Publisher with a deep spirituality rooted in Gaelic tradition

Sean O’Boyle obituary: born June 14th, 1946 – died December 20th, 2017

Sean O’Boyle:  A natural publisher, he took to the trade like a duck to water: first with Veritas, then establishing Columba Press as his own imprint

Sean O’Boyle: A natural publisher, he took to the trade like a duck to water: first with Veritas, then establishing Columba Press as his own imprint


The death of Sean O’Boyle in a Dublin hospital after a long illness ends an era in Irish publishing. He was founder of Columba Press, which specialised in religious books. Columba Press’s motto “thinking books for a thinking church” expressed its mission. Columba Press provided a platform for writers from all the main Christian denominations, which was free of church oversight. However, there is a suspicion some in the Catholic Church saw it as too thinking and ensured it failed to obtain certain work.

Columba Press was O’Boyle’s creation, bearing the mark of his personality. He valued words, thus working hard to present them in a form that did justice to their meaning, to their importance, and to the authors who wrote them.

A natural publisher, he took to the trade like a duck to water: first with Veritas (the Catholic Church-owned publisher), then establishing Columba Press as his own imprint.

As a publisher he had many achievements. While at Veritas his job title was “editor” but in fact he was a publisher. There he published the new Irish catechetical programmes, the Veritas Hymnal and The New Testament Message series of biblical commentaries. Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979 was a challenge he rose to magnificently. Within six weeks, he organised the production of hundreds of thousands of booklets for the congregations at the Pope’s Masses, the bishops’ concelebratory altar missals, and a specially bound version of that missal for the Pope himself.

Major contribution

Columba Press made a major contribution to Irish religious thought. One of the firm’s greatest achievements was the publication of the New Book of Common Prayer for the Church of Ireland. O’Boyle performed a huge amount of work on this, editing and making corrections. He sourced paper and binding for a superb piece of work. Despite weekly use in Sunday worship over almost a decade and a half, the standard of his work means that copies are still in excellent condition. Such professionalism meant that for a long time Columba Press was one of the main publishers the Church of Ireland used.

As well as Columba Press, he had two other imprints: Gilbert Dalton and Currach Press. Gilbert Dalton published books dealing with traditional music, some as Gaeilge. One of Currach’s most important books was Don Mullan’s Speaking Truth to Power, dealing with the forced resignation of Lieut Dónal de Róiste from the Army, apparently because he refused to cover up for a senior officer who had been driving while drunk.

As a man, O’Boyle had a deep spirituality rooted in Gaelic tradition. That made him at ease with the changes of Vatican Two, which he felt represented Gaelic communal spirituality and love of scripture.

Great kindness

Above all, he was a man of great kindness and amazing generosity. A couple of years before he died he told a friend: “I feel so blessed with all the wonderful people we knew and worked with.”

Preaching at his funeral, long-time friend Fr Oliver Crilly summed O’Boyle’s gifts up:

As do bhinneas is do chruinneas,

as do líofacht is do dhíograis,

as do dháiríreacht is do dheise labhartha,

Míle altú do Dhia.

O’Boyle was born in Armagh City in the summer of 1946, fifth of seven children, and third son to Seán Ó Baoill and his wife Alice (née Woods). Both parents were teachers, and his father was a noted Irish scholar and collector of music.

He was educated at “The Chapel School” (St Malachy’s Primary School), St Patrick’s College in the City, and UCD, where he studied Celtic studies. While a student, he did some work as a record producer for Gael Linn. He worked as a teacher for a few years, first in St Malachy’s Intermediate School in Castlewellan, then in St Colman’s College, Newry.

As an ambitious man he found teaching restrictive. Escaping those restrictions led him to publishing, and the blooming of his talents.

He is survived by his wife, Monica: daughters Eimear, Laoise and Máire: son Fearghal: sisters Máire and Roisín: and brothers Colm, Cathal and Manus. He was predeceased by his sister Eilís.