statistics, if nothing is done Africa will have 90 million people infected with the disease by 2025. However, if people like Fr. Kelly continue with their tireless work all may not be lost. He is not alone in his struggle against AIDS and he had great praise for Irish Missionaries and indeed Irish volunteers.

A very humble man, he claimed that he was simply articulating the work of others, a remarkable statement from a man consumed by his desire and devotion to helping those afflicted with the disease.

[Taken with permission from the Offaly Independent, July 1, 2006; written by Eoghan O’Connell.]