An Irishman's Diary
In the eyes of the world the retirement of Pope Benedict overshadowed the recent death of Archbishop Joseph Cassidy who had himself retired from high office because of ill-health; but not in the hearts and minds of generations of boys who attended St Joseph’s College, Garbally Park, Ballinasloe.
I was beginning my second year in September 1959 when I got my first glance at the newly ordained, dapper, 26-year-old who was to be our new history teacher. None of us could have known it then but the 1960s had arrived in Garbally and this Fr Cassidy was about to transform our lives.
He was a blow-in from another diocese who had never passed through our classrooms and knew nothing of the culture that had been formed over half a century of faith and fortitude. But that wasn’t what made him so different. We’d all been trained to keep quiet and pay attention, but he was forever asking us to tell him what we thought of whatever he was teaching us. He wanted us all – and not just the front row – to speak our minds, express ourselves. He introduced debating, which didn’t come easy to boys who, however gabby among ourselves, were struck dumb at the prospect of standing up and formally addressing others.
Which of us will ever forget that particular smile of his, the look of barely suppressed glee as, having caught us in some breach of the rules, he struggled to maintain the prescribed magisterial glare? The way his eyes seemed to dance as glare gave way to frown before relaxing into a grin and disintegrating into helpless laughter? The intended lecture cast aside, he’d want to hear your side of the story before concluding that the fault might have been ill-advised but was not a hanging matter.
A noted actor at Maynooth, he was master of gesture and language.
Without ever being ostentatious, he showed by example the various effects of the well-timed, well-chosen word. A playwright himself, he organised and directed plays that were entered for schools drama competitions. Now even the non-sporting students could look forward to a bus-trip into the outside world, till then a privilege reserved for the sporting elite. For those who hated games he brought welcome liberation, seeing no reason why they should be forced to tog out twice a week in order to avoid being hit by a ball, allowing them instead to pursue their interest in music or reading.
There had long been a school magazine of high standing but it was in Irish and consisted mostly of scholarly essays beyond the understanding or interest of current pupils. Within a few years he’d founded a school magazine to which pupils present and past were invited to contribute.
But no list of his achievements could adequately indicate the extent of his civilising influence on generations of boys through his classroom commentaries or in casual conversation. Nor would I be surprised if his most profound influence was exercised in the course of informal meetings along a corridor or around the grounds. Nobody passed through that school without at least one heart-warming or even life-changing chat with him. There were other teachers who worked hard for us, who prepared us academically for the outside world or athletically for those crucial battles with other schools; but a stern quasi-military tradition dictated that while they could be friendly, they could never be friends with us. He possessed that rare ability to be as close as a teacher could (or should) be to being a friend.
He urged the highest standards academically and socially but he was at least as interested in the boy struggling to pass as he was in the high achievers.
A devout priest, unswervingly loyal to Catholic doctrine, in no way did his faith proclaim itself better than in his tolerance of others less enlightened. He had the happy knack of alerting you to virtues you had never even suspected in yourself, and I will never forget the mixture of incredulity and hope that ran through the class when he argued persuasively that mortal sins were not as easily committed as people seemed to think.
We were not surprised when he was chosen as spokesman for the Catholic hierarchy, nor when he was appointed bishop of Clonfert and subsequently Archbishop of Tuam. We had recognised his talents long before his colleagues and, anyway, had they elected him pope, he’d still have been Fr Cassidy to us.