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Memories of an inspiring and courageous clergyman

Second Reading

Memories of an inspiring and courageous clergyman

Fr Kevin Hegarty

The Welsh poet RS Thomas once wrote of rural clergy he knew:
“They left no books
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes rather they wrote
On men’s hearts and in the minds
Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten.”

Whenever I read those words, I am reminded of a priest I met only once but of whom I have heard much. Canon Michael James Kilgallen ministered for 53 years in the parish of Kilmore-Erris, on the Mullet peninsula, where I now live.
He died 31 years ago, yet rarely does a week pass without an older parishioner mentioning him fondly. He has surfaced even more frequently in the past month as events to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War have unfolded. He was one of the 649 catholic priests who served as chaplains with the British Army during the War and the last survivor of the group.
He was born in Ballina in 1892, his father was a policeman in South Africa and returned home intermittently. One of Michael James’ earliest memories was of coming home from school and meeting a stranger in the kitchen who told him he was his father.
After education in St Muredach’s College, Kilgallen opted to study for the priesthood in the Irish College in Salamanca. He was ordained in Ballina in 1916. Appointed to a curacy in Cornboy, he decided after a few months, to become a Chaplain in the British Army. It was a courageous decision as in the aftermath of the Easter Rising and the brutal British response to it, popular opinion in Ireland had turned against Irish participation in the Great War. Asked why he eschewed the safety of a rural curacy for the miasmic terror of the trenches, he replied with the sensed irony for which he was noted, that it was better than Cornboy. He served with distinction in Belgium. He never spoke much about the war except to say: “It would go awfully quiet and then bang.” He said he saw things that would turn “your liver”, but did not elaborate. On one occasion, while he was celebrating Mass in an improvised shelter, it was struck by a shell. Two men were killed and several injured. After his return, he spent most of the rest of his life on the Mullet peninsula, living in Binghamstown. He had seen human nature under the most trying of circumstances and it shaped the rest of his life. It inoculated him against the arrogance and authoritarianism that pervaded institutional Irish Catholicism for much of the twentieth century.
He loved to puncture ecclesiastical pomposity. In the 1950’s, Bishop O’Boyle embarked on a tour of church sacristies to investigate how they were kept. When he got to Binghamstown Church, he found canon Kilgallen’s sacristy in a rather ramshackle state. He told the Canon, with heavy irony, that he would get no prizes for the way he kept it, to which came the swift rejoinder: “My Lord I did not know you were giving prizes.” On another occasion, he attended a conference of clergy in Ballina at which a theologian was rostered to speak on an abstruse topic. As the speaker ploughed ponderously into his text, Michael James noticed that an elderly colleague was struggling to insert batteries in his hearing aid.
“Don’t waste your batteries, Jimmy, he’s no good,” came the audible whisper from the back row. He loved to tease, Fr. Declan Caufield, an ardent Irish nationalist, was among the curates who worked with him. Once when they were travelling to a station Mass, the Canon decided that the trouble with Ireland was that the Roman’s never came here and Cromwell did not stay long enough. Declan nearly swerved into Saleen Harbour before he realised he was being had on.
He had an austere lifestyle, his playing of organ music his only concession to leisure. He never owned a car, preferring to cycle around his extensive parish, almost to the end of his long life. He understood his community, knowing that Kilmore-Erris was haunted by poverty and emigration for much of the twentieth century, he never demanded money from his parishioners. His sermons were compassionate and brief. He looked out for the vulnerable. He was a gentle confessor, having no truck with the Irish Catholic Church’s tyrannical obsession with sin.
He now lies in Emlybeg Cemetery, looking out on Blacksod Bay, among many of the people he served so well. Francis Stuart’s description of a priest in his novel, ‘Redemption’, is a fitting epitaph for Michael James Kilgallen.
“He had a very great gentleness and those who needed gentleness came to him.”