Tribute to Fr Declan Caulfield

Second Reading
“He had caught the whisper of the divine in the depth of his human experience and he could articulate it in Irish or English, in words and images that had the charge of true poetry”


I want to begin this series of columns by writing about a friend who died recently. He was Fr Declan Caulfield, or, as he preferred to be known officially in Irish, an t-Athair Deaglán Mac Congamhna. But, averse as he was to officialdom in any language, he was usually known simply as ‘Dec’.
An t-Athair Deaglán was a priest of the diocese of Killala for almost 40 years. If there is a priestly look – and some people swear there is – Dec did not share it. No McCaul’s mannequin he! He dressed in ordinary clothes, a sartorial ensemble in which the colour green was usually dominant.
At stuffy Church gatherings he was about as happy as a tiger in a twee cake shop. If you did not know him you might guess at first sight he was some kind of rabbi, a druid or a medieval-style monk. Many influences shaped the man who was Dec, but at his core he was a Christian priest for whom the celebration of word and sacrament was paramount.
I admired his integrity, his commitment to social justice and his passion about the wonder of life. He could cut through cant with the savage clarity of a butcher’s cleaver through a carcass. Yet he had a sense of humour that was usually hilarious, never hurtful and often turned against himself. He had his faults and failings – who doesn’t? – but he freely admitted them.
In his ministry he encountered many stories ‘of unmerited misfortune, of cruel ill luck, of relentless persecution by destiny which sometimes wither the common places of consolation on the lips of a priest’ (from George Bernard Shaw’s play, ‘John Bull’s Other Island’), Here he knew instinctively how to be gentle. He never forgot the small places and the little people.
As a preacher he had few equals. He had caught the whispers of the divine in the depth of his human experience and he could tell of them in Irish or English, in words and images that had the charge of true poetry. After his death someone commented that his words at Sunday Mass used to leave him thinking for a week. Unusual longevity for a sermon, I am sure you will agree!
Bill Shankly once said football is not a matter of life and death, it is more important. So Dec saw Mayo football. He played with a ferocity that opponents,40 years on, still feel. Later he trained teams and helped introduce ladies’ football to Mayo.
He was a loyal supporter of Mayo teams. He was one of what I call the ‘Irvinestown Men’, one of a small group of supporters who turn up at distant grounds to see Mayo in the National League on raw February Sundays. How he would have relished Mayo’s courage, style and determination in the All-Ireland semi-final victory over Dublin. He would have been crestfallen at Mayo’s collapse in the final, but hope would not have left his heart. Come next spring he would have unfurled the green and red flag once more.
Dec remained a boy at heart. When Mayo lost the All-Ireland of 1996 he adopted a sickly looking cat whom he named Sam. He could never understand the failure of those of us for whom cats are best admired at a distance to appreciate her!  Winifred Letts little poem about boys could have been written for him:

“I do be thinking God must laugh
The time He makes a boy,
All element the creatures are,
And devilment and joy.
Careless and gay as a wad in a window,
Swift as a redshank and wild as a hare,
Hearts scalds and torments – but sorra a mother
Has got one to spare.’

On a bright and breezy day in July he was laid to rest in Belderrig graveyard in a plot that looks out on the home where he spent his childhood and his final years.  He loved his native place. He rejoiced in its historicity, extending back to the time of the first known settlers in Ireland. He revelled in the wit and wisdom of Belderrig people, past and present. He was so knowledgeable about its fauna and flora.
‘Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís’ is now an over-worked phrase but it applies suitably to the life force that was Dec. To paraphrase some words of the poet, Stephen Spender, he was one of those who were truly great, who in his life travelled towards the sun and who left the vivid air signed with his honour.