Blind Cornelius Kelly and the Beauty of Gaelic Prayer

As I explore my family history I learn of ancestors that I never knew about and will never meet. And yet, I often come across people who I feel a deep and abiding connection to. 

Cornelius Kelly (1872-1950) is one of those people. 

Cornelius Kelly (1872-1950) and his cocker spaniel "Judge"

Cornelius Kelly (1872-1950) and his cocker spaniel "Judge"

Cornelius Kelly (“Uncle Con” to those few remaining in my life who remember him) was born on December 8, 1872, in Atlantic Mine, Michigan, heart of the “Copper Country” mining industry in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This area was the home to many Irish immigrant families like my own.  


His father, Michael, was 30 and his mother, Mary, was 22 when Cornelius was born. He had three full siblings. After his father, Michael Kelly, died, his mother (my 2nd great grandmother), Mary (Sullivan) Kelly remarried my 2nd great grandfather, Patrick Hanley. Mary and Patrick had 8 children, Cornelius’s half siblings. Uncle Con died on September 18th 1950. 

Cornelius was blind. And devoted. 

The text that follows comes from an interview of my great Aunt Beverly several years ago before her death as she was reflecting on the picture above. I’ve edited it only slightly for clarity. The interview and photo are courtesy of my 1st cousin once removed, Diane Schnelker.

“Here’s Uncle Con with his dog ‘Judge’, a cocker spaniel. The dog would nudge Con if he got off the path. He was known as a “one man dog.” Judge never left his side outdoors.
Con was not born blind. He had an eye operation and something went wrong. He lost sight in both eyes. Con Kelly was devoted to Grandma (his mother). He took care of her. I remember when Grandma was old, he would put her shoes on her. He laced up the small buttons on both sides of the boots she wore those days (button hook), helped her dress, and brought her downstairs.
Every night when I went to bed, I would hear them in her bedroom saying the Rosary together. They would say it in Gaelic. When the family was young, she always had the family say the Rosary together each night. I spent a lot of time with Uncle Con following him around or sitting with him. He could tell one Irish joke after another (too bad I can’t remember any).
When he poured his coffee, he would put one finger just inside the cup so he would know when it was filled. He chopped all the wood for the wood stove. Had a huge pile to last through winter. I never saw a cut on his hands from the ax.
He walked around the house all day. Scrubbed the floors. Helped washing clothes; had to heat the water for the clothes on the wood stove. He was a saint if there ever was one. There is a story that Grandma Hanley said when she died she would ask God that Con’s asthma would be cured. He suffered from asthma and would burn some kind of oil in his room as I remember.” 

It struck me how Uncle Con’s dog Judge seemed as devoted to him as Uncle Con was to his mother. This story paints a beautiful picture for me: a blind man lacing up his elderly mother’s boots, kneeling down with her at the side of her bed, praying the Rosary together in Gaelic.

Uncle Con is a man I wish I could have known in person. But, I feel like I am able to get to know him through pictures and stories like the one’s shared here.

There is a beauty and power in exploring your own family history. These are the people who influenced the people who influenced you. We owe it to them and ourselves to learn and tell their stories.

Who is the Uncle Cornelius Kelly in your family? I would love to hear about him.