Fr Luke Dempsey obituary: Irish priest and wandering scholar

His influence was mostly felt in Paris, Rome, Jerusalem and Nova Scotia

Fr Luke Dempsey

Born: February 7th, 1934
Died: February 9th, 2020

Fr Luke Dempsey, who has died two days after his 86th birthday, was one of a cohort of Irish clergy who made a distinct mark abroad but was not so well known at home. His influence was felt particularly in Paris, Rome, Jerusalem and Nova Scotia, Canada. Indeed, he personified the archetypal wandering Celtic scholar of earlier centuries specialising in spreading Christianity throughout Europe.

His level-headed learning as a philosopher and theologian did not attract the controversy that befell well-known figures such as fellow Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx; Jesuits Karl Rahner and Henri de Lubac; and, of course, Hans Küng, whose controversial works he was conversant with.

Yet Fr Dempsey was no ivory tower scholar. He had the persona of a benign and humorous diplomat and embodied another salient feature of Celtic Christianity: convivial hospitality, as countless Irish tourists to Rome would testify.


William, as was his baptismal name prior to joining the Dominicans in 1952, was born in Kilcash, Co Tipperary, on the southern slopes of Slievenamon, nesting quietly between Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir. He was the youngest of seven children, and honed his athletic skills in the handball alley and hurling field. His talent for language emerged at the Christian Brothers secondary school in Carrick-on-Suir, where it was said he took first place in Ireland in English in his Leaving Certificate. With ease he was wont to quote extensively from old English as well as contemporary poets.

He studied philosophy and theology at St Mary’s, Tallaght, and proceeded to the Dominican house of studies, Le Saulchoir, in Paris, to study under Marie-David Chenu and Yves Congar, two leading lights of the reformist Second Vatican Council, which opened in 1962. He was ordained in Paris in 1959.

CS Lewis thesis

Moving to Rome, he took a doctorate in theology at the Angelicum for a thesis on the Belfast-born Anglican writer, CS Lewis.

His first teaching assignment was in Tallaght, where he taught the history of philosophy and Oriental theology, as well as being closely involved with the Thomas Davis GAA club. Next came seven years lecturing at Xavier College (now Cape Breton University) in Nova Scotia, where he joined Urban Flanagan OP, a formerly lecturer in history at UCC and an expert on papal letters to the 15th-century Irish church. There he founded an Irish Benevolent Society and marvelled at how immigrants to that part of Canada had retained their ancestral Irish accent.

In the 1970s, Fr Dempsey returned to the Angelicum to teach, while residing at San Clemente on the Via Labicana, close to the Colosseum. Not only is San Clemente visited by large numbers of Irish pilgrim-tourists each year, it is a special place of pilgrimage for eastern Europeans, because the relics of saints Cyril and Methodius, the “Apostles to the Slavs”, repose there. Buried there, too, is a 19th-century prior from Longford, Fr Joseph Mullooly, an archaeologist, who from 1847-1880 directed excavations that revealed that below the present basilica are a fourth-century Christian basilica and further down an even earlier level dating from the Great Fire of Rome of AD 64. As Prior in 1977, Fr Dempsey celebrated 300 years of Irish Dominican guardianship by editing the first volume of the San Clemente Miscellany, dedicated to Fr Mullooly.

Final postings

His next assignment was as prior of St Stephen’s, Jerusalem, which is attached to the world-famous École Biblique, one of whose most distinguished scripture scholars was a Cork man, the late Fr Jerome Murphy O’Connor.

Fr Dempsey’s final postings were in Rome, where as rector of an international community of students and teachers attached to the Angelicum and as confessor at Santa Maria Maggiore. With failing health, he returned to Tallaght, spending his last two years at Kiltipper Woods Care Centre. The homily at his funeral Mass in Tallaght Priory, which was attended by nieces and nephews, was delivered by Fr Donagh O’Shea. His burial in the Dominican graveyard, where farewell hymn Salve Regina was chanted, was presided over by the head of the Irish Dominicans, Fr Gregory Carroll.

A long-time friend, emeritus professor John Hayes, former dean of arts at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, described Fr Dempsey as “a kindly priest, an observant religious, a dedicated scholar and a thoroughly decent man-a combination, sadly, not always found in those of his ilk in recent times”.

Michael Commane OP remembers arriving in Rome from Munich hours late by rail on account of a terrorist scare in 1974. “There, waiting for me at Rome’s Stazione Termini was Fr Dempsey. We were not acquainted with one another, maybe we had met once some years earlier.”