Fr Micheál Mac Gréil, sociologist and campaigner, has died in Westport, Co Mayo after a short illness. St Mary’s Church in Westport paid tribute to the priest on Saturday, describing him as “unique”.
“He was a unique individual, a great and devoted priest, an activist and voice for the marginalised and underprivileged as well as being a proud Mayo and Westport man. He will be greatly missed,” it said. “Although in his 93rd year he lived life to the full and to the end.”
The Tuam Archdiocese also paid tribute to the priest following his death on Saturday morning: “A Jesuit, Fr Micheál remained loyal to his home diocese. He was such a part of the life of this diocese and of its priests.
“As a lecturer in sociology in Maynooth University, he showed particular kindness to the seminarians of the archdiocese. With annual outings to his home in Loughloon for bacon and cabbage and taking time with the students in Maynooth, his kindness will never be forgotten.”
President Michael D Higgins said Fr Mac Gréil made a deep impact on many lives as a university teacher, campaigner and priest.
“Throughout all of his work, Micheál Mac Gréil brought a sense of the urgency of recognising justice issues of compassion. His was an early and constant call for the importance of overcoming social prejudice,” Mr Higgins said.
“This was reflected in the broad range of causes he supported, such as fighting for the rights of Travellers, for the Irish language, for prison reform, for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and in support of the Irish language and the development of the western region.”
Mr Higgins said Mac Gréil had always emphemphasised the need for economic arrangements to serve as a means of strengthening community, family, volunteerism and cultural values, rather than at their expense”.
“He was a man who truly gave authenticity to the importance of linking life and values, something which he taught to so many. He will be greatly missed by all of us who knew him,” he said.
Born at Clonaslee, Co Laois in 1931, Fr Mac Gréil grew up near Westport where he was educated by the Christian Brothers. He served with the Defence Forces from 1950 until 1959 as an officer before deciding on becoming a Jesuit priest.
He studied at the then Irish College at Louvain in Belgium, Kent State University at Ohio in the US and at the Jesuit-run Milltown Park in Dublin. Ordained in 1969 he continued his studies at UCD where, in 1976, to completed a doctorate in sociology.
While a lecturer in sociology at NUI Maynooth from 1971, and at UCD, he did three surveys of prejudice and tolerance in Ireland leading to his groundbreaking 1978 book Prejudice And Tolerance in Ireland which won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs memorial prize.
Among Fr Mac Gréil’s findings were that more than 75 per cent of Irish (mainly Dublin) people said they would not welcome “coloureds, negroes, blacks” or “American negroes” as members of their families. Religious prejudice was also high, particularly against Jews, though the most unwanted groups were atheists and agnostics. Travellers (referred to as itinerants) were just a little more unpopular than criminals.
Homosexuals and communists were also seen very negatively, as were “northerners,” with one in five Dubliners saying they would not “marry or have as a member of my family” a person who was “Northern Irish”. Some 72 per cent said they would have a northern nationalist in the family, but just 37 per cent felt the same about unionists, while 87 per cent were happy to have an English person in the family.
Fr Mac Gréil updated his study in 1996 as Prejudice in Ireland Revisited, with the Survey and Research Unit at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
A passionate supporter of minorities, he gave particular attention to the treatment of Travellers in Ireland publishing The Emancipation of the Travelling People in 2010. In the book he said Ireland’s treatment of the Travellers must rank, “as one of the most serious social embarrassments in the state’s 86 years of independence”.
He called for an end to informal apartheid against Travellers and for a radical change of policy to reverse the vicious circle perpetuated on this Irish minority and for Travellers to be given a greater role in Irish society.
He was also a strong advocate for reform of the Irish penal system.
On retirement from academic life in 1996, Fr Mac Gréil was based at St Mary’s parish in Wesport where he took particular interest in campaigning for the opening of the Western Rail Corridor as well as the Irish language. He was active in Conradh na Gaeilge in Co Mayo and in Dublin for much of his life. He published The Irish Language and the Irish People, a report on attitudes towards the Irish language in Ireland in 2007 to 2008. The report found very high levels of support for the revival and preservation of Irish both in Irish-born respondents and among those born outside the state.
He revived the fifth century pilgrimage at Máméan in the Maamturk mountains near Recess and Lennane in Connemara. He oversaw the construction of a small chapel (Cillín Phádraig) near Leaba Phádraig, the rock where St Patrick is reputed to have slept and from which he gave Conamara his blessing.
In 1992 he wrote a biography of Msgr James Horan, the colourful parish priest of Knock who founded Knock international airport and who brought Pope John Paul II on the first ever papal visit to Ireland in 1979.
Reverting to earlier studies, in 2012 Fr Mac Gréil published Pluralism and Diversity in Ireland: Prejudice and Related Issues in Early 21st century Ireland.