Aran-born missionary, teacher and devoted husband

Pádraig O’Toole: April 18th, 1938 - October 23rd, 2015

Pádraig O’Toole: contributed the receipts from the sale of his book to improving sports facilities on Aran. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Pádraig O’Toole: contributed the receipts from the sale of his book to improving sports facilities on Aran. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

Pádraig O’Toole, who has died aged 77, was an Aran island-born educationalist, humanitarian, author and former priest whose diverse missionary experience abroad ranged from working on death row to serving as principal of a Muslim secondary school in Nigeria.

Better known as Pat or Patsy, he was born, the eldest of seven children, at Bungabhla on Inis Mór, and sent to Galway for secondary education at 13, attending St Joseph’s or the “Bish”. After school, he joined the Society of African Missions, training in the order’s novitiate in Galway and then at its seminary in Cork, where he attended UCC.

His independent thinking sometimes landed him in hot water, and he was initially told he was unsuitable for the calling. However, he was ordained in 1964, and was sent to Nigeria in the following year, where he witnessed the Biafra war from 1967 to 1970.

As he recorded in his memoir, Aran to Africa: An Irishman’s Unique Odyssey, he worked on a number of educational projects, heading a Catholic secondary school for a Muslim emir who provided him with accommodation among his wives. He also learned how to tackle snakes, face down mercenaries, deliver babies, kayak the Niger river and converse in the Yoruba and Nupe languages, while retaining his Aran blás.

Journalism

After he became ill, he was called home to edit the SMA magazine, and worked in journalism with RTÉ, including on the Féach programme, and at The Irish Times. He began to become more aware of the limitations of his vocation, and opted eventually to leave the priesthood in 1976.

While based in an English parish, awaiting a visa for Canada, he met an Irish woman whom he knew first as Mrs Selig. She turned out to be the harpist Mary O’Hara. They kept in touch when he was in Toronto, where he pursued a doctorate and became close friends with media theorist Marshall McLuhan.

O’Toole helped O’Hara to re-establish her music career, after she had spent some time with a monastic order of nuns. “You are giving up a promising academic career to become harp carrier for Mary O’Hara,” his supervisor scolded when O’Toole offered to be her manager.

They married quietly. After time in Kenya and Tanzania - where O’Toole taught journalism in the University of Dar-es-Salaam - and in England, they moved back to his native Aran. He described it as “like a salmon coming home”, to live with people who, he believed, were unquestioningly supportive of his life choices.

Both he and O’Hara were inseparable, particularly after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2011. He defied a poor prognosis for several years after he had finished his memoir in 2013, ensuring all profits from its sale went to improving sports facilities on the island. He died, as he would have wished, on Inis Mór and donated his body for scientific research.

Pádraig O’Toole is survived by Mary, by his brothers, John, Enda and Michael, sisters Maura and Catherine and extended family.