Voice of St Vincent de Paul and professor of mechanical engineering
John Monaghan obituary: Born August 31st, 1944 – died January 14th, 2018
In an interview published in 2010, John Monaghan said the poverty he witnessed growing up in Drimnagh made him think that there must be a better way to organise society. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
John Monaghan never forgot that he had been forced by family circumstances to leave school at the age of 14.
Best known as the voice of St Vincent de Paul over many years, he was also an internationally recognised academic who at the height of his career was professor of mechanical and manufacturing engineering at Trinity College. But he was also the boy from Carrow Road, Drimnagh, who, like many of his peers, was still a child when he had to abandon his school books and earn a few pounds to help his parents out.
“It simply had to happen – there was not enough money coming in,”, the son of a hospital orderly once explained, acknowledging that his own background may have been a factor in his lifelong championing of those who struggle to put food on the table.
His first job was in a music shop on Dublin’s Parnell street, but when that business faltered, his boss helped him find work in a garage, and thus his career as an apprentice mechanic began. He studied at night in what later became DIT Bolton Street, proving himself to be a bright student.
In the 1960s he was employed by the college but he continued with his studies and in 1980 was appointed as a lecturer in the department of mechanical engineering in TCD, where he completed his PhD.
He was promoted to senior lecturer in 1984 , and was appointed professor in 1998. During a distinguished research career, he authored almost 200 papers and supervised dozens of PhD and MSc students, while managing the Materials Ireland research centre located in Trinity.
Prof Monaghan joined the SVP conference in Leixlip, Co Kildare, in the mid-1980s and the anguish he saw firsthand among families, who could not afford to heat their homes or buy winter coats for their children, informed his advocacy work as vice-president of the organisation.
He developed and led the SVP national social justice and policy committee from the late 1990s until 2012, and a key part of his work was lobbying governments to ensure, for example, that budget measures did not impose further hardships on the already disadvantaged.
“He detested the term ‘spongers’. He did not like labels,” recalled one colleague, who said that while he was a mild-mannered man not prone to banging tables, he did not entertain those who accused people of not wanting to work. He was determined in negotiations and respected by politicians of every hue.
Outside academia and his social justice campaigning he was busy with family, and hobbies – he took up flying in his 60s.
He met his wife Catherine (McEvoy) when they were very young but apparently it was not his DIY skills which won her over. He was in the boy scouts and she was a girl guide, and they met while both organisations were renovating a parish hall. “He was putting up wallpaper and she stopped to tell him it was lovely but it was upside down,” recalled a friend.
In an interview published in 2010, in the DIT library service, John Monaghan remarked that the poverty he witnessed growing up in Drimnagh made him think that there must be a better way to organise society.
People who came from “a less salubrious background”, where money was tight, were just as likely to be bright and capable of contributing to society as those who could afford to go to “fee-paying schools run by religious”, he argued.
Describing himself as a man of “pretty strong faith”, he said he hadn’t been as traumatised as many Catholics by the scandals inside the church “probably because I never held priests in as high regard as they held themselves – or bishops either for that matter”.
He saw his work in SVP as “trying to make life a little better” for those who were struggling and said it saddened him that most requests were for money to buy food or pay utility bills.
In an interview in 2014, he paid tribute to the bravery of people in difficult circumstances, “the unseen heroes, thousands of them that we meet every night of the week”.
In 2015, in recognition of his work for the disadvantaged, he was awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, the highest papal honour that can be bestowed on a lay person.
In a tribute, Kieran Stafford, SVP national president described him as a “a compassionate, non-judgmental and caring person” who had influenced and inspired many SVP members and changed many lives for the better.
John Monaghan is survived by his wife Catherine and his children Ciara, Conor and Caitriona.