Subfonds 317 - Fr Seán Ó Cathain SJ

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IE IJA J/317


Fr Seán Ó Cathain SJ


  • 1923-1989 (Creation)

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75 items

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Name of creator

(27 May 1905-26 December 1989)

Biographical history

Born: 27 May 1905, Belfast, County Antrim
Entered: 31 August 1923, St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, County Offaly
Ordained: 31 July 1938, Milltown Park, Dublin
Final Vows: 02 February 1941, St Ignatius, Leeson Street, Dublin
Died: 26 December 1989, Our Lady’s Hospice, Dublin

Part of the Sacred Heart community, Limerick at the time of death

Had studied Medicine for one year before entry

by 1930 at Berchmanskolleg, Pullach, Germany (GER S) studying

◆ Interfuse
Interfuse No 82 : September 1995


Fr Seán Ó Catháin (1905-1989)

27th May 1905: Born in Belfast
31st Aug. 1923: Entered the Society of Jesus
1923 - 1925: Tullabeg, novitiate
1925 - 1929: Rathfarnham, juniorate: MA (UCD) in Celtic studies
1929 - 1931; Pullach bei München, Germany: philosophy
1931 - 1934: Galway, regency
1934 - 1939 Milltown Park
1934 - 1935: private study,
1935 - 1939 theology
1938: Ordained a priest
1939 - 1940: Rathfarnham, tertianship.
1940 - 1946: Leeson Street:
1940 - 1941 private study,
1941 - 1946 University Hall, vice principal, private study culminating in a PhD.
1946 - 1948: Clongowes, teaching
1948 - 1978; Leeson Street:
1949 - 1966 Lecturer at UCD's department of Education;
1966-1973 Professor of Education;
1950 - 1959 Inspector of studies in colleges of the Province.
1973 - 1978 writing.
1967 - 1973: Superior.
1978 - 1989: Limerick (Sacred Heart Residence): church work, librarian. In 1982 (also in October 1989) he suffered a stroke which impaired the memory function of his brain. After spending some time in St. John's Hospital, Limerick, he was removed to Our Lady's hospice, Harold's Cross, Dublin
26th Dec. 1989: Died

The following additional details concerning Seán's academic career have been gleaned from the Report of the President, UCD, 1972-3 (section on retirements) and 1989-'90 (obituary section). Seán gained four diplomas, all with first-class honours (the middle two in Irish), from one or other of three Irish university colleges: pre-medical (UCC, 1923), BA (UCD, 1928), MA (UCD, 1929), HDip in Ed (UCG, 1932). For his PhD in Ed (UCD, 1941) his thesis was on 'The diffusion of Renaissance ideals of education in the schools of the Jesuit Order'. 'During these years (seemingly 1932-48) he acted as an Assistant Extern Examiner (through Irish) in Education for the National University of Ireland.

Seán Ó Catháin was the second son of Seán and Kathleen nee Dinneen. Seán senior was a native of Kilbeheny, near Mitchelstown, while Kathleen from Rathmore, Co. Kerry. It was in London at the turn of the century that Seán, who had succeeded in the examinations for the civil service, found himself posted for work at the department of customs and excise. Kathleen Dinneen had qualified as a primary teacher and found employment also in London. They were both the children of Irish speaking parents.

Sometime about 1904 Seán Ó Catháin was transferred to Belfast. Some day a curious enquirer may discover whether his transfer was by way of promotion or downright exile to dour Belfast, where there were fewer Gaelic Leaguers!

Here our own Seán was born, and baptised at the parish church of the Sacred Heart, Oldpark Road. In due course he was confirmed at St. Patrick's parish church, Donegall Street. After primary school he was sent to St. Malachy's college and had all but completed his secondary schooling when his father was once more transferred to a very different location of the customs and excise. This time it was to Cork, not far from his native place. It is almost certain that the transfer was scheduled for the late spring of 1921 - a very significant date. Britain was busily partitioning Ireland in the administrative sector in preparation for political partition and the opening of a new Six-county parliament on 22nd June 1921. In fact, the separation of the administrative files of government had been going quietly on even before the general election and victory of Sinn Féin in December 1918! All this underhand work was unknown or unsuspected, apparently, by the young republican politicians, the heirs of 1916!

Seán junior resumed his secondary schooling at the North Monastery CBS in June 1922. He entered the medical school at UCC, but in the event he was not destined to become a medical doctor.

In 1923 Seán senior was transferred to Dublin, In August Seán junior entered the novitiate at Tullabeg, and in due course made his first religious profession. In after years he often spoke of his privilege to have spent his first year as a novice under the direction of the saintly Fr. Michael Browne. He went to Rathfarnham Castle where he was to spend four years. At UCD he won scholarships; at home he was a live-wire in the Irish Society, and every Christmas distinguished himself as an actor in the Irish plays. He crowned his career at Rathfarnham with a first-class-honours MS in Celtic studies.

He was next appointed to the philosophate at Pullach, where he graduated DPh of the Gregorian university. Bilingual from infancy, it is not to be wondered at that he acquired an enviable mastery of the German language. Later he added Italian and French to his linguistic accomplishments.

Back in Ireland he was appointed to Galway for his regency, and it was during this period that Fr. Timothy Corcoran, professor of education at UCD, began to take an interest in Seán as a future successor in his own chair at Earlsfort terrace. These were happy years in a youthful, full and flourishing province, with only an occasional rumour of trouble trickling into Ireland from Hitler's Germany. But peace in Europe was already openly threatened when Seán was ordained priest in 1938. By the summer of 1940 he had completed his fourth year of theology and made his tertianship.

He was now appointed to Leeson Street for private study. Here under the watchful eye of Fr. Corcoran he began his studies in education that would lead to another doctorate. By an odd turn of events his prospects of eventually succeeding to the Chair of Education diminished considerably before the year was over. Fr. Corcoran's health had not been robust of late but he battled on - not only conducting his own lectures but also supplying for his assistant, Mr. W J Williams, who had recently suffered a stroke. It was anticipated that Williams, who was within a very few years of retirement, would resign, but when Fr. Corcoran himself was obliged on medical grounds to resign in September 1942, Williams declared he was going forward for Fr. Corcoran's chair. Meantime the Provincial and consultors (at the urging of members of the Hierarchy) put forward the name of Fr. Fergal McGrath as candidate. (No complaint was ever heard from Fr. Seán.) However, as soon as Fr. McGrath learned of Williams' intention, he immediately withdrew his name - and Williams secured the professorship. He had to retire in 1948. Since 1942 Fr. Seán was stationed as vice-warden at Hatch Street, where he continued work on his doctoral thesis. At the end of this study he spent the years 1946-48 as a master at Clongowes, and 1950-59 - with his characteristic thoroughness - Seán carried out the duties of inspector of our province's schools.

In 1948, when the chair of education was once more vacant, Fr. Seán allowed his name to go forward, and found overwhelming support in the electoral body. However, for the next eighteen years he enjoyed the title (and salary) of lecturer only and not professor. It was an open secret that the late Professor Michael Tierney had used all his considerable influence to downgrade the chair of education. Tierney's hostility dated from the time (1920's and 1930's) when his political views attracted strong opposition in The Catholic Bulletin, on the editorial board of which Fr. Timothy Corcoran's word was law.

In 1966 came belated acknowledgement of Fr. Seán's ability and worth when he was accorded the rank of professor. However, I always felt that the seven years during which he held the professorship were wearying if not even distasteful to a man of his sensitivity. It is enough to recall here that in 1968 student unrest in France spilled out all over Europe and across the Atlantic, and in the universities civilised behaviour, good manners and respect for any authority were the first casualties.

During his later years as professor, when he was also superior at Leeson Street, Seán's health was not robust. He suffered much from sleeplessness, yet during the thirteen years I lived with him he never missed an appointment and was exemplary for punctuality. A product of the old school, that is, brought up in the province to value the necessity of co-operation whether in teaching, church work, parochial missions etc, he lived in no ivory tower of academia. He was interested in everybody and everything connected with the Irish province, and that meant all our fathers, scholastics and brothers, and the works they were engaged in. He had an authentic apostolic bent, as could be deduced from his active interest in the work of two societies, one named after St. Vincent de Paul and the other called St. Joseph's Young Priests. He was an excellent community man, incapable of pulling a long face at table or recreation: he simply radiated a sense of fun. It was a delight to hear him enter the lists with Fr. Frank Shaw, My own impression was that if they had chosen the law for their profession, both would have gained celebrity as advocates.

As superior, Seán tended to be over-scrupulous, but against this he was particularly caring for the sick and generously sympathetic in times of bereavement. Like Fr's Fergal McGrath († 1988) and Redmond Roche († 1983) he acquired an almost legendary reputation for attendance at funerals. 1973 seemed to be the end of his active life; early that autumn he resigned from the chair of education and two months earlier had been replaced as superior of Leeson Street. The next five years he spent in quiet study and in a ministry within his capacity.

An unexpected challenge awaited him in 1978. The Provincial was faced with diminishing manpower, and one of our churches, the Crescent, rather urgently needed an operarius. The difficult proposal was made to Seán, a Dubliner of long standing, and now in his seventies. Generously, as was the custom of this province, he answered the call of duty and courageously entered on a new and unaccustomed way of life. In Limerick, while his fragile health remained, he gave of his best; but the last years must have been frustrating for a man of his once boundless nervous energy. In 1989 he seemed to rally somewhat, and twice at least attended funerals in Gardiner Street, but his years were telling against him. At length he had to go into St. John's hospital, Limerick, whence he was taken back to Dublin to spend the short time that remained to him at Our Lady's hospice, Harold's Cross. There, on St. Stephen's Day, God called him home.

Tá an tAthair Seán imithe uainn ar shlí na firinne, agus tá uaigneas orainn dá dheasca sin go bhfeicimid arís sna Flaithis é; ach idir an dá linn guímis go bhfaigh a anam dilis suaimhneas síoraí, go raibh sé faoi bhrat Mhuire i radharc na Trionóide.

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