An Appreciation Denis Carroll
Nessan Vaughan recalls the late (Dr) Denis Carroll, whose 9th anniversary occurred on 5th May. Denis was a renowned theologian, scholar, historian, priest and social activist. He was also a founder member of the Association of Irish Priests, one of the forerunners of the ACP. Many will remember him fondly.
Denis Carroll, who died on May 5th 2007, aged 67, was a man of many gifts: a noted theologian, historian, scholar, writer and social activist.
Having studied for the priesthood in Clonliffe College, he was ordained for the Dublin Diocese in 1966 and spent some years in Rome completing a doctorate in divinity.
In the early 1970s Denis was a founding member of the Association of Irish Priests, anticipating the National Council of Priests of Ireland, which came into being decades later. He was a leading light in the Irish Theological Association and an outstanding lecturer at Clonliffe College, Mater Dei Institute and Trinity College Dublin. Students in these institutions remember him as an inspirational teacher, an encouraging tutor and a wise mentor. He wrote many articles and books on faith, liberation theology, justice, creation, land and God.
He was a much loved curate in Howth, Booterstown and Kilnamanagh and people from these parishes still talk of the positive and formative influence he had on their lives.
Denis’s life was driven, like the prophets of old, by a passion for justice in society. He believed that “Christianity contains within itself a subversive element”, offering an alternative vision to the status quo. He was a staunch defender of human rights, writing and speaking passionately in defence of the poor, the voiceless and the marginalised, at home and abroad.
He took an active part in campaigns to support the people of Central and Latin America, the Philippines and South Africa. In the pulpit, in public forums and in his writing he frequently drew attention to the injustices which caused the continuing violence in our own country, to the plight of prisoners, and of Travellers in our society. He founded the Booterstown Support Group for Miscarriage of Justice Cases and kept a weekly vigil of protest outside the British Embassy for four years on behalf of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven.
While arguing passionately for a just and sustainable society, Denis was always a courteous and respectful opponent in public debate. His argument was always against structures, never ad hominem. The Latin saying “Suavitur in modo, fortiter in re” (gentle in manner, resolute in deed) sums up his approach to issues.
Ecology and the need to protect the integrity of the planet were concerns about which Denis wrote at a time when scant attention was given to these issues. More than 20 years ago, in a book entitled Towards a Story of the Earth (1987), he anticipated much of what Al Gore and the Stern Report have to say about the imperative of safeguarding our environment
It was while working in Booterstown in the 1980s that Denis met his future wife, Orla. After their marriage in 1993, Denis wrote in quick succession three historical works giving expression to his lifelong interest in his own country’s history. He admired in particular people who challenged the prevailing orthodoxies of church and state in defence of justice. His biography of Michael O’Flanagan, priest, republican and social critic, They have Fooled You Again (1993), was followed by The Man from God Knows Where(1995), a biography of Thomas Russell, co-founder with Wolfe Tone of the United Irishmen. Then came Unusual Suspects (1998), a study of radical clergymen in Ireland from different traditions and different periods. While researching for his Thomas Russell biography, he also produced a booklet entitled Dublin in 1798: Three Illustrated Walks (with illustrations by wife Orla). The then editor of The Irish Times, Douglas Gageby, described it as “a little gem”, bringing the reader to a Dublin “seething with plots and counterplots – high-minded plans for the uplifting of the Irish people, and dirty tricks from an army of Castle-based spies and double-dealers”.
Despite illness, Denis never lost the positive spirit which informed his whole life. When his brain tumour forced him to give up lecturing and writing, he spent his time at home with his beloved Orla continuing to read voraciously, and accepting with extraordinary courage and forbearance the ever increasing challenges of his illness.
He will be remembered with respect and admiration for his integrity, his passion for justice, his courtesy, and his devotion to Orla
Thank you, Nessan, for reminding us of the sparkling personality that was Denis Carroll. I remember him with deep affection and respect. He was a curate in Howth when I conducted a parish retreat there, around 1980; and it was mentally very stimulating to sit with him at table to enjoy his views, always so articulate and yet open to friendly debate. The range of his reading was clearly very broad, and yet he wore his learning lightly. May his good soul rest in peace.