Some Reminiscences and Thoughts of a ‘Dub’


Fr Coyle with his father, John, his mother, Mary and his brother, Paddy, on his ordination day, 20 December 1967 in St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin.

I am immensely grateful to Fr Seán Coyle for these fascinating reminiscences: (Make sure also to check out his reminscences of the 1961 Patrician Congress/Vatican II and Liturgical Reform in the Church in Ireland)

These memories and thoughts represent only one man. Others who grew up with and went to school with me, or who are my confreres in the Society of St Columban, may recall the same or similar events and interpret them in a very different way. I thank Shane for asking me the questions that led me to put these recollections on virtual paper and for putting my answers together. I’ve done a little editing on his collated version. To my surprise, this edited document is a little longer than what Shane sent. I am wryly amused at the fact that a young historian finds my recollections of interest.I feel a bit like ‘The Oldest Member’ in PG Wodehouse’s golfing stories. But I am also inspired by the fact that I have been in a position for some years now of being able to speak to young men from the Philippines and from Fiji starting off their formation in preparing to be Columban priests about our founders and early members. It is truly a grace to have known these pioneering missionaries to some degree.

I was born in 1943 and grew up in a working-class environment in what is now considered inner city Dublin though it wasn’t then, but it was one where for many of us, though not for all, the future was hopeful. The majority of my contemporaries in O’Connell Schools belonged, I would say, to the first generation in our families to have a secondary education. Nearly all of us in my section who did the Leaving Cert in 1961 stayed in Ireland and did well professionally. I had a sense of being privileged in having a chance to go to secondary school. I think that most of my classmates probably had a similar sense of being privileged. My parents were largely responsible for my educational opportunities.

1950s Ireland was not as insular as many say it was. As a child I was aware from listening to Radio Éireann and reading The Irish Press of much of what was happening in the rest of the world, including the trials of Cardinal Mindszenty, of then Archbishop Stepinac, later Cardinal and now Blessed, of the Korean War, of US presidential elections, etc. My teacher in Fourth Class in O’Connell’s School, John Galligan, encouraged us to read the newspapers beyond the sports pages and we sometimes discussed the news in class. I also got a good grounding in geography in primary school

The Korean War was also widely reported and ‘the 38th parallel’ became embedded in my young mind.

Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary was a household name in Ireland because of his trial in 1949. I remember as a young child a sense of horror among people in Dublin at his trial and imprisonment. There was very strong anti-Communist feeling in Dublin in those days.

I was 13 when the Hungarian Revolution took place, around the same time as the Suez Crisis, and there was a certain amount of fear that there might be a wider war. I was in the Knights of Malta at the time. I recall being involved in a collection outside a church for Hungarian refugees in Ireland and people being very generous.

The return to Ireland in 1953 of Columban Fr Aedan McGrath in 1953 after nearly three years of solitary confinement in Communist China, was big news and a national event, with the President, the Taoiseach and thousands of others greeting him at Dublin Airport. Father Aedan, whom I came to know as a friend and confrere years later, was also a household name in Ireland. I know that his example was one of the reasons I became a Columban priest. (Father Aedan told me once that when the plane landed and he saw all the people at the airport, much smaller then than now, he said to himself, ‘There must be somebody important on board’.)

The death in a plane crash of President Ramon Magsaysay of the Philippines on St Patrick’s Day 1957 was front-page news in Ireland. In contrast, the media here in predominantly Catholic Philippines practically ignored the death in 2009 of former President Kim Dae-jung of the Republic of Korea, one of the outstanding statesmen and Catholics of the last century, despite the presence of tens of thousands of Koreans in the Philippines, many of them studying English, and despite the parallels in his life to that of Benigno Aquino Jr, assassinated in 1983 at the airport in Manila now named after him in.

From my days in kindergarten in Stanhope St, Dublin, 1947-51, I was very much aware of the reality of Irish missionaries in every part of the world and the term ‘out foreign’ was widely used by Catholics in that context. In many ways the Church looked outward and missionary seminaries were full. Today they are all closed.

Between 1949 and 1954 many Irish missionaries suffered in China. Many were imprisoned or died there, while all were expelled. Others died in the Korean War (1950-53). Many families throughout Ireland had a personal knowledge of what was going on in many parts of Asia and Africa because their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, were working in those places as missionaries. Countless others had family members in Britain, North America and Britain because of emigration.

The pre-Vatican II years of the last century in Ireland were the years of the great missionary expansion, the years in which the Columbans, the Kiltegan Fathers, the Medical Missionaries of Mary, the Holy Rosary Sisters, the Legion of Mary, were all founded in Ireland while other groups located in Ireland such as the Holy Ghost Fathers, the SMAs and the Diving Word Missionaries, to mention only a few, grew in numbers and sent thousands of missionaries to countries in many of which they suffered. There are some of my fellow Columbans, for example, who went to their graves with ‘criminal’ records, courtesy of the People’s Republic of China. Irish missionaries shared the awful hardships of the people in countries such as China, Korea, Burma and the Philippines during World War II and the subsequent war in Korea.

Basically, I enjoyed my years at school, though I wouldn’t want to go through them again. I was in Stanhope St, run by the Irish Sisters of Charity, from 1947 till 1951, starting at the age of four. I finished First Class, which was really the last year in kindergarten, there and then went to O’Connell’s CBS in 1951. I went into 2B rather than 2A because in an interview with Brother O’Leary who asked me how many tuppenny buns I could buy for half-a-crown (2/6). 13 was my answer. My parents were shaking their heads afterwards when I told them, though with a smile. However, I came first in the Christmas and summer exams and, with seven others, was promoted to 3A. My teacher in 2B was Brother John Dobson and he was probably aged about 20 or 21 at the time. He gave me a great love for the Irish language. I remember too that we prayed as Gaeilge for the soul of King George VI when he died suddenly on 6 February 60 years ago. I learned later that Brother Dobson was an Englishman who had come to Ireland as a child during the War. He left the Brothers some years later but I met him on the boat to or from Liverpool in the summer of 1963 when I spent a week on Peregrinatio pro Christo there.

Fr Aedan McGrath had spoken to us in Dalgan Park about Peregrinatio but hadn’t set us on fire about it. Later a young layman, Brendan O’Donoghue, did set us on fire when he spoke about it and many of us went on Peregrinatio during the following years. Father Aedan became a good friend here in the Philippines.

My teacher in 4A, John Galligan, was a marvelous mentor, something I didn’t realize till years later. He was a man of deep faith who prepared us for Confirmation, taught us how to use the bilingual missal, gave us a solid grounding in Irish and English grammar and stimulated my interest in journalism. His son Bernard was in our class and he treated us all the same way. He often spoke about his wife Mary and one day brought her in to meet us, the only married teacher I every had who did that. In their latter years I used to visit John and Mary in their home in Malahide when I was on home leave. John died the same weekend, and in the same hospital, Beaumont, I think, as ‘The Master’, Bryan MacMahon. John had a sense of vocation.

John used to tell us occasionally about his Jewish classmates in Limerick CBS. They were excused during religion class.

My teacher in 5A was Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. He was strict but fair and encouraged my interest in Irish. I have kept in touch with him down the years. He later switched to the secondary department before giving up teaching.

We were in a special scholarship class for our last year in primary school. We were ‘7A’, as I recall, rather than 6A. In those days local authorities used to have a scholarship examination in Easter Week to help students get a secondary education. There was a means test but the Brothers still had the brightest lads in 7A, including some who couldn’t take the exam. Every one of us got a scholarship and we got eight out of the top ten places, including first, second and third, with yours truly coming first. We had two Brothers assigned to us. I still meet Brother Morgan Felix Donnelly, another product of Limerick CBS who is now about 82 or 83. He has a fantastic memory for pupils he had, and a great pride in them. In that scholarship class we were required to speak Irish all the time in school. We used to play soccer in the yard as Gaeilge.

In O’Connell’s Secondary School we had a mixture of Brothers and ‘lay’ teachers. (I put ‘lay’ in inverted commas because, theologically, religious Brothers are laymen). My principal teacher in my last two years, An Bráthair Mícheál S. Ó Flaitile, from Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, was a saintly man, something we all recognised. ‘Fear uasal’ was how other Brothers and teachers described him. I knew him since Fifth Class in primary school through an Irish language movement that I think he founded for the Brothers’ schools, Ógra Eireann, though he insisted that the younger one belonged to ‘Macra na hÓige’. An Bráthair Ó Flaitile, whom we called ‘Pancho’ after the chubby sidekick of The Cisco Kid, a comic strip that used to be in The Irish Press, had a great love for Irish and we never spoke any other language to him. An Bráthair Ó Flaitile was one of the first teachers in Coláiste Mhuire, opened in Harcourt St, Dublin, in 1921 but that was located in Parnell Square from 1933 till 1993. He spent some of his latter years there.

Teachers in the primary school used the leather. I got ‘biffed’ now and again but never had a teacher who used it excessively. It was an accepted part of life by students and parents. I did hear occasionally of teachers who used physical punishment excessively. My father had some horror stories of his schooldays in North Brunswick St CBS in the 1920s. However, for every horror story he told he had an opposite one. My brother had a teacher in primary school named Ned Maher, a genial Kilkenny man who I knew to say ‘hello’ to. On the first day of class Ned took out the leather, showed it to the boys and said, ‘You play ball with me and I’ll play ball with you’. He then put the leather back in his desk and never took it out again.

I remember one incident in 7A not long before the scholarship exam when Brother John Felix Kelly, from Belfast, gave me a few ‘biffs’ because of my homework or class work. Objectively he was wrong but then he looked at me in the eye and said, ‘the sooner this exam is over, the better’. What I remember is seeing how he was giving his all to us and it was his tension and concern that was coming out. John was at my First Mass but later left the Brothers and I lost contact with him.

The religious knowledge and theological literacy of Irish Catholics depended on the education or schooling that a person got. We got a good grounding in the catechism in kindergarten and primary school. I consider this to have been a solid foundation in the faith. In my early years in secondary school we used Sheehan’s Apologetics, which stimulated my interest in being a priest.

I was confirmed in St Agatha’s in 1954 by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. He asked a question of the lads on either side of me but I ‘escaped’.

However, there were probably many who weren’t very knowledgeable in the faith, even if it was real and they were daily Mass-goers. I remember after my first year in Dalgan Park telling a woman in our parish, who was probably in her 60s and went to daily Mass, that someone had given me a gift of the New Testament. She asked me what that was! (It was Knox’s translation. I found it again a few years ago and use it often).

Neither of my parents spoke much about their faith. My father was the more religious, though not ‘pious’ or demonstrative. I do remember him telling me on one occasion that it was important to pray the Apostles’ Creed often. We sometimes had the family rosary, in ‘spurts’. However, there were many families where it was a must. On my visits to the gaeltacht in Galway, beginning in 1954, the families I stayed with always had the rosary at night. We joined.

The lads I went to school with practised their faith, though not all were pious. During our secondary school years there were a number of world heavyweight boxing championships between Floyd Patterson, a black American, and Ingemar Johannsson, a white Swede. Our sympathies were with Patterson because he was a Catholic and Johannsson wasn’t. There was that kind of ‘tribal’ identity with regard to faith and it was also a pre-ecumenical era. However, relations with Protestant neighbours were always good. Irish Anglicans in those days described themselves as Protestants.

The Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on ecumenism was welcome to most of my generation, I think. During or shortly after the Council a young Protestant woman who had been our next door neighbour was killed in a car crash. For the first time in my life I attended a service in a church of the Church of Ireland. It meant so much to her parents that I, a clerical student, was present and they asked me to travel with them to the cemetery. I am glad that that particular rigidity is a thing of the past.

Our next door neighbours in the street where we moved to were also Church of Ireland. When old Mrs Crampton was in a nursing home run by the Church of Ireland near Whitefriar St I went to see her. I was already a priest and was wearing my collar. The person at the desk at first thought I was in the wrong place! (Dr Poyntz, who was the Church of Ireland rector in St Paul’s, North King St in the 1950s, and who lived on the North Circular Road, near the Phoenix Park in a house that belonged to the parish, always wore black, just like a Catholic priest, and always rode a bike. In those days most Protestant clergy wore ‘minister’s grey’.)

I remember too back in the 1950s when no one in our part of Dublin had a phone, one of our neighbours got very sick in the middle of the night. A Church of Ireland neighbour, Charlie Brooks, went on foot for the priest, who lived the best part of a kilometre away. Sadly, the church that our Protestant neighbours went to, St Paul’s, North King St, is not used as a church anymore.

The culture in my school, a boys’ school – most schools in cities and large towns in those days were single-sex – was very supportive of those who wanted to be priests. To this day my classmates are such. There was a pride in those who entered the seminary. A group of us in my class befriended a group of girls in a nearby convent school in our final years in school. We went on outings together and two marriages resulted from our friendship. I officiated at one of them. It was a healthy experience for me, one I look back on with gratitude, and with sadness for those who have died since. Again, I found this group supportive of my desire to be a priest. Any of those I’m still in touch with would still be living their Catholic faith but I know that some of their children don’t.

The death of Pope Pius XII in 1958 was a big event and Catholic schools were closed the day of his funeral. I also remember when a group of us were interested in starting a soccer club, something we never got around to, one asked, ‘What about a chaplain?’ Maybe very few would have asked such a question. The lad who did wasn’t particularly pious but was, and is, as far as I know, a staunch Catholic.

I was devout as a child. I tried to go to daily Mass during holidays in primary school days, and every day when I went to secondary school, though I didn’t always get up. During Lent I went to daily Mass, from my primary days, as far as I can remember, and also to the Holy Week ceremonies, which were held in the morning until Pius XII changed them in 1955, I think. That was a very big thing at the time, and some people spoke, as far as I can recall, about a renewal in Church life, similar to the aftermath of Vatican II.

One practice that disappeared for me after the change in Holy Week was the visit to seven churches on the afternoon of Holy Thursday during the solemn adoration. I was astonished years later to find that practice very strong in cities here in the Philippines, with thousands of young people, especially, walking from one church to another. But I think it has probably died out in Ireland. I may be wrong.

Someone once observed that those who had not lived in 1950s Ireland could not ever really understand the extent to which Catholicism permeated the society and culture. I think that is true. One example comes to mind. Whenever Archbishop John Charles McQuaid visited parishes for some function there was usually a guard of honour of members of the FCA (An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil that in 2005 was renamed The Army Reserve). I don’t think you’d find that now.

If an average group of 1950s Irish Catholics were transported to the Ireland of today, one of the things that would really shock them are modern values – or lack of them – in the area of sex, conjugal and family relationships. They shock me. The pressure that many young people seem to experience to enter relationships very young, often with sexual activity, was something I never experienced.

The group I hung around with, that I mentioned above, accepted and lived the faith and the values that go with this. I’m not claiming we were saints but there was a decency there and solid values accepted by all of us. I don’t think we were atypical.

One thing that I think people transported from the 1950s to today would be pleased by is the disappearance of the grinding poverty that was so prevalent. There were awful slums in the cities, and children without shoes. I didn’t have to be told that this was real poverty. I know there is still some extreme poverty, persons living on the streets. But as far as I can see there are usually personal factors involved in this, eg, alcoholism, drugs, etc.

The 1950s certainly were grim for many, as previous decades going way back were even grimmer for more, not only in Ireland but in the rest of the United Kingdom of which we were part until 1922. I was well aware of the awful poverty in some parts of Dublin but I don’t recall my childhood years as a time of misery. There was more than grimness to life. Many of us lived near our grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts, with an experience of an extended family in a way that isn’t as common now, as far as I can see.

I would not want to go back to the poverty of that decade, which wasn’t caused by De Valera, McQuaid or any others. From the beginnings of the Irish Free State successive governments were trying to alleviate this. Archbishop McQuaid set up many social services.

The many couples living together as ‘partners’ and the reality of legal partnerships between persons of the same sex were simply unimaginable in the 1950s. So were the largely empty churches on Sundays and the closing of all but one of the country’s seminaries, and that with only a few students. The virtual disappearance of women recognizable as religious is something that people in the 1950s could not have imagined.

On the other hand, I think that people might be happy with the disappearance of the ‘distance’ between priests and people, between religious and people. The ‘distance’ wasn’t all the fault of priests or religious. The rural priest probably had more power than the city priest.

In the old days we would never have the kind of ‘celebrity funerals’ that we have on occasion in Ireland now, on one recent where it seems the Mass was used as a ‘background’ for eulogies and a jazz semi-concert. The person for whom all were supposed to be praying had been living with another man’s wife. How was the deceased helped by the show that went on? The eulogies and the favourite music of the deceased can always be given at the meal that usually takes place after burial.

Many talk about the Irish Republic of that era as having been a ‘theocracy’. Catholics for centuries have formed only about 75 percent of the population of Ireland. However, the decision by the British government to create Northern Ireland in 1920 as an entity with a built-in Protestant majority skewered the situation in what was to become at first the Irish Free State. Within a decade the percentage of Protestants there shrank from about ten percent to five percent. None of this was by design of the Catholic Church. There is nothing sinister in any society where the ethos of a 95 percent majority tends to permeate everything.

Recently John A. Costello’s statement that he was a Catholic first and an Irishman second was recalled in the news. My teacher in Fourth Class, John Galligan, told us proudly of Costello’s first government, or maybe his second, pledging its loyalty to the Pope. I’m not sure that that was a wise thing but probably a majority of Catholics in the Republic didn’t disagree with it. For myself now I would express the same sentiment as Costello, who was a man of principle as was his son Declan who died earlier last year, by saying that being Irish is a very important part of my identity but my deepest identity is in being a Christian. I think that World Youth Day is an expression of this for so many young people, waving their national flags proudly but not over and against anyone else, finding their deepest identity as Catholic Christians.

The Irish Independent – I grew up in an Irish Press home – used to have death notices and other such things on its front page instead of news but when Pope John XXIII was elected they had a full-page photo of him on the front page with all his titles – Bishop of Rome, Patriarch of the West, etc.

There might have been a certain smugness in our Catholic faith and perhaps not enough awareness that it is a precious gift from God. We were proud of our ‘spiritual empire’ and of our family values. Both have since collapsed. Pride before a fall?

My father was a carpenter/general foreman who grew up in the Oxmantown Road area – where I did also – and went to Mass every day. Nobody forced him to do so. He went to Mass early in the morning, came home and prepared my mother’s breakfast and had his own, and then head off for work, for many years on a bicycle. He wasn’t ‘pious’ or demonstrative in the way he lived his faith but he was very devout and had a great integrity about him in everything he did.

I never heard him use bad language and my mother told me that she had never heard him use it either. I worked with him on a building site in the summer of 1967 when I was a subdeacon.

In the movie version of Brendan Behan’s ‘The Quare Fella’ – that character being a prisoner waiting for the hangman – the prison warden who attended him reminded me very much of my father and of other men I knew growing up in the Oxmantown/Stoneybatter area of our Fair City. He was as kind as could possibly be to the prisoner and he came across as a man of quiet faith that wasn’t ostentatious. (In the 1960s I saw a programme on Telefís Éireann in which a Swede, a man involved in movies, I think, who told how he had become a Catholic. Brendan, known more for his drinking than for his piety, made every effort to find a church in Sweden during a visit there so that he could go to Sunday Mass. There were very few Catholics in Sweden then – there still are very few – and Catholic churches were hard to come by. This made such an impression on this Swede that he eventually became a Catholic.)

The Oxmantown Road area is very near the Phoenix Park. Indeed our parish, Holy Family, Aughrim Street, includes Áras an Uachtaráin. The Zoo is also within the parish boundaries! So is the Depot where recruits to An Garda Síochána did their training up to 1964. They used to march to the 11am Mass in Aughrim St every Sunday, sometimes with the band.

My Dad was 19 when the 1932 International Eucharistic Congress took place and was proud of a photo taken in the Phoenix Park, probably after the Mass, of himself and some of his pals. That event was one of three public events that were memorable for him. The second was the FA Cup Final in Wembley at which Manchester United, with Jackie Carey, a ‘Dub’, as their captain defeating Blackpool 4-2. The third was the visit of Pope John Paul II, which he reluctantly agreed was on a par with the Congress!

We used to have a Corpus Christi procession around the parish on the Sunday evening after the feast and many homes flew the Congress flag, right up to the 1960s.

Maisie Ward has a delightful story about the Congress in her biography of GK Chesterton, who attended the event. It seems the weather was glorious for the duration but looked as if it might break towards the end. Chesterton was highly amused when he heard a Dublin ‘shawlie’ say, ‘If it rains He’ll have only Himself to blame!’ (‘Shawlie’ was the term for women, usually poor, who wore a shawl, a common sight up to the 1960s, as I recall.)

The Eucharistic Congress next year won’t be anything like that in 1932 and I can’t imagine Enda Kenny, or President Higgins greeting the papal delegate in the kind of terms that De Valera used. But I hope and pray that the event and the preparation for it will be accepted by people as a time of special grace for Ireland.

My father loved High Masses and used to drag me to the churches of the Capuchins, the Dominicans and the Franciscans on days such as Easter Monday and Whit Monday when they would have a High Mass. He didn’t have a word of Latin and left school at 15 to become a carpenter but the High Mass certainly nourished his faith.

We had five priests in our parish, not atypical of Dublin parishes at the time. Holy Communion was given at the 7, 8, 9 and 10 Masses, but not at 11, 11.30 and 12. People fasted from midnight in those days. The 10 Mass was for children, though not a ‘Children’s Mass’ as usually understood now. My parents never encouraged us to go to that Mass.

When I was young I usually went with my father to an earlier Mass while my mother took care of my baby brother and went to a different Mass. However, as we were growing up it was my father who took both of us with him while my mother went to a different Mass.

In the 1950s, there was immense devotion on the part of the laity. Many, of all ages, attended Mass every day. Churches in Dublin were full on Lenten weekdays and in my earlier years there were no evening Masses. Nobody was forcing young people at school, working men, housewives or retired people to attend.

I remember my brother telling me about the evening Celtic won the European Cup in 1967. It was, I think, played on Corpus Christi. My brother was working then but planning to go to the evening Mass. The game nearly went into extra time. My brother rushed off to Mass and met a neighbour doing the same who said to him ‘that would have been a hard decision to make!’ I recall too one evening Lenten weekday Mass when some big game was being played in Dalymount Park, about 15-20 minutes walk away. Some of the men left after the gospel! There was genuine faith and piety there. This wasn’t a holyday, just a regular Lenten weekday.

When people choose to go to daily Mass, when huge numbers choose to go to Mass every day during Lent, I don’t think that their faith can be considered as formalistic. I’m sure, nevertheless, that many did have a formalistic faith but there were very many whose faith was one of conviction.

One thing I remember vividly was what we now call the proclamation of the mystery of our faith, after the Consecration. That term wasn’t used in those days nor was it officially part of the Mass. But everyone used to cough after the elevation of the chalice, a release of a sense of awe, a far greater proclamation than the usually perfunctory ‘Christ has died . . .’ (That’s not in the new translation). It had a formative influence on my faith. (Fr Anthony J, Butler SMA also recalls ‘The Sacred Cough’. http://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2011/08/anthony-j-butler-looking-back-and-forward/ )

As I recall the way Mass was celebrated, people were aware of the different ‘styles/quirks’ of each priest. And there was a mad rush out the door of the church on Sunday before the final blessing. (I still come across this occasionally in Ireland, when more than half the people choose not to go to Sunday Mass at all).

My teacher in Fourth Class, John Galligan, who prepared us for confirmation – most of us were confirmed in March 1954 – taught us how to use the bilingual missal. More importantly, he was a true mentor and his own faith was very apparent. It was only when I was in the seminary that I realised how much he had influenced me.

I remember as a child thinking that ‘Put another nickle in, in the nickleodeon’, a popular song at the time, was banned by the Pope. I’m sure Pius XII had much more important things on his mind. (In Fr Butler’s recollections it was Archbishop McQuaid who had allegedly banned it. The whole thing was an urban myth. I might add that Father Tony was aware of much of the dark side of Dublin in his childhood that I wasn’t).

One thing I recall is that in many homes the television was kept on all the time, even during meals. Telefís Éireann came into being as 31 December 1961 (see Irish Hierarchy’s Statement on the Founding of Telefís Éireann, 1961 – Shane) moved into 1 January 1962, during my first year in the seminary. My own family didn’t get a TV till my brother did his Leaving Certificate in 1964. In the seminary we watched only special programmes such as big games from Croke Park, the opening of Vatican II and so on, though we had more access to the ‘box’ in our free time as the years went on. (Telefis Éireann used to have Benediction on Sunday around 6pm, I think, which used to cause some embarrassment in pubs and such places, I’m told.)

I respected the priests in our parish, though when they visited homes people, including my mother, as I recall, were inclined to bring them into the parlour, if they had one, rather than into the living room. I don’t recall fire and brimstone preaching, though I was conscious of sexual sins as being really bad.

Yes, there was some fear. Priests were kept at a distance by many and yet there was an expectation, certainly in Dublin, that the priest visit the people in his section of the parish. This aspect of fear was more the fear of deference, I think. But I know that in rural areas the people had a greater fear of the priest and, at times, of being ‘named off the altar’.

There was a certain narrowness or strictness, whichever term you prefer. I remember our rector in the seminary in the 1960s saying jokingly in class that if an Italian goes to Mass 51 Sundays out of 52 he considers himself a saint, while if an Irishman misses one out of 52 he considers it a mortal sin. There was some truth in his observation. The Bishop of Clogher, in the early 1960s, declared it a mortal sin to dance after midnight on Saturday. So there was some narrowness.

There was a real fear of hell, connected especially with sins of the flesh. You still hear it said that priests talked about nothing else except sexual sins. That is not my recollection, though they did talk about them on occasion. But each time I went home from the Philippines, where I came in 1971, it always seemed to me that sex was discussed far more on the radio, TV and in the papers than it ever was from the pulpit or in the classroom.

I entered the Columban missionary seminary, Dalgan Park, along with 44 or 45 others, in September, 1961. That year there were more than 190 studying there for the missionary priesthood. Many other seminaries in Ireland had similar numbers. (Today the Columban seminary and all but one of the others are closed.) Seminary life was varied and my memories of it are happy ones.

I wouldn’t consider the discipline in Dalgan Park over-strict. There was great emphasis on the honour system, reflecting the ideas and vision of Fr John Blowick (1888-1972), one of the two co-founders of the Columbans, the other being Bishop Edward Galvin (1882-1956). We were addressed by our Christian names, not as ‘Mr’, the practice at the time in other seminaries for secular priests. (Columbans are seculars, not religious. We are a society of apostolic life.)

The honour system meant, for example, that you reported your own infringements of rules, eg, breaking silence, to the dean, who came into the refectory at lunch and at tea. That was also the time to ask his permission for various things, eg, to go to nearby Navan, and to report your return next time he came into the refectory. For permission to go to Dublin you had to ask the Rector.

There was no supervision at exams. The professor came in, gave us the questions, and then left.

We had ‘solemn silence’ from night prayer until after breakfast the following morning. Any infringement of this was considered serious, as compared with breaking silence at another time, eg, during study. The ‘solemn silence’ was faithfully observed. Another serious infringement was to go into another student’s room. This was to prevent ‘particular friendships’. However, we had ways of ‘legally not entering’ another student’s room while in fact doing so with 99% of your body. I remember such things as borrowing a book, with the owner’s permission. from someone’s room when he wasn’t there by using a brush to pull his desk nearer to the door so that you wouldn’t be breaking the regulation. Looking back, I don’t see this as particularly praiseworthy.

We had reading at breakfast and lunch on weekdays in the main refectory but were not on silence at tea. (Lunch was called ‘dinner’ then as we were genuine Irishmen who had our dinner in the middle of the day!) In our first year, our probation/spiritual year, similar to a novitiate, we had our own refectory and reading at all three meals on weekdays. On Sundays we had reading at breakfast only. There was a reading from the Imitation of Christ, at breakfast, I think, followed by a reading from the current book. I remember we had Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger read at one stage – kind of ironic for refectory reading! We also had one of James Broderick SJ’s biographies of Jesuit saints read. Walter McDonald’s book, Reminiscences of a Maynooth Professor, was read to us at some stage in the main refectory.

In my latter years in Dalgan we had music instead of reading. Our rector, Fr Joseph Flynn DCL, introduced table cloths around 1965 or 1966, something he said he had always wanted to do. The tables seated ten, one at each end and four on each side. The system when I joined in 1961, in both refectories, was that we sat in seniority by age, which meant you were between the same two persons all the time. (This reflected the system that still prevails, I think, in the formal dining room in Maynooth). Each week you moved one place so that we all got our turn at the two serving ends. Basically it was a fair and orderly system. And since you were on silence at most meals it didn’t really matter who you were sitting beside. As I moved up the house I got the students to agree to some changes such as no fixed places at each table of our class, though all would take their turn at the serving ends. Later we expanded that to movement among the tables of our class. Towards the end of my time as a student I got the house to agree that on Sundays at lunch and tea we could sit anywhere in the refectory. A small minority of students didn’t like this but there was no opposition from the authorities.

We wore our soutanes all the time, except when playing sports, of course, or going on walks outside.

On 22 February 1962, less than eight months before the Council began, Blessed John XXIII issued Veterum Sapientia that decreed that the sacred sciences be taught in Latin. That was never applied in Ireland and, as I recall, we seminarians were relieved, though our main text books were still in Latin. However, I remember making efforts to engage in simple conversation in Latin, but not too seriously.

Though I have some aptitude for languages, I was never really at home at studying in Latin, maybe because we were introduced to Virgil too soon in secondary school, a bit like introducing a beginner in English to Shakespeare. I studied Latin for five years in secondary school. Partly related to that, shortly after my First Holy Communion I joined the altar-boys in Church St but got discouraged at the idea of having to learn the Confiteor in Latin off by heart and so didn’t continue. I only learned to serve Mass when I went to Dalgan Park at the age of 18.

I never studied Greek. Those who had studied it in secondary school continued, I think, to study it in their theology years. One of our Scripture teachers, Fr Sean Freyne, a diocesan priest who later left the priesthood and became a professor in Trinity, had us get the New Testament in Greek and often referred to it in class. I think that the edition had Greek on one side and the Latin Vulgate on the other.

In my two years of philosophy we used at least one book in Latin, written by Archbishop Sheen, the man who wrote the Apologetics that we used in my early years of secondary schooling and which stirred my interest in becoming a missionary priest.

When I started studying theology in 1964, two years after the Council had started, our text books for dogmatic theology and for moral theology were in Latin, though classes were all in English. I accepted this as the way things were done, though I found the Latin difficult. I don’t remember having any strong feelings about it nor do I recall others raising questions about it, at least before the Council. Fr Adolphe Tanqueray SS (+1932) was the author of the manual on dogmatic theology we used. Fr Edward Genicot SJ (1856 – 1900), a Belgian, was the author of the moral theology manual we used but his Latin was much more difficult to understand than that of Tanqueray. In our very first year, the Spiritual Year, we used Tanqueray’s The Spiritual Life as a basic text. It was in English.

Around 1965 we started using theology books in English and the Latin manuals were gradually sidelined.

Our daily Mass in Dalgan Park was a dialogue Mass, with the congregation giving all the Latin responses. I don’t think I had experienced that before I entered, though it was common in England and Wales. I don’t know about Scotland. Each of us had his own Latin/English or Latin/Irish daily missal. On Sunday we had two Masses. The first was a Low Mass, before breakfast, at which we received Holy Communion. The second, later in the morning, was a High Mass at which we sang all the chants but didn’t receive Holy Communion. There was a three-hour fast before Holy Communion and you were not allowed to receive Holy Communion a second time in the same day. It was only some years after Vatican II that permission was given to laypeople to receive Holy Communion twice on the same day, in special circumstances.

We used Gregorian chant during all my years in Dalgan Park. We did all the chants at Mass and had a class in chant once a week when we’d practice the proper parts for the following Sunday. We also chanted Vespers every Sunday in Latin. Once a month, on the first Monday I think, we used to chant the Office of the Dead before lunch. I was one of the organists. At one house meeting a student complained that the pitch was too high at Vespers. I promised to ‘lower the tone’!

I don’t recall the studies as being particularly challenging nor as being too easy. There wasn’t any emphasis on grades/marks and only the individual student knew what his were. There was no competitiveness involved but you knew who the brighter fellows were, without any sense of envy.

In the late 1950s three students from each class were sent after their spiritual year to study philosophy in UCD. We had a house in Templeogue and the students cycled to class, just like those from Clonliffe College. The late Fr Patrick Bastable, a Columban, taught philosophy at UCD.

There were two levels of Latin classes in Dalgan during the two years of philosophy, one for those who had done Honours Latin in their Leaving Cert and one for those who hadn’t. It was rare for any male student in those days not to have done Latin in the Leaving Cert. All of us in my class had taken Latin in secondary school. Some had taken Greek and there were Greek classes for them in Dalgan but not for those who hadn’t studied it previously. I think it was a subject in all the diocesan secondary schools and the majority of students in those were boarders. Some of them used to have ‘horror’ stories of the food in those schools. In Dalgan we were very well fed, but not spoiled.

The basic outline of our years in Dalgan was the Spiritual Year, two years in Philosophy (three for those sent to UCS) and four in Theology. The terminology we used was First and Second Philosophers, First, Second etc Divines. Those in the Spiritual Year were known officially as Probationers and colloquially as ‘probos’.

One thing I remember is that there was a certain amount of mild ‘anti-clericalism’ among some students. Nothing corrosive but often a healthy criticism of some aspects of church life in Ireland.

I enjoyed my time in Dalgan Park. For me one of the most enjoyable activities was our Sunday night debates. Those in philosophy and those in theology had their separate debating societies. I was a good debater.

We had a recollection day every First Friday when we were on silence. We had no class, had a talk from the rector in the chapel, washed out the boot-halls and went on long walks. I recall them as fairly miserable days! However, in my latter years we came off silence at tea and were free in the evening.

Our normal recreation was about 90 minutes after lunch, as I recall, when many would play sports for a brief period. However, on Wednesday afternoons and on Sunday mornings we had a longer period for sports. Exercise was compulsory on Wednesday afternoons. Those who didn’t take part in sports were required to take an hour’s walk outside the grounds. We had organized Gaelic Football, Hurling, Soccer, Rugby and Basketball. Some played tennis and racquets. There were captains elected in each sport from one of the more senior classes, the ‘Third Divines’. The captains met on Tuesday and Saturday nights to pick the teams for the following day, following a rotation system with regard to first choice, second and so on. You signed up at the beginning of the year for the sports you wanted to play. The captains got to know very quickly who the best players were. Some were county players in Gaelic Football and Hurling. In 1963 two entered with All-Ireland medals. Tommy O’Hanlon, who died in Pakistan in 2010, captained the Kerry Minors who won the All-Ireland Football in 1963 while Michael Moore was the goalkeeper of the Galway Seniors who won the All-Ireland Football that year. Michael left after a year or two.

I tried all the sports but usually played Soccer and Basketball, in each sport with the ‘duds’, when the captains in those had the last pick! However, about half way through I decided I could be a good soccer referee and quickly became the first choice for that, being the ‘ref’ for all the big games, against visiting teams and cup finals in Dalgan. I really enjoyed that. In my first term in the Philippines, 1971-76, we had some inter-diocesan and inter-island games between priests, mostly Columbans, and I was usually the ‘ref’. (Basketball is the big game here, people following the NBA in the USA more than the local PBA, as Irish people follow the English Premiership rather than the League of Ireland. However, in recent years interest in soccer has grown as the Philippine team, made up mostly of players from abroad who have one or two Filipino parents, have had some success in regional competitions. The team are known as the Askals, ‘Mongrels’ or ‘Street Dogs).

So sports were important in Dalgan.

We had a free day usually every two weeks, which had to be asked for by the House Senior in the morning. It was usually a Tuesday, unless the weather was bad. Groups went on long hikes or on cycling trips, bringing the wherewithal for making lunch. They were most enjoyable days. One Shrove Tuesday, a glorious day with a blue sky and snow everywhere, remains in my memory. It was in my first or second year. We watched The Student Prince that night and then began Lent next day. Lent then involved fasting, unlike today’s ‘Lent Lite’. It was a genuine penitential experience.

We also had three stage productions during the year. There was a play on St Columban’s Day, 23 November, a musical on St Patrick’s Day and an Irish language play. My memory is failing me here as I can’t recall the occasion of the last. I consulted a few of my contemporaries but they weren’t sure either. I do remember one play, basically a comedy, by the late Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, De Réir na Rúibricí, about two brothers, one a teacher and the other who enters the seminary. By the end of the play the teacher had discovered that his true vocation was to be a priest and the seminarian that his wasn’t.

Among the musicals we produced in my time were The Pirates of Penzance, My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls (under the title ‘The Dice Game’) Kiss Me, Kate. I was involved with all except the first as an accompanist on the piano and musical director for some. The plays included John B. Keane’s The Field, My Three Angels, a comedy by Samuel and Bella Spewack, and Molière’s The Imaginery Invalid (I think that was the one).

We were also encouraged to learn something of a trade, eg, printing, bookbinding, carpentry. The shops were in the basement and many an afternoon between lunch and study I spent in the printer, especially during the winter. We printed Christmas cards, stationery, the messages on cards for ordinations. As we bought our Latin textbooks
unbound we had them bound in the bookbindery.

One significant reality was the presence in Dalgan Park of some of the founding members. Fr John Blowick was still teaching moral theology when I entered, though he retired from that before I started theology. We all knew Father John and he chatted with students frequently. He gave us some talks on the history of our Society after our ordination. Bishop Patrick Cleary of Nancheng, China, another of the very early members – he left a chair in moral theology in Maynooth to join the Columbans, or Maynooth Mission to China – gave classes in Latin and English during our first year while our regular teacher, Fr Fergus Duffy, was sick. Monsignor Owen McPolin, another who joined after his ordination, a member of the first group to go to China in 1920 and the leader of the first group to go to Korea in 1933, also took us for some classes at that time.

Our director in our first year, Fr Ronan McGrath, the eldest of three Columban brothers, was in the very first group of students to enter Dalgan Park in 1918 and would have been the first, with maybe some others, to have his total formation as a Columban. Most of those who entered with him in 1918 were transferees from Maynooth. Fr Aedan McGrath was the second of the three and Father Ivor the third.

I and my classmates and our contemporaries were very blessed in that we knew founding members and were formed by some of them. I can tell stories about those men to our seminarians from the Philippines and Fiji in Manila, as I have been invited to do for the last couple of years. So the living memory of those who joined the early Maynooth Mission to China in the 1916-1918 period can continue well into this century.

We regularly had talks from visiting Columbans. I remember that by Archbishop Harold Henry of Korea, originally a Lutheran from Minnesota. I remember one by Fr Michael Nolan, a charismatic person deeply involved in Student Catholic Action, one of our major works with university students in Manila before. We were deeply shocked a week or two later to learn of his sudden death in the Netherlands on 30 May 1964, aged only 39. A friend of mine in Manila who had a very senior post in the Department of Finance in the 1990s once to me, ‘I wish sometimes I had never met that man’. What she meant by this was that he had had a profound impact on the way she lived the faith and this led to death threats for being honest and upright.

These talks inspired us.

Bishop Patrick Cleary of Nancheng, China, who was expelled from that country in 1962 and lived in Dalgan Park, attended all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council and spoke on one occasion. Our tonsure and first minor orders were brought forward a week in 1964 so that he could be at the opening of the session in October that year. We received subdiaconate and diaconate from him in June and September 1967 respectively and invited him to ordain us to the priesthood on 20 December that year, since it was the Golden Jubilee year of the Society of St Columban, officially approved on 29 June 1918 under that name. At the last minute, due to quarantine regulations because of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth in Britain, our ordination was transferred from Dalgan, which has a farm attached to it, to the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. The only condition Archbishop McQuaid made was that we wear Roman and not Gothic vestments. Four were ordained by Bishop Neil Farren in Derry on the same date and one in Glasgow the following day.

Bishop Cleary, from Kildysart, Co Clare, and ordained for the Diocese of Killaloe, resigned his seat in moral theology in Maynooth to join the Maynooth Mission to China, as it was known in the early days and still uses that name as its legal title in Ireland, in 1918. He taught in Dalgan Park and went to China in 1931 to replace Fr Cornelius Tierney, a Monaghan man who was captured by Communist bandits and died in captivity. The GAA park in Ballyshannon, where he had served as a curate from 1911 to 1917, is named after him.

Bishop Cleary was a real gentleman. I was told by an older priest at the time of the Council that the bishop was very anxious to speak at it, as a voice of the Church in China, There were no bishops from China allowed to attend, of course, but there were a number of expelled bishops there.

When I first learned that the Pope was convening a Council, I had no idea that so much change would follow and I don’t think most other people had either. I recall hearing one or two priests saying such. I was certainly aware of it but at that stage, ie, before it started, it didn’t impinge on my life nor on the lives of others, as I recall. Archbishop John Charles McQuaid told the people when he arrived home after the last session that things would continue as normal, or words to that effect.

I remember a debate we had in class, probably 1962-63, maybe shortly after the Council began, about the vernacular being used in the liturgy. It was a fairly tame debate, as I recall, and few of us saw that the whole Mass would eventually be allowed in the mother-tongue. As far as I can recall – this was nearly 50 years ago! – we saw having the readings in the vernacular as a good thing but I don’t think that any of us seriously thought the Church would soon have the whole Mass, especially the Eucharistic Prayer or Canon, in the vernacular. (Before editing this document I read Archbishop Morris’s article on your blog and saw that he didn’t think so either).

One of our teachers, the late Fr Cyril Hally from New Zealand, who joined the faculty in 1965, I think, stimulated my interest in the liturgy. I bought the books of Pius Parsch, which were a detailed commentary on the texts of the Mass in the old missal.

I would describe my class, we who entered Dalgan Park in September 1961, as perhaps the last of a generation or indeed of an era. We were the last group to enter all of whom had been born before the end of WWII. The class ahead of us and the class behind us had some young men of a slightly different mindset. (That is not in any way a pejorative statement).

One cultural change in the Western world, especially in the predominantly English-speaking part of it, was Rock ‘n’ Roll, which hit us around 1955. I was never into it. But it seemed to express some kind of cultural ‘rebellion’, in a broad and loose sense. But it was also the beginning of something that the then editor of America, Fr George Hunt SJ, wrote about in August 1995 in an article on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the final end of WWII. His column was about the popular songs of the time (1945). He pointed out that in those days everyone listened to the same popular music. That was so perhaps up to the 60s, but with the initial breach in the mid-50s. Young people began to have more money and became targets of the record companies. Now there are many specific targets and it’s rarely that a popular piece of music will be familiar to everyone. One notable exception to that in Ireland was Riverdance in 1994. I was at home at the time and was watching the Eurovision Song contest final when it was first performed. It touched something in Irish people of all ages and backgrounds.

Yet in school we enthusiastically participated in Gilbert and Sullivan operas – organised by those ‘notoriously anti-English Christian Brothers’!

Another factor was that most of us came from a background of small budgets and frugality, though nobody in my circle was lacking in the basic necessities and many of us got a secondary education. But for many parents secondary education wasn’t seen as necessary or particularly helpful. They wanted their children to start earning at 14 or 15.

In the seminary my experience was that a small number ahead of me were quite enthusiastic about a ‘new Church’ emerging and a growing number in the years after me. In no way was this an expression of rebelliousness. There was a growing desire for less rigidity. There was a growing sense that a certain amount of ‘rigidity’ needed to be changed.

I think that the liturgy, especially the Mass, was seen as a case in point.

To some degree during and after Vatican there was a sense of something similar to the Khmer Rouge’s ‘Year Zero’ when they tried to eliminate all history and the culture of their own people. Mao’s Cultural Revolution was something similar, though not quite as drastic as that of the Khmer Rouge. And, of course, there was no violence involved in the Church! But it might have been a form of hubris, as if the church was born in 1965 or thereabouts.

The widespread unrest in parts of Europe in 1968 that unsettled the then Fr Joseph Ratzinger, came from a totally post-WWII generation, perhaps most of them privileged as they were university students and graduates, a minority. The Vietnam War produced something similar in the USA, though rebelliousness was against the War rather than expressing a desire to overthrow the basic system.

I don’t recall any opposition to the changes in the liturgy. Among my own generation, I would say we welcomed them. I think the bishops’ approach was ‘This is what they’ve asked us to do so let’s do it’.

Most of the young generation, and I would guess probably most of the older generations, were happy to have the readings in their own languages. In the early years, before 1969 when the Novus Ordo Mass was introduced, it was basically the Old Mass with the readings and some other parts in the vernacular.

I consider the introduction of the readings in the vernacular to have been a blessing. But I remember when most of the Mass could be celebrated in the vernacular some problems arose in Ireland because of English and Irish. Archbishop McQuaid decreed that every parish was to have one Mass in Irish on Sunday (see here – Shane). I do remember one young woman in our parish, whose brother became a diocesan priest, complaining in a conversation with that the Irish Mass was scheduled at the time she went to Mass every Sunday.

I think that most people took the initial changes without any great difficulty and many welcomed them. There was nothing like the objections to the recently introduced new English translation. But when the Novus Ordo was introduced in 1969 I was already studying near New York City in a college run by the Religious of the Sacred Heart. I went through culture shock there. I was one of the college chaplains while studying there. About six weeks after I arrived, before a weekday Mass in the small chapel in one of the dorms, one of the Sisters asked me if they could say the Eucharistic Prayer along with me. The Roman Canon was already used widely in the vernacular. I said no. After the gospel I spoke about each of us having our different roles in the Mass. One of the older Sisters walked out and never spoke to me again during the rest of my three years there. The one who had made the request told me afterwards that I was very negative. I was devastated.

On the other hand, one of the Sisters was a renowned Biblical scholar, Mother Kathryn Sullivan RSCJ. One Saturday after Mass in the large chapel, she came into the sacristy, knelt down and asked for my blessing before she went on a lecture tour. I was very touched by that.

1968-71, when I was in the USA, were years of turmoil there, mainly because of the Vietnam War, but also within the Church. I heard some ‘horror stories’ about Mass and I was shocked at some of the stories I heard. I can also say that on occasion I experienced pain because I wouldn’t go along with certain requests. On one occasion a group of young people I was working with, and who were genuinely idealistic, asked me if I would say Mass using Coca-Cola instead of wine. I declined. I survived my three years in the USA and overall it was a great experience. However, I could see that quite a few didn’t like the New Mass, though they still came. My general experience of the Novus Ordo was positive and I didn’t directly encounter abuses.

On visits home during those three years I don’t recall hearing much reaction to the changes in the Church, certainly very little of what I had come across to some degree in the USA where many, though a minority, were very upset by the changes. I was quite upset at stories I heard but, to some degree, was also influenced by the ‘if given an inch take a mile’ attitude. But I don’t recall confusion in Ireland. However, I basically left Ireland in 1968. I came to the Philippines in 1971 and didn’t go home till 1976.

I suppose for me the Church became ‘post conciliar’ really after the introduction of the Novus Ordo in 1969, though the initial changes in the liturgy and the ecumenical spirit were definitely early post-conciliar experiences and, basically, positive ones.

At this remove, I would say that two areas where harm occurred after the Council are the liturgy and catechetics. The fact that the majority of people with a Catholic background in Ireland don’t go to Mass anymore is one indication that the hopes of the liturgical reformers have not been achieved, rather the opposite. I believe that turning around the altars has not been helpful even though the documents say that the priest should be able to celebrate Mass ad orientem or versus populum. I would like to see a return to the former but the design of altars often makes it impossible for the priest to make a choice he is supposed to have.  A sense of the sacredness and the centrality of the Mass has definitely been lost.

If you read Sheehan’s Apologetics you’ll see what I mean by catechetics today. People don’t know the ABCs of the faith anymore.

I cannot deny that over the years I have been ‘creative’ on occasion in the celebration of Mass, though I have always used genuine reverence as a criterion and had the best of intentions. I am not defending any ‘creativity’, which on my part was never ‘wild’ and was only occasional. I am now strictly a ‘Do the red, read the black’ priest. Basically that is what I have always been. But I have availed of and still do of choices that the Missal offers, eg, using the different Eucharistic Prayers, including the Roman Canon. I would hazard a guess that most priests stay with Eucharistic Prayer 2, and sometimes No 3.

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Posted on February 26, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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