Dominican scholar and activist who stirred up controversy


Austin Flannery:AUSTIN Flannery OP, who has died aged 83, was one of the mildest-mannered persons ever to acquire a reputation as a revolutionary. He was a scholar who wore his learning lightly, and an editor whose role in making the Second Vatican Council a reality for Catholics in Ireland and elsewhere conferred on him a quiet but undisputed authority in religious matters.

In any sphere of life, his intellectual and personal gifts would have secured him undoubted rewards. That he chose to dedicate these gifts to his community, his church and his country was all of a piece with his selfless character, enlivened - as it generally was - by an infectious sense of humour, and grounded in a strong social conscience.

Born at Rear Cross in Co Tipperary in 1925, Liam Flannery - Austin was the name he took in religion - was educated at St Flannan's in Ennis, where two of his contemporaries were Kevin McNamara, later archbishop of Dublin, and Tomás Mac Giolla, later president of Sinn Féin and two of its successor parties. He was not greatly enthusiastic about Flannan's, however, and persuaded his parents to send him to Dominican College, Newbridge, where he completed his secondary education.

His vocation to the Dominicans in 1943 then led him to St Mary's, Tallaght, and onward to Blackfriars, Oxford (where he formed a lasting friendship with that other troublesome Dominican, Fr Herbert McCabe), and to the Angelicum in Rome.

He was ordained in 1950, and subsequently taught theology for two years at Glenstal Abbey. In 1957, he became editor of the Dominican journal Doctrine and Life. The bare statement of the fact, however, hardly does justice to the subtlety and energy which informed his approach to this task, turning the magazine, of which he remained editor until 1988, into required reading for a whole generation of clergy and laity who came of age, intellectually speaking, in the era of Vatican II.

The ferment that this event produced in Irish Catholicism in the late 1960s was often distilled skilfully in the pages of his magazine, where clergy and laity contributed to a debate characterised by charity as well as by intellectual rigour.

It was similar in some respects to The Furrow, which had been founded by Fr JG McGarry at Maynooth in 1950, but also complementary to that extraordinary journal. Both publications were, in their own way, pillars of ecclesial renewal.

Austin Flannery's contributions, however, were not limited to the pages of the magazine. Encouraged by his friend Romuald Dodd OP, at that time religious adviser to RTÉ, he presented a series of late-night mini-programmes on that station in the Outlook slot, which changed it from a sleepy, pious, end-of-day moment into a storm-centre of controversy. One programme in 1968 in particular - in which he had the temerity, as it were, to invite the secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, Michael O'Riordan, to discuss the then current housing crisis with him - provoked uproar in the Dáil.

The minister for local government, Kevin Boland, described him as a "so-called cleric", and the minister for finance, Charles Haughey, castigated him as a "gullible cleric". He affected surprise that anyone should have taken offence but - as was often the case - the twinkle in his eye gave the game away. It was not that the programme set out deliberately to outrage anyone - although it was the first time, in seven years of Irish television, that a member of that party had been given an opportunity to appear on the medium.

The bedrock value of his approach was its inclusive character: nobody who had something worthwhile to say should be excluded from public debate because they had been stereotyped or labelled as a member of a minority.

Public controversies like these rolled lightly off his broad shoulders. More privately, he was involved with others - people like Seán Mac Réamoinn, Canon Charles Gray-Stack of the Church of Ireland, Jack Dowling, and James White (in whose flat above the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art many meetings were held) - in a discussion group known colloquially as Flannery's Harriers.

This group, at which brief papers would be read, followed by a discussion, was noted for its broad reach into all the Christian denominations, and for the ferocity with which the theological and intellectual points raised were sometimes pursued.

Ten years after the end of the Vatican council, his major work Vatican Council ll: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, was issued simultaneously by six publishing houses in Ireland, the UK and the USA: it was immediately to become the standard work for use by scholars dealing with these momentous events.

But his scholarship was always complemented by an active engagement in contemporary events. He had been involved for many years in the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, of which he became successively chairman and, in 1981, president. In 1983 he was involved with many others in opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill of that year, an issue which was closely linked to his constant concern for civil liberties in a number of other important areas - prisons, social justice, and the powers being given to the police.

Characteristically, his departure from Doctrine and Life did not mean the end of his work in this field. Other magazines like Spirituality, and Religious Life Review were developed to meet new needs, and became as successful as the one whose fortunes he had guided for three decades.

Dominican Publications, of which he was in a special sense the progenitor, is a monument to his work. For those who knew him well - and he had an enormous circle of friends, not least in the media and communications - he was a man of many parts, but through all of them could be discerned the lineaments of the Tipperary in which he had spent his childhood, and the network of family and social relationships which remained central to his life.

He is survived by his brothers Paul and Jim, sisters Phyllis and Sadie, sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law, a niece, Sister Edel OP, and nieces and nephews.

Fr Austin Flannery: born January 10th, 1925; died October 21st, 2008