Born: 23 February 1926, North Circular Road, Limerick
Entered: 07 September 1944, St Mary's, Emo, County Laois
Ordained: 31 July 1959, Milltown Park, Dublin
Final Vows: 02 February 1962, Clongowes Wood College SJ
Died: 19 November 2009, Cherryfield Lodge, Dublin
Part of the St Francis Xavier's, Upper Gardiner Street, Dublin community at the time of death.
Interfuse No 142 : Spring 2010
Fr Niall O’Neill (1926-2009)
23rd February 1926: Born in Limerick
Early education at Crescent College
7th September 1944: Entered the Society at Emo
8th September 1946: First Vows at Emo
1946 - 1950: Rathfarnham - Studied Arts at UCD
1950 - 1953: Tullabeg - Studied Philosophy
1953 - 1956: Belvedere - Teacher
1956 - 1960: Milltown Park - Studied Theology
31st July 1959: Ordained at Milltown Park, Dublin
1960 - 1961: Tertianship at Rathfarnham
1961 - 1962: Clongowes- Lower Line Prefect; Teacher
2nd February 1962: Final Vows
1962 - 1967: Crescent College, Limerick - Spiritual Director (pupils); Confessor; Teacher
1967 - 1973: Tullabeg - Missions / Retreat Staff
1973 - 1989: Sacred Heart Church, Limerick
1973 - 1984: Missions / Retreat staff
1984 - 1989: Missions / Retreat staff; Promoted the Apostleship of Prayer and the Messenger
1989 - 2000: Tory Island - Parish Curate
2000 - 2001: Gort an Choirce - LeitirCeanainn, Dun na nGall
2001 - 2006: Gallen Priory Nursing and Retirement Home, Ferbane - Residential Chaplain
2006 - 2009: Della Strada, Limerick - Prayed for Church and Society
19th November, 2009: Died in Cherryfield Lodge, Dublin
Liam O'Connell writes:
Niall O'Neill grew up on the North Circular Road, Limerick. His family was important to Niall, and he remained close to his brother and three sisters. His father, Dick, died in his 40's, and a photograph from the ordination day of Niall and his mother, whom the family called Mater, had pride of place in Niall's room. All of his family shared a devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes, and a commitment to the care of the sick, and over the years their annual pilgrimages there also became a family reunion.
Niall took great pleasure in the achievements of his nieces and nephews, and they in turn were great at keeping in touch with him. He introduced them to music at an early age, buying guitars and a set of uileann pipes for them. They were most grateful to him for this, and many of them followed musical careers.
In 1944, during the World War, Niall left the Crescent and began his life as a Jesuit, when he went to Emo. Years later when Emo closed, Niall salvaged the bell from there, called the Challenger, and he used it to summon people to Mass on Tory Island. After studies in UCD and in Tullabeg, Niall taught as a scholastic in Belvedere where he also ran the Field Club, and he became a lifelong friend and supporter of the Belvedere Youth Club. In later years he went as chaplain with them on their annual seaside camp in County Meath.
During the years of study Niall belonged to a great group of Jesuit companions. These included Tom McGivern and Gerry Keane, who later worked in Zambia and Singapore, but they still remained his steadfast friends. Contemporaries enjoyed Niall's personal qualities, his rugged determination, his patriotism, his good humour, his talent as a musician, as a sportsman, as an actor, and as one of the authors of the pantomimes and reviews they produced regularly. In these they poked gentle fun at everybody and everything, and they maintained a sense of balance and good humour at a time of Spartan living conditions.
As a schoolboy Niall and a friend cycled from Limerick to Portlaoise on a bird watching expedition, to see the first collared doves in Ireland, and as a Jesuit this love of nature continued to enrich his life. Years later he attracted hundreds of 'twitchers' to Tory, by alerting the BBC to the presence on the island of a bird rarely seen in Europe. He amassed a specialised collection of Irish bird books, and even when in Cherryfield be sent for his binoculars so that he could continue to be close to the natural world.
After Tertianship Niall became Lower Liner Prefect at Clongowes. Then in 1962 he went to Limerick, to Crescent College as a teacher and Spiritual Father. In 1967 he joined the Retreat and Parish Mission staff. This new work brought him to every diocese in Ireland, giving parish missions that lasted up to two weeks at a time, and he worked closely with Seán Noonan and Kevin Laheen and Noel Holden. Niall had a great love of the lore of country places, and took many fine slide photographs of the places he visited.
For much of this time Niall continued to live in the Crescent, until he went in 1989 to live as the resident priest in Tory Island off the Donegal coast. He described this as the happiest period of his life, and he adapted his Munster Irish to Caighdeán Cuige Ulaidh. At this time he began to say the Divine Office and Mass in Irish, a practice he continued till the end. On Tory he also visited the sick, worked as a peacemaker, welcomed visitors, and brought encouragement and friendship to many, especially the housebound. He also had time to fish for his supper, and to wander in all weathers all over the island. In recent years he used to look at his collection of videos of life on Tory. These included pictures of the Ferry journey to Tory, programmes about Tory recorded from TG4, homemade videos that recorded the island way of life, and some great Atlantic storms.
We also have some beautiful photographs of Niall from Tory; processing outside the church with altar servers, with their vestments blowing in the wind; bounding over rocky outcrops with two beautiful dogs; ringing the bell for Mass, and smiling with delight as he greeted friends. In recent Niall used to receive a large post every day, and the Donegal postmarks on many of these letters were a sign of strong and lasting friendships formed on Tory.
In the year 2000 Niall had a stroke, and had to leave his beloved Tory. He always was a determined person, and entered into his rehabilitation programme with great resolve. He lived for a year in Cherryfield and then in Gort an Choirce, Letterkenny, before becoming Resident Chaplain, in Gallen Priory Nursing and Retirement Home, Ferbane, Co. Offaly. Gallen Priory is the site of a 5th century herinitage of Saint Canoc, on the River Brosna, and it is one of the oldest Christian sites in Ireland. Niall loved his time here, and became great friends with the sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny who lived there, and with the staff and the patients of the Priory. Again Niall was a constant friend the these people visited him often in Limerick for his last three years.
And every morning he spent two hours in his own little sanctuary, down by a bend in the River Brosna. Here he built a shaded seat at the base of an ivy clad tree, and trained the ivy so that it formed a canopy that gave shelter from the wind and rain. He prayed here, surrounded by a beauty that only comes slowly to those who know how to sit and wait. Here among the wildlife, including all the songbirds and otters and kingfishers, and other rare species he said his prayers. Ignatius of Loyola asks us to consider how God works and labours for us in all things created on the face of the earth. On this bend on the River Brosna, where the sky is constantly changing, Niall made time for God, and allowed God to touch his heart. Here he was like the person in Coleridge's poem:
“He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all...”
In 2006 Niall had to move again, because of ill health, this time back to Limerick, to Della Strada, Dooradoyle. He became a regular patient and visitor to Ward 2C in the Regional Hospital. Here he established a strong friendship with the nurses and doctors.
Niall was blessed by their professional and personal care, and by their friendship. Later Niall was to receive the same loving care at the Jesuit nursing home, at Cherryfield Lodge in Dublin.
Niall was stubborn and determined, and during national elections his trenchant views might not have been shared by many of his colleagues. But everybody who got to know him learned to have enormous respect for his integrity and his faithfulness to the Gospel, and they were grateful for the prayerful support we received from him. He had a public disagreement with another Jesuit colleague about Tory Island affairs, but in his final months Niall used this colleague's mortuary card as a bookmark and he became reconciled with him through in prayer.
People were struck by Niall's happiness. His faith and his Jesuit vocation brought him great joy, deep down contentment, the sort of joy that is bigger than any of life's difficulties. This was true especially in the last three years, when he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, which at first made speech difficult, and then impossible. However Niall never seemed to be wrapped up in himself. He was a great host to visitors to Della Strada, and even in illness he became their willing chauffeur. And whenever colleagues and friends faced a difficulty, they valued his prayers and his support.
During these three years of sickness, Niall spent much of this time praying, in the chapel with the curtains to the outside world drawn back, to let the world of nature in. God works and labours for us in all things created on the face of the earth. Every morning he put an apple on the ground outside the window of his room, to feed two blackbirds who became his companions. Then for much of the day he put a cushion on his lap, used his bad hand to steady a writing pad, and he proceeded to write long letters to his friends.
Niall O'Neill was closely connected to God, to God's creation and to his family and his Jesuit friends in the Lord. And that's not taken away by death. That faithful life and prayerful support is stronger than death, and we continue to be enriched by his faith and his hope and his love.