Bishop Eamonn Casey

Bishop Eamon Casey

As I write this, over in Galway Eamon is being laid to rest, ending an eighty-nine year odyssey. Were my circumstances otherwise, I’d be there. Nonetheless, the warm memories flood in.

I served five years as Director of Galway Social Service Council, where Eamon was my boss. In our regular briefing meetings, we’d discuss day-to-day delivery of the services, sitting at his kitchen table on Taylor’s Hill. While we necessarily didn’t agree on everything, I always felt respected by the man. I felt inspired by his great enthusiasm the firm belief he held in the role of voluntary, and the State’s responsibility to sustain that sector’s vital input.

He’d usually be rushing off to some meeting or other. On one such occasion, he asked me to say a special prayer, as he was leaving for a bishops meeting, at which a high ranking member of the hierarchy, in line with Vatican policy of the day would be pushing for Trócaire to adopt a more doctrine driven approach, rather than always agitating for social empowerment. He was relieved when the heave didn’t win out.

Like everyone else tuned to the airwaves, on that early morning in 1992, I was shocked to hear that the bishop of Galway had resigned.  The following day, Charlie one of the elderly people attending our Day Centre asked to see me, they wanted to take up a collection for Bishop Casey. I was moved by their concern, and applauded their initiative. A single man, Charlie had himself returned to Galway, after forty years in England. He remembered the young Father Casey and his Trojan work in housing the homeless in London

A great people person Eamon was never afraid to take risks (sometimes, as it would transpire, to his own detriment). Mention in recent days has been made again of his support for the Dunnes Stores strikers and his adamant refusal to meet with US President Reagan, when the latter visited Galway, reiterating his opposition to Reagan’s foreign policy on Central America.

He enjoyed good food, fellowship and the craic, bursting into song one minute, interspersing it with a decade of the rosary in the next. He loved a good story, and to recount the time he went to El Salvador for Archbishop Oscar Romero’s funeral, thereby putting his own life at considerable risk. And the one about his late father. Eamon had just received word of his appointment to Kerry. He brought the old man with him in a taxi on his way to the residence of the Apostolic Nuncio, where the official announcement would be made. At one point the father turned to Eamon and said “And why in God’s name are they making you a bishop?”

Having been a diocesan priest myself for several years, working with and coming across a considerable number of bishops. Charisma wise none of them could compare with him or match his passion in promoting the social message of the gospel.

Rest easy Eamon!

The words of the West Limerick poet Michael Hartnett come to mind

“There is a place I’ve heard of
Where, the herbs are always fresh, and where
at last, pain and panic are dismissed,
And you can walk in, take off your aches,
Sit down, discard your fear, and say: Hello God. I’m here”

Kevin B Clancy


On the death of Eamonn Casey  –  Brendan Hoban

The death of Bishop Eamonn Casey and the almost endless repetition of the iconic television images from the Galway visit of Pope John Paul remind us again of how long ago 1979 was. It may be only three decades or so but it might as well have been centuries. The cliché now is that, while we thought the huge success of the last papal visit was the beginning of a new era for the Catholic Church in Ireland, it turned out to be the beginning of the end of a different age.

The formula that had characterised the Catholic success story in Ireland over almost two centuries – control, direction, patriarchy, etc. – is now in ruins as the Catholic project has witnessed a succession of defeats. The child abuse scandals and their mismanagement, the divorce and gay marriage referendums, reports on the industrial schools, the Magdalene laundries and now the Mother and Babies Homes, were nails in the coffin of what was unmasked as our less than glorious past.

A confluence of factors – the loss of public (and political) support, the decline in congregations, the dearth of vocations, the almost unrelieved pressure on Catholic schools and not least the loss of confidence of Catholics in the leadership of their church as well as the growing chasm between Church and State – have all contributed to the growing, almost universal conviction that the Casey images from Galway represent a by-gone age. That was then, this is now.

At a time when both the Irish political class and the media are almost universally critical (and mostly opposed to the Catholic Church), the presumption is that the unequal battle for the soul of Ireland has only one conceivable result – the relegation of Catholicism and church personnel to a largely ceremonial presence on the sidelines of Irish life.

More astute observers, however, recognise that making dramatic statements about what’s past and what’s future is simplistic in terms of the complexity of human life and the deeply embedded needs and longings of the human spirit. Attitudes and expectations, internalised over centuries, won’t be undone by a series of Irish Times experts all lining up on one side of any debate.

For instance, we’re used to ‘foreign’ players, like Chelsea’s centre-back, the Brazilian David Luiz, praying on his knees before a match or a succession of players pointing to the heavens, after what they believe is God’s help in scoring a crucial goal. But what to make of Simon Zebo, the Cork-born rugby international, blessing himself as he runs out on to the Aviva turf? Isn’t he familiar, in the present Siberian winter for all things ‘Catholic’ in Irish society, with the populist wheeze that to exhibit any kind of interest in religion indicated a backwoods attitude or at worst an accusation of being ‘mentally challenged’.

There’s a difference, of course, between the view of Irish life that comes from the letters pages of the Irish Times and the prism of everyday parish life. As many know (and some have yet to discover) at critical times in our lives a need for the spiritual re-asserts itself, like at death or birth when we draw on the deep reservoirs within ourselves and we acknowledge a deeper resonance.

The Catholic Church, in the places where it’s struggling to re-find its feet, is shedding the practices of the past and discovering a different attitude and vocabulary, not least through the inspiration of Pope Francis.

Part of it is resisting those who want us to circle the wagons and make our Church a kind of Amish outpost. And part of it is not seeking to counter those who feel it’s an open season on the Catholic Church. Part of it too is recognising how old truths live on in different practices. We no longer have many ‘foreign’ missionaries but we have thousands of young people every year who volunteer for service overseas.

For instance, in the next issue of Vineyard, a publication of Killala diocese, Donal Brady, a teacher from Skreen in Sligo, reports on his work co-ordinating an education programme for refugee children on the island of Samos in Greece and Michelle Flynn, a UCD student from Ardagh, outside Ballina, reports on her summer work helping deprived children in India.

Just because the shell of the past is fast disappearing it doesn’t mean that values shaped under the centuries-old beat of sledge on anvil will suddenly evaporate. The values simply appear in another form that needs to be welcomed not resisted or patronised.

The young, who may only very occasionally see the inside of a church and may even resent categorisation as ‘religious’, can carry in their spiritual DNA, Christian values they have ingested from family and home and that express themselves, for example, in fighting injustice and in supporting those in need.

Most people, but few priests and even fewer bishops, have a good sense of what this means. Their sons or daughters may be in ‘irregular’ relationships, rarely go to Mass and almost never say a traditional prayer but bring to their lived lives values and attitudes that reflect the gospel of Jesus Christ. As it’s usually expressed, they are patently ‘good people’.

In a recent issue of The Furrow, a Jesuit priest, David Harold-Barry, described this by taking as a metaphor, a bag of peanuts. Take the shells away and you have only half a bag but you still have peanuts. The packaging may be gone but the essential remains.

The shell of our faith – social convention, parental pressure, and cultural influences – has disappeared. And trying to retain the shell or re-invent it is a waste of time.

If the values of the gospel of Jesus are to find its space in a different world, we need ordinary words to communicate truths that resonate with the deepest reaches and we need rituals, religious or otherwise, that speak gospel truths.

Eamonn Casey urging on thousands of young people in Galway to tell the Pope that they loved him is now part of the baggage of a by-gone era. We need to stop visiting it.

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  1. Pascal O'Dea says:

    Brendan’s article resonates, as he says “we need ordinary words to communicate truths that resonate with the deepest reaches and we need rituals, religious or otherwise, that speak gospel truths”.Here’s hoping we don’t forget those good people,the disengaged young and old,amid the inevitable hoopla and church “marketing opportunity” when Pope Francis arrives here in Ireland for the world gathering on the family in August 2018.If few priests and fewer bishops are prepared to advocate a practical working of the concept of “good people” how do we avoid making the mistake of another Galway of 79 ?.The answer may ly in listening to more of the ordinary “good people”,the sort Pope Francis has championed in his critique of clericalism.

  2. “Part of it is resisting those who want us to circle the wagons and make our Church a kind of Amish outpost”, brilliant, Brendan!

    I also must agree with Kevin. I always thought Bishop Eamonn was the best bishop we had in the country, though, of course, I only knew him from afar. I also think others did much worse and got off with it.

  3. Bro. Jude says:

    Thank you Brendan. The dead wood is falling from the tree, let it fall. Trust in the gospel wisdom and the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers. Let us grow and deepen in ‘holy indifference’ to peripheral structures.

  4. I think this article, below, by Sally O’Neill in today’s Tablet confirms my long-held positive view of Bishop Eamonn Casey. He was, truly, a bishop who could make you feel proud to be a(n) (Irish) Catholic Christian. Are there many like him today? Are there any like him today?
    PS Kevin, in case I completely forget, thanks for the link to the Vincent Browne program on another thread. It was great to see and hear another priest, still in active ministry, Fr. Joe McDonald willing to tell it as it is with no mealy-mouthed platitudes. I wonder why does he not contribute to this ACP site.

    Features > Eamonn Casey remembered: Charismatic, complex, champion of the poor
    Eamonn Casey remembered: Charismatic, complex, champion of the poor Premium
    23 March 2017 | by Sally O’Neill

    Last week the death was announced of the former Bishop of Galway, who resigned in disgrace 25 years ago after it emerged that he was the father of a teenage boy. A colleague and friend recalls a complex man of great energy and charm
    Two years after his sudden disapperance from Ireland following the revelation that he had fathered a son 17 years earlier and had paid maintenance to the child’s American mother out of diocesan funds, I went to visit Eamonn Casey in Ecuador. I turned up at his door on a Sunday morning as he was counting the Mass collection.

    His living conditions in San Miguel de los Bancos were pitiful but he happily drove me all over his remote Andean parish in his dilapidated Volkswagen Beetle and spoke about making amends for past mistakes with the same drive and energy he had always displayed. We talked about the past; he was sorry he had caused upset for the Church and he told me he felt he had betrayed the trust of the Irish people, but there was no discussion of awkward episodes from his past. Introspection was never Eamonn’s strong point.

    I had first met Eamonn Casey – then the Bishop of Galway – in 1978 when, as a rookie project officer for Trócaire, the overseas development agency for the Catholic Church in Ireland, I had sent a memo to the board asking for guidance on how to respond to the growing violence in Central America. Casey, who had co-founded Trócaire in 1973 and was its first chairman, swept into the meeting, full of charm and good humour, in a whirl of energy, having driven up from Galway to Dublin.
    He loved driving and was infamous for near-misses, his favourite driving instruction being, “He who hesitates is lost”. I was given 15 minutes to make my case but, as he became caught up in my account of the horrors of the killings in El Salvador and Guatemala, the meeting spilled over into dinner.  

    Long before the term “multi-tasking” was invented, Eamonn was a master at dividing his time between running a busy diocese, chairing several commissions for the Irish bishops’ conference, travelling overseas for Trócaire and holding the Irish government to account for its social policies at home and abroad. And he was proud of the work he had done in addressing the housing needs of Irish and Bangladeshi migrants in the 1960s, when he was an emigrant chaplain in London.

    He had helped to found the housing charity, Shelter. I often heard him say that his advocacy skills had been honed by his dealings with London borough councils. There were occasional glimpses of another side to his character. His extraordinary energy could make him impatient with slow thinkers, and he could throw his weight around when he was on the losing side of an argument.

    He asked to travel with me to Central America to form his own opinion on the increasingly serious conflicts there. He was a wonderful travelling companion, always full of good cheer, outspoken and engaged. It was my first chance to see close up Eamonn’s combination of passionate commitment to social justice with a quite conservative Catholic ethos. Whatever pressure we were under, he was always strict in saying the office and ­celebrating Mass every day.

    We had a busy schedule in the Guatemalan highland towns of Quiché, gathering testimony from community leaders and human rights activists. He met Bishop Juan José Gerardi, who was to be brutally murdered in 1998 after publishing a report critical of the Guatemalan ­military. Casey’s empathy with the indigenous people was impressive, as was his constant quest to understand the underlying causes of social exclusion.

    In Nicaragua, he spent days discussing political reform with Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, the famous priests and brothers who had joined the Sandinista revolution. His magic potion for avoiding stomach problems was a regular shot of Jameson’s whiskey; “deoch an doris” – “One for the road” – he would cheerfully declare as he imbibed a glass at the end of the day.

    Our visit to El Salvador was traumatic. What happened one morning set Eamonn on a collision path with US foreign policy-makers for the next two decades. Just after the curfew was lifted at 5 a.m. we were collected by two young lawyers from the local human rights commission. We sat on the back of their motorbikes as they conducted their morning search for bodies of the ­“disappeared”.

    We eventually arrived at a ravine, where we dismounted from the bikes. I saw four bodies – three men and one woman – dumped on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs. Eamonn scrambled down into the pit and gave them the last rites, while the two lawyers took photographs so that they could be identified. When Eamonn stood up I saw that that his hands were covered in blood, and I realised that the four victims of the state-sponsored death squads had been murdered only minutes before.

    Eamonn later said that this was his conversion moment. It opened his eyes to the catastrophic human impact of US support for dictatorships in Latin America and it turned him into an irrepressible champion of human rights. He would go on to support rural communities about to be displaced by a project in The Philippines, implemented by the Irish Electricity Board and funded by the World Bank; he joined a picket line in support of workers from Dunne’s supermarket refusing to handle produce from apartheid South Africa; he visited child soldiers in Idi Amin’s Uganda; and he opposed the University of Galway’s decision to award then-US President Ronald Reagan an honorary doctorate.

    In June 1979 he met Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador. The chemistry between the two men was palpable from the start. Romero had just returned from a visit to the Vatican and was still upset at the treatment he had received from several cardinals, and by the less than cordial welcome he had received from Pope John Paul II. Eamonn was generous in his advice to his fellow bishop on how he should handle the power brokers in Rome. He promised he would have a “word in the ear of the Pope” when he visited Ireland later in the year.

    Eamonn invited Romero to come to Ireland in 1980, and promised him a trip around Galway in the popemobile. The meeting lifted Romero’s spirits and the two men maintained a close relationship. Casey helped to fund Romero’s radio station and his human rights team, and when he was murdered on 24 March 1980, Eamonn attended the funeral in San Salvador on behalf of the Irish bishops. He was in the cathedral when the bodies of those killed in the mayhem that followed the dropping of smoke bombs were brought inside, and while other foreign bishops were hustled away to safety, Eamonn was seen moving between the terrified groups of grief-striken families, clasping them to his chest, praying with them and weeping with them.

    In all the years I knew Eamonn I never picked up any hint of difficulties in his private life. It came as a shock when in February 1992 a journalist friend from The Irish Times told me that an American woman had made claims that she had a son with Casey when he was the Bishop of Kerry, who was now a teenager. I dismissed the story as impossible. Towards the end of March, Eamonn asked me to prepare a background brief for him on the situation in Malawi, which had just expelled an Irish priest, Fr John Roche. It was Easter week. As I was helping him to prepare for the press conference, he suddenly said: “Sally, let me thank you, in case tomorrow you wake up and I am no longer the Bishop of Galway.”

    I laughed off his remark, but in May The Irish Times revealed that Ireland’s favourite bishop was indeed the father of a teenage boy, and that he had been making payments to the boy’s mother, Annie Murphy, from diocesan funds for 15 years. I was stunned, and upset that he had not been able to confide in friends. Annie Murphy was the daughter of an American friend of Eamonn’s who had come to stay with him in Kerry in 1973 to recover from a painful divorce. She was 23.

    When their son, Peter, was born in 1974, Casey was adamant that he should be adopted. In spite of Murphy’s pleas, he refused to develop a relationship with him. As a woman, I could hardly believe how he had treated Annie Murphy and their son. Over time, I came to accept that Eamonn’s character flaws did not wipe out the good that he had done for many thousands of people. In recent years, he had a series of mini-strokes which damaged his memory.

    I visited him several times in a nursing home in Ireland, showing him photographs to remind him of his trips around the world. He would sing his favourite Irish rebel song, “The West’s Awake”, and when he looked at pictures of the ceremony in San Salvador in May 2015 at which his friend Oscar Romero was beatified, he wept, and repeated over and over again, “He is already a saint. He is already a saint.”

    Sally O’Neill was an aid worker with Trócaire for 37 years, latterly as its head of region for Latin America. She lives in Honduras. 

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