Remarks by FELIX M LARKIN at the lunch held in the home of Richard & Loretto Dalton (Blackrock, Co. Dublin) to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the Ordination to the Priesthood of Fr J Anthony Gaughan, 5 August 2017.
I was delighted when Richard asked me to say a few words about Fr Tony on this great occasion marking the 60th anniversary of his ordination, and I am very happy to do so – but first let me say “thank you” to Richard and Loretto for inviting us to their lovely home and for entertaining us so generously. They have been wonderful friends of Fr Tony, and I know how much their friendship means to him.
There is a passage quoted with approval by Fr Tony towards the end of his autobiography, At the coalface, which is, I think, an appropriate text for this occasion. It is from an address by the eminent Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner – and it is as follows:
A priest is not an angel sent from Heaven. He is a man chosen from among men. This means that we priests are just as human as you are, not a shade different, not a bit better – poor, weak weary men in need of God’s mercy. The darkness of the world darkens our minds too; we travel the same road you travel, out of darkness into God’s light.
The point here is one we often forget: that priests are just ordinary people – who have, however, made a choice about how to live their lives that is quite extraordinary and is, in fact, nothing short of courageous. For they have chosen to take a step into the unknown – and it is unknown, no matter how strong one’s faith is – and to give their all for what Tom Kettle memorably called “a dream born in a herdsman’s shed”. And after ordination, they continue to do so every day of their lives. To have done so for sixty years, as Fr Tony has done, is certainly something to celebrate.
Those of us who have had priests in our families or among our close friends know how lonely the life of a priest is – and how difficult, with so much time spent attending to the needs of others, especially people who are in crisis through illness, bereavement, addiction, family problems, financial woes or the many other sources of human misery. There are, of course, moments of great joy – but never underestimate the huge demands, emotional and otherwise, that are necessarily made of a priest. And to all these burdens we must add the loss of morale among priests in recent times as a consequence of the malfeasance of a few and the cover-up of this at the highest levels. A priest may not be an angel, but the good ones – like Fr Tony – are certainly heroes, and largely unsung heroes.
But his priesthood is only one aspect of the very full life that Fr Tony has led over the past sixty years. He is a scholar as well as a priest, and he combines these two callings at a time when very often the two are regarded as antithetical. Thus, on the farming programme, CountryWide, on RTE Radio 1 a couple of weekends ago, I heard the presenter of the programme, Damien O’Reilly, state that, and I quote, “If you’re a scientist, it’s very hard to be going to Mass on Sunday” – and this sentiment would, I believe, be shared by many scholars in the humanities as well as in the natural sciences. But Fr Tony’s work as a philosopher and as a historian is testament that faith has its place in the intellectual world and is not incompatible with rigorous intellectual inquiry. All that is required is an open mind about all things.
And we can see evidence of Fr Tony’s openness of mind in the range of the subjects that he has written about. First and foremost, there is his four-volume magnum opus on Alfred O’Rahilly – Catholic intellectual and controversialist. But the Catholic focus of that great work – Catholic with a capital C – is balanced by his books on the first Labour Party leader in Dáil Éireann, Tom Johnson; on the Quaker businessman, Senator and humanitarian, James Douglas; on the die-hard Republican, Austin Stack; on Thomas O’Donnell, Irish Party MP for West Kerry; and on the Knights of Glin – and that is by no means an exhaustive list of his books. I suspect his favourite among his own books is his history of his beloved native town of Listowel. If Fr Tony ever has to make a choice between the Kingdom of Kerry and the Kingdom of Heaven, I’m not at all confident that heaven would prevail. On the other hand, Fr Tony probably regards the two kingdoms as one and the same – which illustrates that there are limits to his critical faculties.
Fr Tony described Alfred O’Rahilly as a “controversialist”, and indeed that term could equally be applied to him. He is a man of strong opinions, and has never shied away from speaking his mind about a multiplicity of issues. He has done this as an individual, as well as in the capacity of chairman of Irish PEN for over twenty years – PEN being that admirable association of writers dedicated to upholding the right of freedom of speech. Such is Fr Tony’s disputatious character that he once even wrote to the Irish Catholic taking issue with a book review that I had written for that newspaper. He described it “as a classical example of an all-too-common revisionism” – which he thought was criticism, but I regarded it as the highest compliment and so our friendship was not affected. I suppose our divergent views on militant Irish nationalism has been the area of greatest disagreement between us over the years of our friendship, and I don’t think either of us has made any progress in converting the other. Certainly, Fr Tony continues to read the Belfast Irish News in preference to any other Irish daily newspaper – on the basis that it is the greenest of the lot.
I have known Fr Tony for many years, having first met him when I was a young civil servant through the good offices of his great friend and my then boss and mentor in the civil service, Maurice O’Connell. Later, I worked closely with Fr Tony on the committee of the National Library of Ireland Society, the association of friends of the Library, of which he was chairman and I was treasurer and then vice-chairman. One of the annual outings organised by the National Library Society occasioned my own favourite story about Fr Tony. The outing was to Belfast, and we visited Stormont and Hillsborough Castle. There was no parliament or assembly at Stormont at that time – political dysfunction reigned, as now, up there – and so we were able to arrange to have lunch in the parliament building, in the members’ dining room, a wonderful location. We were all seated, waiting for our food, when I – as organiser of the outing – was approached by the maître d’ and called aside by him. I wondered what was wrong. It didn’t take long to find out, for he whispered to me: “Is your clergyman not going to say grace?” So, of course, I gave Fr Tony his marching orders – and he stood up and said the traditional Catholic grace in that hallowed place where another disputatious clergyman more usually held sway. I hope old Ian Paisley would have approved – on the principle of “better some religion than none”, but maybe not.
I referred earlier to Fr Tony’s autobiography, At the coalface – and I am going to do so again. He recalls in that book that an older priest of his acquaintance would almost invariably end a conversation with the words: “Let us pray for each other” – and that is how I would now like to end these few remarks. I say to Fr Tony on behalf of all of us here gathered: thank you for your sixty years of service in the priesthood, and let us pray for each other.