Ciara Kenny

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The ‘oldest Irish priest’ turns 100 in Hong Kong

Today, a child of two revolutions celebrates a milestone birthday

Fri, Sep 13, 2013, 09:00


Fionnuala McHugh

On a recent, and distinctly Irish, afternoon of rain and wind in Hong Kong, Fr Joseph Mallin sits in Wah Yan College, a Jesuit school, and contemplates life’s lessons.

In a corner of the room there’s a bust of Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who, in 1912, after the overthrow of the Qing emperor, became the first president of the Republic of China. Father Mallin was born the following year; he turns 100 today. He is, he says, the oldest Irish priest in the world. He’s also the surviving child of another revolution.

His father was Michael Mallin, a man who went out on Easter Monday 1916 to command the fighting in St Stephen’s Green, with Countess Markievicz as his deputy, and never came home.

The night before his father’s execution, on May 8th, Joseph was taken to Kilmainham by his mother, then pregnant with her fifth child, to say goodbye. He has no memory of it. His father remembered his son, however; in his last letter he wrote, “Joseph, my little man, be a priest if you can.”

You’d have to wonder what sort of burden that placed on a child’s shoulders. (In the same letter Michael Mallin also requested that his daughter, Una, then eight, become a nun, which she duly did). “No, my mother only once mentioned it,” says Mallin mildly.

He’s a small man, bright of eye, sharp of mind. “My elder brother directed me to the Jesuits.” That was Sean, who had become a priest first. The Jesuits directed Joseph to China.

Six priests took the four-week voyage from Southampton to Hong Kong. “I was the oldest, and I’m still the oldest; they’re all gone,” he says. He pauses, clasped in the emotion of accumulated years.

In September 1948, the group travelled by rail 120km north to Canton, now Guangzhou. On their way up they passed a recently wrecked train – bombed in China’s ferment as Mao Tse-tung’s communists fought for control. By May 1949, they were fleeing back to Hong Kong. Apart from a few years teaching in Macau, on the other side of the Pearl River Delta, Mallin has never left.

At that time, Hong Kong was a British colony and it remained so until 1997. What would his father have made of that strange loop? “He wouldn’t have minded,” he replies immediately. “I was in the Jesuits. And local people learned the difference between the English and the Irish.”

Michael Mallin had also travelled to one of Queen Victoria’s possessions. At the age of 14 he joined the British army as a drummer and he spent six years in India, taking part in the empire’s frontier wars. In his letters home he wrote: “We aught [sic] to leave the poor people alone . . . if I were not a soldier I would be out fighting for them.”

“Why did he turn against the imperialist army?” his son asks. “Maybe what he saw in India . . . There was a different atmosphere when I came; those in authority gave the impression, unconsciously, of not meeting people as equals.

Still, British rule was relatively light in Hong Kong. When he talks about his time there – a 1950s colonial housing programme, 1967 riots, even the 1997 handover – it’s as if it’s a distant dream. His animation is for his unknown father’s past, a living part of himself.

“What’s he to do?” he asks, anguished about his father’s court-martial, in which Mallin denied his Rising involvement and stated Countess Markievicz was commandant. “Of course it wasn’t true. A family of four, one coming, we’re destitute – where does his duty lie? What answer do you give?”

Asked about forgiveness, he stares out at the  rain. “What should I think of Maxwell? He was the top man for the court-martial, sent by Kitchener. I want to find out what he’s like. He had to be for the empire, you know. It was his duty to do that.”

And what of his many years in company with God the Father? “There’s only one thing we can give Him, and that’s trust – like the trust towards parents. A youngster has to have full trust in his parents.”