Fr Tommie Geraghty always put his calling above personal considerations
The late Fr Tommie Geraghty was not the austere figure portrayed in a recent article
Fr Tommie Geraghty
This is a reply to an article by Philip Lynch, published on February 16th on irishtimes.com. Click here to read the original.
Fr Tommie Geraghty’s memory and legacy deserve better than Philip Lynch’s recent piece “Running Away from Shadows”, which was a poor attempt to create a Michael Harding vibe in writing about his younger days in rural Westmeath. Fr Tommie, who has long since passed on to his eternal reward, cannot defend himself from this ill-informed commentary on his life. Even if he could, he probably wouldn’t. He wasn’t that type.
Philip chose to comment negatively, inter alia, on Fr Tommie’s appearance, on his failing health and on the condition of the presbytery in which he lived. Fr Tommie’s life was not an easy one, as Philip acknowledges. He served in ministry in England, China and the Philippines before returning to Ireland in 1979, in ill-health, to retire to the home of his order, the Columban Fathers, in Dalgan Park near Navan, Co Meath.
The 1980s were tough times in Ireland. The economy was in tatters, and the Catholic church was in decline. There were not enough priests to serve small rural parishes like the remote rural one where Philip lived. While not of his choosing, and despite his age and failing health, Fr Tommie answered the call to go to the parish of Castletown-Finea in Co Westmeath and serve as curate. He always put service to his calling above personal considerations.
The presbytery had been vacant for a considerable period and was in a poor state of repair. I recall my wife, Elizabeth, and I bringing down unused wedding presents (sheets, towels, cutlery, a dinner service etc) to try to provide some home comforts. I also recall my father bringing down some paint to try to tidy the place up. You see, the “smell” which Philip unfairly attributes to Fr Tommie was not that of “an old man”, it was of an old house.
Fr Tommie was old-fashioned and fastidious about his personal hygiene and appearance. He was always immaculately turned out. He would die rather than become the “cardigan and slippers” man, as Philip would have had him.
Philip maintains that Fr Tommie lacked warmth and had no interest in any sort of social life. Nothing could be further from the truth. He loved a glass of whiskey, going to the races and chatting about life and sport. In fact, in testament to his social skills, he was appointed as bursar in the Columban Head House in Negros (Philippines) when serving on the missions there, where one of his principal duties was to organise social get-togethers and meet-and-greet events for Columban priests from outlying areas.
My mother (his sister) used to affectionately dread him turning up at our home because he would always have someone in tow looking to be fed and entertained for the evening.
His love of our two young sons was another reason he often called to us. He would turn up with a block of HB ice cream and a bag of fruit. One day when he called, our youngest son Paul (then about three) greeted him as follows: “Fr Tummy (he was a corpulent figure, and Paul thought that was his name) I thought you were dead.”
Well, Fr Tommie was convulsed with laughter and had to be helped to a chair before he collapsed. He was not the austere figure portrayed by Philip. Indeed Paul took his first steps on an earlier visit by Fr Tommie to give him a hug.
Philip comments on Fr Tommie’s ailing health and especially on the trembling over which he had no control. This was a legacy condition as a result of contracting malaria on the missions, which he bore with bravery. He lived in fear of saying Mass as his greatest dread was that he might spill the Lord’s blood from the chalice or drop the host. Yet, he soldiered on and did his duty serving his parish.
Philip takes issue with what he sees as Fr Tommie taking aim in a sermon at “pagan England”. What he does not know is that Fr Tommie ministered in England during the second World War and during the height of “the blitz”. He served his flock there in their darkest hour. He had no issue with England or with the English.
He was a priest of his time, conservative, devout and ill-at-ease with what he saw as moral decline. This was inimical to his beliefs, which were opposed to abortion, contraception and other secular values. In this, he was far from being alone during the Ireland of the 1980s.
Philip should know that the Catholic faith in Ireland at that time still carried the “shadow” (his term) of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. The “blank stares” he saw in the congregation during Fr Tommie’s sermon in many cases were not those of apathy or opposition, but weary acknowledgement of the “truth” of what he was saying in their eyes.
Fr Tommie’s calling was to the missions and not to domestic, parochial ministry. He served in China where he was pursued, detained and ultimately expelled by the Mao-Tse Tung communist regime. Some of his Columban fellow priests were martyred during that time. He then spent most of his life in the Philippines, where he witnessed the excesses wrought by the American military bases there and where he served mostly in remote districts.
During his time there he mainly served in parishes where his only means of transport was on horseback. Ministering to his flock meant days of travel, sleeping on the floor of the huts of his parishioners, building a church from scratch, developing schools and administering the sacraments in very trying circumstances.
Philip infers that he was disillusioned and saw his work there as futile. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, he was hugely disappointed that the Marcos regime in the Philippines brought succour to the wealthy but little by way of improvement to the lot of the parishioners he served. This, however, never undermined his faith.
A much truer reflection of his legacy can be gleaned from a visit that my brother, Ciaran, his wife Helen and their family, paid to the Philippines a couple of years ago to retrace Fr Tommie’s footsteps. There they found that he was well remembered with affection, admiration and gratefulness for all he had done in the service of “his people”.
Fr Tommie was an astute observer of human nature. Apart from the toll which a life of hardship had taken from him, it is far more likely, given subsequent events, that Philip got little consolation from his visit because Fr Tommie could well see that Philip’s “vocation” was not like his and was unlikely to see fruition. It was not because Fr Tommie was devoid of humanity, anti-social, dirty or severe.
Maybe if Philip had parked his preconceptions at the door and done a bit of research, he might not have missed the opportunity to benefit from having a real insight into Fr Tommie’s amazing life and story from which he might have derived some inspiration.
We all leave our mark as we pass through this life. Philip will leave his mark also. He’ll have a ways to go to match Fr Tommie’s legacy. Whatever legacy he leaves, let us hope it doesn’t get sullied by such commentary on the website of a national newspaper.
Fr Tommie ended his days in the nursing home facility at Dalgan Park. His illness progressed and at the end his faculty of speech had deserted him, he was very unwell and unable to communicate.
We used to visit him with our daughter Eleanor, who was then about three and who has Down syndrome. When she entered the room, Fr Tommie’s face would light up and he would pat the bed for her to climb up beside him. By then, everything had deserted him except his humanity.
That is how he should be remembered and for the enormous personal sacrifices made in dedicating his life selflessly to others, and not through Philip’s article which is devoid of the duty of care necessary when writing about a real person who has relatives, friends, parishioners and who belonged to a religious confraternity, all of whom remember him with great fondness and affection.