A voice that will be remembered

Notes from the Western Periphery

PRINCIPLED, PERSUASIVE, PASSIONATE Fr Micheál Mac Gréil, pictured in 2013.  Pic: Dermot Roantree/cc-by-sa/2.0

John Bradley

In the course of the 25 years that I spent in the ESRI in Dublin, I often heard of the pioneering sociological research of Fr Micheál Mac Gréil. Sadly, I only came to know him personally during the last ten years of his life. As with so many contacts made in Westport, our first encounter was in Christy’s Harvest, where Micheál would be ensconced near the window seat from which he would hold forth in vigorous debate. Christy’s was the perfect salon and debating chamber: large enough for 10 to 15 people; small enough so that everyone could join in.
Micheál reminded me of Boswell’s portrait of Dr Samuel Johnson. His views were never tentative. He had carefully worked them out, announced them authoritatively to his audience, and expected the world to take note and engage in debate on his terms. You could never win an argument with Micheál. He had an uncanny way of drawing you in, gradually wearing you down and finally bringing you around to his point of view.
My links with Micheál arose out of work I did supporting the efforts to restore the Western Rail Corridor. Between 1963 and 1975 passenger services had ceased and the line was abandoned. Micheál and West on Track campaigned long and hard to reopen the railway, which they believed was a vital element of transport infrastructure needed to restore dynamism to the lagging peripheral western counties. Initial success came in 2010, with the restoration of the Limerick to Galway segment. Today there are expectations in the air that the next link from Athenry to Claremorris may soon attract government support. I dearly wish that Micheál had lived to see the complete success of his efforts.
Micheál gave us a fascinating account of his eventful life in his book, ‘The Ongoing Present: A Critical Look at the Society and World in which I Grew Up’. First, as a boy growing up in the West of Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s he absorbed its traditions and culture at a time when they were on the cusp of change and decay. Then as a young man he became an officer in the Irish army during the 1950s, and he became aware of problems, class divisions and prejudices in society.
Finally, as a Jesuit priest and lecturer, in addition to his pastoral duties, he took up a wide range of causes in support of rural and disadvantaged communities and worked to overcome the sometimes tardy and grudging way in which the Church authorities implemented the changes of Vatican II. The 1960s were also a time when long-overdue social-policy changes and the opening of the economy to global markets started a period of development and modernisation within the State.
In the mid-1960s Micheál had spent a study period at Kent State University, Ohio. US society was in turmoil, struggling to come to terms with what was widely regarded as an unjust, cruel and futile war in Vietnam and adapting to the dismantling of laws and customs that discriminated against black Americans. This experience clearly influenced him when he turned his focus to Ireland and its many problems and challenges.
During the 1970s, Micheál carried out research that brought clarity and understanding to an issue that had long preoccupied him. His doctoral thesis set out to describe, explore and explain the level of intergroup prejudice in Ireland.
The publication of his thesis in 1977 (‘Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland’) was a watershed in Irish empirical sociology.
In November 1977, he received a telephone call from Mrs Jane Ewart-Biggs, the widow of the assassinated British Ambassador to Ireland, Christopher Ewart-Biggs, telling him that his book had been selected for the first Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Peace Prize (awarded jointly with ATQ Stewart’s book, ‘The Narrow Ground: Aspects of Ulster 1609-1969’). Fr Mac Gréil was honoured to accept this award as a recognition of his research, and it was duly celebrated at a function in London.
Fr Mac Gréil certainly never lacked the courage of his convictions. In 1983, Mary Robinson, acting as Senior Counsel in the High Court case taken by Senator David Norris against the criminalisation of voluntary homosexual relations between consenting male adults, asked him to appear as an expert witness, based on his widely acknowledged expertise on prejudice and tolerance.
“I did not hesitate to agree to put my findings on the record of the court. I must admit that not everyone (lay or clerical) would be too happy with my going into public court to give evidence in favour of gay men’s right to privacy. For me to refuse would be academically dishonourable. I found out that homophobia was one of the most invidious forms of prejudice, which was as universal as anti-Semitism. It was no accident that the Nazis’ murder machine killed homosexuals as well as Jews.”
As is well known, both the Irish High Court and the Supreme Court cases went against Senator Norris. But an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights succeeded in 1988.
For a modest man, but one who never feared to speak out in defence of the weak or persecuted, it is fitting that his epitaph (which he used as an example in one of his sermons urging people not to be too hard on themselves) should be equally modest:
“I offered them what I would like to be written (in Irish, of course) on my mythical tombstone. ‘Here lies the mortal remains of Micheál Mac Gréil. The world is bad enough, but it might have been worse without him. May he rest in peace’.”

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.