An tAthair Micheál Mac Gréil, 90 years young

De Facto

PROUD DAY Fr Micheál Mac Gréil at the Apparition Chapel at Knock Shrine for the visit of Pope Francis. (Also pictured is Una Wooley from Claremorris. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Personal chaplain, erudite ambassador, passionate campaigner

De Facto
Liamy MacNally

There are few things worse than risking the wrath of a cleric. A powerful cleric at that! Sometimes the job of a mere columnist entails such risk. The small mercy is that the cleric in question neither dons a mitre nor weaves a weary way with a crozier at the ready.
Needless to say, the same man would have made excellent episcopal fare, as good as any bishop and better than most. The man we all know as Fr Micheál is 90 years young today. Happy birthday!
He was born Micheál Mac Gréil in Clonaslee, Co Laois in 1931 and grew up in Westport. Drumindoo and Loughloon are his townlands, cusping the Covie town in the middle, with an eye always on Clew Bay.  
After his schooldays in Westport he worked in a local garage before joining the Irish Army in 1950 as a cadet. A daily Communicant in the Army he joined the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association (PTAA) and Réalt, the Irish-speaking branch of the Legion of Mary. In the Marian Year of 1954, the then Defence Minister, Seán Mac Eoin (FG), declared Our Lady patroness of the Defence Forces. Fr Mícheál left the army in 1959 and joined the Jesuits to become a soldier of Christ.
He studied in Ireland, in Leuven in Belgium, and then in Kent State University, Ohio, where he discovered the destructive power of social prejudice faced by black people living in ghettos. Ordained in 1969, he celebrated his first Mass in Westport. He then headed to Kilkenny to celebrate Mass for the Travelling Community.
Lecturing in sociology followed in NUI Maynooth (1971-1996) as did three surveys of prejudice and tolerance in Ireland. His initial study won the Ewart-Biggs prize jointly with ATQ Stewart, which caused some furore with his Irish-speaking comrades!  
Fr Micheál has been honoured by Church and State! He was presented with a papal honour, Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, and with the Mayo Hall of Fame. The accolade was ‘for services to his native county and his country, first as a soldier, and later in his work for the underprivileged such as Travellers and prisoners, for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, for the pilgrimage to Mám Éan, for tolerance as against prejudice, for the Pioneers, for his active and pro-active concern for the Irish language, and for the economic development of the West through Knock Airport and the Western Corridor Railway’.
Comedian Ardal O’Hanlon described him, saying: “He’s a man I’ve come to respect for his integrity, his just causes, and for doing something incredibly rare in Ireland: actually practicing what he preaches.”
For many Westport families he is like their personal chaplain, knowing family histories and connections. When death strikes, Fr Micheál is there to remind all that the body is a monument to the soul: “We bury the remains but the soul is very much alive.”
He ensures those grieving know their loved ones enter into the fullness of knowledge and love in death. At the graveyard his presence is a comfort to all, calling on the ancestors and praying as Gaeilge, rippling into our collective conscious. The graveyard is the great leveller.
He loves to hold court, is always up for an intellectual challenge and does it all with a great sense of humour. A cuppa and apple pie with cream on the side also help! He is noble company and enjoys meeting people.
On so many levels he is an ambassador. He welcomes visitors to our town, carries out surveys on social, economic and faith life and is a priest with common sense, full of Gospel values.
He will read this in his Loughloon cottage, a bit miffed because he did not want any fuss. (I’ll ask for forgiveness!) He will gaze out at his daffodils stretching up to the heavens in all their majesty. He loves that view and the simple beauty of the daffodils in bloom. They never miss a year.
We will convince him that all the birthday wishes are also little bouquets. We salute him for his kindness, generosity and love, and thank him and assure him of our appreciation and respect. A national treasure! Go maire sé an céad.