Born: 17 May 1909, Dublin
Entered 01 September 1926, St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, County Offaly
Ordained: 31 July 1941
Final vows: 02 February 1945
Died: 21 December 1971, Wah Yan College, Hong Kong - Hong Kong Province (HK)
Transcribed HIB to HK : 03 December 1966
Early education at Belvedere College SJ
by 1936 at Aberdeen, Hong Kong - Regency
by 1958 at Cheung Chau, Hong Kong - Regency studying language
◆ Hong Kong Catholic Archives :
Death of Father Turner
Father John Turner, S.J., scholar and poet, died suddenly on Tuesday, 21 December 1971, at Wah Yan College, Hong Kong, aged 62.
Father Turner first came to Hong Kong in 1935, already a ripe classical scholar. From the time of his arrival here he took the study of Chinese language and literature as his main task in life. Apart from two periods in Ireland, a couple of years as professor of English at Chung San University, Canton, and about a year in Taiwan, the last thirty-six years of his life were spent in Hong Kong. In recent years, bad health, crippling arthritis, and, most of all, ever-increasing immersion in Chinese studies cut him off from easy contact with the general public. Outside his own community, he was known chiefly to fellow poets and fellow Sinologues.
He will, nevertheless, be grievously missed by many who are neither Sinologues nor poets, including the editor of this paper.
Sunday Examiner Hong Kong - 24 December 1971
Note from Alan Birmingham Entry
After returning to Hong Kong in February 1948, he was sent for some months to Canton (Guangzhou) where a Jesuit colleague, Father John Turner, was lecturing at Chung Shan University.
Note from Joe Shields Entry
How he had assisted in sorting Father Turner’s manuscript on Tang Dynasty poetry
◆ Biographical Notes of the Jesuits in Hong Kong 1926-2000, by Frederick Hok-ming Cheung PhD, Wonder Press Company 2013 ISBN 978 9881223814
Note from Joseph Howatson Entry
He came to Hong Kong as Regent with Seán Turner who was a different personality and whose whole world was words and ideas. Travelling with them was Fr Cooney who was bringing the Markee telescope
◆ Irish Province News
Irish Province News 22nd Year No 1 1947
Departures for Mission Fields in 1946 :
4th January : Frs. P. J. O'Brien and Walsh, to North Rhodesia
25th January: Frs. C. Egan, Foley, Garland, Howatson, Morahan, Sheridan, Turner, to Hong Kong
25th July: Fr. Dermot Donnelly, to Calcutta Mission
5th August: Frs, J. Collins, T. FitzGerald, Gallagher, D. Lawler, Moran, J. O'Mara, Pelly, Toner, to Hong Kong Mid-August (from Cairo, where he was demobilised from the Army): Fr. Cronin, to Hong Kong
6th November: Frs. Harris, Jer. McCarthy, H. O'Brien, to Hong Kong
Irish Province News 47th Year No 1 1972
Fr Seán Turner SJ (1909-1971)
We are largely indebted to Fr. Alan Birmingham for the following appreciation:
“Your only chance of being remembered in a hundred years is that you may be mentioned in a footnote of Seán Turner”. That remark was made some years ago by a perceptive European Jesuit to a startled Superior of what was then the Mission of Hong Kong.
When Father John Turner - “Seán” to everyone - died suddenly on 21 December he had achieved no fame outside a small circle of students of Chinese; but he left a vast disarray of paper. Many expect that it will be possible to extract from these disordered literary remains at least one volume that will be treasured a century from now. For about two decades he had been translating Chinese poetry into English poetry. Only a few of his translations have appeared in print, but many of his friends have read large numbers of them in manuscript. Those who could judge them only as English poetry have been uniformly enthusiastic about them as English poetry; but a Chinese savant has told me that to him they are remarkable chiefly on account of their wonderful accuracy as translations. Every character, he said, is translated with scrupulous fidelity; the Chinese original has never been sacrificed to the exigencies of English prosody.
Seán was born in Dublin on 17 May, 1909. My own memories of him go back to Belvedere in the mid-1920s. He was a couple of years ahead of me and I did not know him, but there was an air of vitality about him that caught attention, and no one could ignore his mop of black curls with a startling white plume in the middle of them. Scholastic eminence was no way to fame in those days, but even his juniors knew that Seán Turner and his close friend Denis Devlin had won what glory there was to be won, including, I think, the first and second places in French and English in the Leaving Certificate.
While still young he enjoyed the friendship of Jack Yeats, probably the best painter in Ireland. Yeats recognised Seán's talent and stimulated his artistic energies. To the end of his life Seán regarded and spoke of this friendship as a cherished memory. His decision to offer himself for the Society probably bemused some of his teachers and still more his school friends, most of whom would have considered that his enthusiasms could hardly abide the disciplines of the religious life for long; they did abide it and at no time could it be asserted that he felt restless “under the yoke”; a delicate sense of humour, ever at hand, enabled him to triumph over the most trying contretemps.
He left the noviciate for Rathfarnham as I entered Tullabeg as a novice; during the next two years the tradition of Seán's passages formed part of the themes of the lighter side of life; streams he had fallen into, places he had been when he should have been elsewhere, his efforts to have riding breeches accepted as conventional noviceship wear; they seem trivial but indicate the humorous independence that accompanied him through life.
In Rathfarnham he devoted himself to his studies - no difficulty for him - with a like bonhomie; his cartoons in Broken Delf under the editorship of Terry Sheridan, illustrated critical situations with point. We suppose Fr Rector, Fr John Keane, had an occasional peep, though without external reaction.
He merited an extra year in the Castle which concluded with an honours MA degree in Classics.
The pattern of life at Rathfarnham was repeated at Philosophy; he did not always work to schedule.
Study went on perpetually, though there were changes of subject. For his first two and a half years of Philosophy, Irish was his passion, Then a few months before his De Universa Philosophia examination, he became a violent Suarezian and made a valiant but unsuccessful effort to convert Father E Coyne, professor of cosmology, to his new enthusiasm.
In 1935 he went to Hong Kong and his remaining 36 years were given to Chinese studies - the language itself, written and spoken, Chinese literature, a brief flirtation with Mandarin followed by dexterous advocacy of Cantonese as a fully developed medium for thought and expression, work on the preparation of a dictionary of Cantonese, and above all translation of major Chinese poems into English.
Constant application of his great gifts made him a savant, much admired by many of his fellow savants. He was for some years a member of a government examination board on Chinese studies. For several years he was in communication with the Oxford University Press about the publication of a representative anthology of his translations; but he could never be persuaded to hand in a complete manuscript; there was always some fine point to be added, always something to be polished. In the end the publisher broke off negotiations. With all his work, he had published little. Those who knew him best decided years ago that posthumous publication was all that could be hoped for. He himself would have been quite content: he valued the good opinion of the few whose judgment he respected, but he had little interest in public fame and seemed to believe that all that really mattered was to do first-class work and communicate it to the few that could appreciate it. To superiors who wanted to see him put his great talent to good use, this scholar's detachment was at times frustrating, though they usually showed understanding or resignation when faced with a man whom they themselves, or at least others whose judgement they could not ignore, recognised as a genius.
People did apply the word “genius” to Seán. I have never known it applied seriously to any other man I have met, Jesuit or non Jesuit. Genius does not always make life easy for the man who possesses it, or for those he lives with. It did not always make life easy for Seán. He seemed capable of attaining everything, except mediocracy. He could succeed gloriously or fail hideously, Mediocrity was out of his reach, yet a great deal of the ordinary enjoyment of life demands mediocrity. Seán could be the most brilliant and most entertaining of talkers; in his pedantic moods, he could be a crashing bore. Desultory conversation about nothing in particular makes up the greater part of most human talk, and often the most enjoyable part: Sean was incapable of it. He seemed conscious of this lack, and occasionally tried to overcome it. These attempts were embarrassing failures and would end in an outburst of strained dialectics or a lecture on some obscure point of esoteric learning, or a baffled departure for his room.
A few days after his death an unprejudiced questioner asked me if Seán had had any close friends. The answer was a decided Yes. Perhaps because of his knowledge that there were many who could not offer him easy friendship, he treasured those who could. He could exude pleasure on seeing one of them, and without a word of welcome make them conscious of being welcome. His friends were a motley group, including every variety of intelligence, social position, education and interests.
Though primarily a man of study, he carried on a direct apostolate that, like everything else about him, was highly characteristic. He had very little power of dealing with the ordinary men and women to whom any priest could minister, and his habit of forgetting all about time made him unsuitable for ordinary supplies and sermons. But with those with whom the ordinary priest was completely ineffective - the self-centred eccentric, the self-conscious intellectual, the drunken failed artist, the man with an obscure grievance, and the like - he had the touch that was needed. Both in Ireland and in Hong Kong, he brought the vision of the faith to many such people who would have laughed off more humdrum approaches.
In recent years, poor health and in particular the agonies of rheumatoid arthritis had hampered his contact with the outside world and even his most trivial movements; but he never allowed such inconveniences to damp his zest for knowledge and for life. Not long before his death I visited him in hospital. He was partly drugged and his talk was lethargic till he began to speak about the nurses and wardsmaids. He promptly threw off the effects of the drugs and was all animation as he explained that he was at least learning true Cantonese. Till then it had all been either scholar's Cantonese or labourer's Cantonese: at last he was learn ing how ordinary people spoke.
He died suddenly one night, without any preliminary period of exceptionally bad health. The striking diversity of the mourners at his funeral was a tribute to the scope of his friendship. The most noticeable figure was a rather leftish intellectual in Hong Kong - piously kneeling for perhaps the first time in his life. Seán would have been glad to know that this man would attend, but he would probably have cared more for the presence of some of the utterly undistinguished old ladies whose grief would have touched him deeply.
It may be that posthumous fame will come to him. It may be that in a mood of perfectionism he destroyed all his papers and was preparing to begin again. Time will tell. Meanwhile, there are many whose lament for his passing forms a tribute that he would have valued above anything that fame could have offered. RIP