Born: 17 February 1892, Clifton, Bristol, Gloucestershire, England
Entered: 30 September 1912, St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, County Offaly
Ordained: 31 July 1924, Milltown Park, Dublin
Final Vows: 02 February 1929, St Ignatius, Leeson Street, Dublin
Died: 18 May 1983, Our Lady's Hospice, Dublin
Part of the Milltown Park, Dublin Community at the time of death
Early education at Clongowes Wood College SJ
◆ Royal Irish Academy : Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge University Press online :
Gwynn, Aubrey Osborn
by Noreen Giffney
Gwynn, Aubrey Osborn (1892–1983), Jesuit priest and academic, was born 17 February 1892 at Clifton, Bristol, England, the second son among six children (four boys and two girls) of Stephen Lucius Gwynn (qv), writer and MP, and his wife and first cousin, Mary Louise Gwynn, daughter of Rev. James Gwynn of Dublin and Bath. Born into an esteemed Church of Ireland family, he was the great-grandson of William Smith O'Brien (qv), the grandson of Rev. Dr John Gwynn (qv), regius professor of divinity at TCD (1888–1907), and the nephew of Edward John Gwynn (qv), provost of TCD (1927–37). On his mother's conversion to Roman catholicism (1902), Aubrey, his brother Denis Gwynn (qv), and their siblings were received into the catholic church at Farm Street, London, and brought up as catholics. Due to the nature of his father's work, much of Aubrey's early life was divided between London and Dublin.
Educated at the Jesuit Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare (1903–8), Gwynn spent a year of private study in Munich before becoming the first student to sign the register at the newly chartered UCD, where he later gained first-class honours (BA, 1912; MA 1915) in classics. When Fr William Delany (qv) admitted him to the Jesuit noviceship in Tullabeg, Rahan (1912), Gwynn intended to join the Chinese mission and work in Hong Kong, but under the guidance of Delany's successor, Dr T. V. Nolan, he entered academic life. After studying for a year at Rathfarnham, he went in 1916 on a travelling studentship to Oxford (Campion Hall), where he was awarded the Cromer essay prize (1917) and graduated B. Litt. (1919). He taught classics and German for two years at Clongowes (1917–19) before spending two years studying philosophy at the Jesuit College, Louvain (1919–21), and a further four years studying theology at Milltown Park, Dublin. He was ordained at Milltown Park on 24 July 1924 and trained for a final year in Exaten, the Netherlands (1926), then took his final vows in Dublin on 2 February 1929.
Initially employed (1927) as an assistant lecturer in ancient history at UCD, Gwynn replaced Daniel A. Binchy (qv) as lecturer in medieval history on the latter's appointment as Irish Free State minister in Berlin. When John Marcus O'Sullivan (qv) resumed his duties as professor of history in 1932, he was so impressed with the young lecturer's abilities that he had his position made permanent. Sixteen years later, in 1948, Gwynn was appointed first professor of medieval history. Actively involved in the administration of UCD, he was a member of the governing body, dean of the faculty of arts (1952–6), and a member of the NUI senate. He also served as president of the RIA (1958–61).
A pioneering scholar, Gwynn wrote or edited numerous contributions to ancient, medieval, and modern history, on such subjects as Roman education, Archbishop Richard Fitzralph (qv) of Armagh, and Irish emigrants in the West Indies. His many articles, numbering over one hundred, as well as his reviews, which he often initialled P. D. (‘Poor Devil’), were published in various journals, including the Journal of Hellenic Studies, Analecta Hibernica, and the Irish Ecclesiastical Record. As a member of the Irish Manuscripts Commission (1943–74) he revived the study and publication of the Calendar of Papal Letters. He was exonerated after being accused, by Regina Zukasiewicz, of stealing her deceased husband's manuscripts (1956). Despite being plagued by bouts of depression, he gained international recognition and an array of awards, among them offers of honorary doctorates from QUB (1964), and TCD (1965) – the second of which he declined. However, Gwynn was not impressed with his honorifics asserting that the only qualifications he required were SJ – alluding to his membership of the Society of Jesus.
Gwynn lived mostly with the Jesuit community at 35 Lower Leeson Street (1927–62), where he was superior of residence (1932–45). A keen supporter of the Missionary Sisters of St Columba and St Joseph's Young Priests’ Society, he helped to establish the latter's civil service branch (1930), advised on the preparing of their constitution (1945), and was editor of their quarterly magazine, St Joseph's Sheaf (1927–49). After he retired from UCD in 1961 he moved to Milltown (1962), where he lectured for two years on church history and tended to the library (1962–6). He remained active, despite failing eyesight, until a fractured femur left him in St Vincent's Hospital; he then moved to Our Lady's Hospice, Harold's Cross, where he died 18 May 1983. He was buried two days later, following funeral mass at the Jesuit church, Gardiner Street.
Aubrey Gwynn's private papers, Jesuit archives; file of correspondence between Robert Dudley Edwards and Aubrey Gwynn (1950–68), UCD Archives, LA 22/782–3; F. X. Martin, ‘The historical writings of Reverend Professor Aubrey Gwynn, S. J.’, Medieval studies presented to Aubrey Gwynn, S. J., ed. J. A. Watt, J. B. Morrall, and F. X. Martin (1961), 502–9; Geoffrey Hand, ‘Professor Aubrey Gwynn’, Hibernia (1962), 10; University College Dublin. Report of the president for the session 1961–62 (1962), 72–4; Burke, IFR (1976), 532–3; Geoffrey Hand, ‘Father Aubrey Gwynn, S. J.’, Ir. Times, 21 May 1983, 8; Irish Province News, xx, no. 11 (1983), 348–50, 367–9; Report of the president, University College Dublin 1982–83 (1983), 154; R. D. Edwards, ‘Professor Aubrey Gwynn, S. J.’, Anal. Hib., xxxi (1984), xi; F. X. Martin, ‘Aubrey Osborn Gwynn, 1892–1983’, Royal Irish Academy Annual Report, 1983–4 (1984), 2–6; Clara Cullen, ‘Historical writings of Aubrey Gwynn: addendum’, Aubrey Gwynn, S. J., The Irish church in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, ed. Gerard O'Brien (1992), xiii–xiv; Geoffrey Hand, ‘Aubrey Gwynn: the person’, Studies, lxxxi (1992), 375–84; Fergus O'Donoghue, ‘Aubrey Gwynn: the Jesuit’, Studies, lxxxi (1992); 393–8; Katherine Walsh, ‘Aubrey Gwynn: the scholar’, Studies, lxxxi (1992), 385–92
◆ Irish Province News
Irish Province News 17th Year No 1 1942
Recent articles by Fr. Aubrey Gwynn in the “Irish Ecclesiastical Record” were the subject of a very flattering notice in the 4 October issue of the 'Times Literary Supplement'. They referred to valuable contributions made by him to the history of the Dublin diocese in the 11th century, and in particular to interesting discoveries about Bishop Patrick of Dublin, whom he proves to have been a monk at Worcester under St. Wulfstain and author of the medieval scholastic poems in one of the Cotton MSS.
Irish Province News 58th Year No 3 1983
Fr Aubrey Gwynn (†)
Aubrey Gwynn went to his Maker at 6.45 on the morning of 18th May: requiescat in pace! The Province will hardly see his like again. From his childhood days in London at the turn of the century, he could remember great events like the funeral of Queen Victoria, and the celebrations on the relief of Mafeking. Yet right to the end he took an interest in everybody and everything; he was in no way out of touch or out of sympathy with the times; he and the scholastics greatly enjoyed each other's company. Again, he was both a consummate scholar and a zealous, devout priest. In his late eighties he was still contributing learned articles to Seanchas Ardmhacha, and was rarely, if ever, missing from his accustomed spot at community Mass. In his earlier years he had been closely associated with St Joseph's Young Priests Society and the Columban Sisters, and both these bodies have contributed appreciations which are printed below. It is also perhaps worth recalling how well Aubrey succeeded in being on excellent terms with staff at Maynooth College and with members of the Hierarchy. At the funeral, Maynooth was represented by Mons. Patrick J. Corish and Dublin archdiocese by Bishop James Kavanagh: Cardinal 0 Fiaich regretted being unable to attend, owing to the death of his own brother (Dr Patrick Fee).
Aubrey is remembered with great affection by the Milltown Park community (here we are gathering into one many golden opinions) as a Simeon like figure, who redeemed the dignity of old age, never grumbled, complained or criticised, was so full of gratitude for his Jesuit vocation; who forty years ago treated scholastics as adults; the last of the generation of giants. He will continue to be remembered for his patient faith, his independence of spirit, tolerance of change, good humour, conviviality at table, debonair gentlemanliness, desire for life and determination to live, helpfulness and encouragement, graciousness, faithfulness and dedication, simplicity and humility.
One member of the community writes as follows: “Every day for ten years Aubrey concelebrated the Community Mass: at 10 am on Sundays, at 5.30 pm on weekdays in term, at 12.15 pm on weekdays in vacation and on Sundays. This showed an impressive willingness to adapt to different hours - a strength of faith which enabled him really to enjoy such varied styles of worship.
His loyalty to ‘The College’ (UCD, represented at the funeral by Mons. Feichin O'Doherty) showed me that an institution can be served with discrimination, with neither cynical detachment nor bland adoration.
His warm interest in each of us in the community was enormously encouraging - so different from the intrusive questioning by those who want to pigeon hole me for some future use, and different from the inattention of those who seem afraid to make human contact with me even for the length of a meal.
Another member expresses his appreciation in the following words: “I will remember Aubrey as a big man, a man who spanned the centuries and felt at home in many of them including much of our own. I will remember him as a grateful man, grateful to God and to us at Milltown. I will remember him as a lovable man who aged with grace and dignity. Finally I will remember Aubrey the priest, who celebrated the daily Eucharist with us faithfully and with determined step.
A fellow-historian and friend of Aubrey's, Katherine Walsh, who dedicated to him her recent work on Archbishop Richard FitzRalph, wrote from Vienna to the Rector as follows: “Kind friends contacted me by telephone and telegram to break the sad news of the death of Fr Aubrey Gwynn, May I offer through you my deepest sympathy to the community of Milltown Park, also to the Irish Jesuit Province, of which he was for so long a distinguished and respected ornament at home and abroad. My personal sense of loss is great - it was not merely FitzRalph that bound me to him. His personal and scholarly qualities were such that I valued his friendship, advice and encouragement very much. Also my husband Alfred learned to share my very deep affection for him and wishes to be associated in this word of appreciation. Our subsequent visits to Ireland will be the poorer without the pleasure of his great company. Requiescat in pace”.
Mr Brendan Daly of Waterford, who was National President of St Joseph's Young Priests Society from 1975 to 1982, sent the following appreciation: “For over forty years, Fr Aubrey Gwynn played a very important part in the formation and development of St Joseph's Young Priests Society. Space will allow for only a brief mention of the highlights of these activities. From 1927 1949 he was the Honorary Editor of ‘Saint Joseph's sheaf’, the Society's quarterly magazine. During most of this same period, he was also a member of a the Society's governing Council. In 1930 helped to establish the Civil Service Branch, and was its chaplain until 1936. He was also actively involved in the formation of other vocational branches. He advised on the preparation of the Society's 1945 Constitution.
Fr Gwynn gave of himself quietly but building up a Lay Society that its identity, purpose and motivation in the Eucharist and membership of the Mystical Body of Christ. He encouraged greater lay participation in the Apostolate of the Church, and imbued members with those ideals that were subsequently to be voiced in the decrees of the Second Vatican Council. He was a true priest of Jesus Christ who helped many lay people to live their own royal . priesthood. He has helped St Joseph's Young Priests Society to build up a rich heritage - a heritage which it values and shares with many, many others'.
The Vicar-General of the Missionary Sisters of St Columban, Sr Ita McElwain, sent the following tribute: Fr Aubrey Gwynn had a long and happy association with the Missionary Sisters of St Columban. This came about through his relationship with Mother Mary Patrick, formerly Lady Frances Moloney, who was a friend and contemporary of his mother. Mother M. Patrick knew Aubrey from his childhood and followed his career with interest. He, in turn, had a lifelong regard for her, and greatly admired her spirit and courage when, at the age of fifty, she joined the little band of women who were destined to become the first members of the Columban Sisters.
“Fr Gwynn was a regular visitor to the Motherhouse at Cahiracon, Co Clare. On at least two occasions he gave retreats to the sisters there, as well as an occasional triduum of prayer to the to student sisters at the house of studies located at Merrion square at that time. The house at Merrion square was cquired in 1942 when Mother M Patrick was superior-general of the he Columban Sisters and Fr Gwynn superior of the Jesuit house at Leeson Street. Father offered to provide a weekly Mass for the sisters, and this continued He advised on the preparation of the for many years. He came whenever he could and took a keen interest in the sisters studies and in the sisters fully in themselves when they were missioned finds overseas. Especially worthy of note was his invaluable help and support to the sisters doing medical studies: this was at a time when it was quite a departure for sisters to undertake the study of medicine and surgery. Fr Gwynn is remembered by us as a devoted priest and renowned scholar; a loyal friend whose invaluable advice and experience were greatly appreciated by a comparatively young and struggling congregation; a very open-hearted and good-humoured man who kept in close touch with us through all the years of our existence. May his great soul rest in peace”.
The following is the text of Aubrey's last letter to the Columban Sisters: 2nd Dec. 1982.
Dear Sister Maura.
Very many thanks to you all at Magheramore for the splendid bird that was duly delivered here yesterday evening as on so many other happy occasions. And my special greetings to those of your community who may remember me from the old days in Merrion square and Fitzwilliam square. I shall be 91 years old next February, and am beginning to feel that I am an old man.
For the past 21 years I have been very happy here, where everyone young and old about here is very kind. And I am ever more grateful for the many blessings I have received during my 91 years. Blessings on you all at Magheramore, and may Mother Patrick, who was my mother's friend, rest in реаcе.
Yours in Xt, / Aubrey Gwynn, S.J.'
The appreciation by Professor Geoffrey Hand appeared in the columns of the Irish Times on Saturday, 21st May.
Fr Aubrey Gwynn (1892-1912-1983)
By the death of Fr Aubrey Gwynn the Irish Province of the Society of Jesus has lost one of its most distinguished and well-loved members.
He was born on the 7th February, 1892, at Clifton, Bristol, where his father, Stephen Gwynn, man of letters, historian, poet and member of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was at that time tutoring in a private crammer's. The Gwynn family were descended from Welsh settlers in Ulster during the 17th century, and were noted for the number of them who entered the ministry of the Church of Ireland. They also had a long and distinguished connection with Trinity College. Stephen's father, Rev John Gwynn, was Regius Professor of Divinity 1888-1917, and author of the great edition of the Book of Armagh, whilst his brother, Edward John Gwynn, was Provost of Trinity 1927-37. But the later generation of Gwynns had a strong infusion of Celtic blood, for Stephen Gwynn's mother was the elder daughter of William Smith O'Brien.
In 1896 the Gwynn family settled in London, where Aubrey attended a private preparatory school. He used to relate how amongst the small pupils was one Harold Macmillan – later British Prime Minister - who in some way made himself obnoxious and was sent to Coventry by his schoolfellows. The head master complained to their parents, with dire results for Aubrey, since at that time his father relied largely for income on his work as reader for the firm of Macmillan. In 1902 Mrs Mary Louise Gwynn was received into the Catholic Church and was followed by her children. Two years later Stephen Gwynn decided to return to Ireland and Aubrey was sent to Clongowes. He was accompanied by his elder brother, Lucius, a promising scholar who died at the age of twenty-nine after a long struggle against tuberculosis, and his younger brother, Denis, later a distinguished biographer and Professor of Modern Irish History in University College, Cork. Whilst at Clongowes, Aubrey already displayed his brilliance. He spent two years in Rhetoric class, winning in the first year the medal for first place in Senior Grade Latin, and in the second year the corresponding medal for Greek.
On leaving Clongowes, Aubrey had a year's private study in Munich and then entered University College, Dublin, becoming a member of Winton House, the predecessor of University Hall, He took his BA degree in 1912 and entered the noviceship at Tullabeg. After the noviceship he studied at Rathfarnham for a year, preparing for the MA and travelling studentship. The two years of the studentship were spent at Oxford, ending with the B. Litt. degree and Cromer Greek prize. Then followed two years teaching classics at Clongowes, philosophy at Louvain, theology at Mill town Park, ordination in 1924 and tertianship at Exaten, Holland, 1925-26.
Father Gwynn's first entrance into the life of University College was in 1927, when he was appointed lecturer in Ancient History. From then on, he was the recipient of one distinction after another. He became lecturer in Medieval History in 1930, professor of Medieval History in 1948, Dean of the Faculty of Arts 1951-56, member at various periods of the Governing Body of University College and of the Senate of the National University, President of the Royal Irish Academy 1958-61. In 1964 he was awarded the honorary degree of D. Litt. by Queen's University, Belfast.
As lecturer and professor Father Gwynn won universal praise. On his retirement in 1962, he was made the recipient of a Festschrift, a volume of essays on medieval subjects, edited by three of his colleagues, J. A. Wal . B. Morrall and F. X. Martin, OSA. The contributions by some twenty scholars from Irish, British, continental and American universities, were evidence of Father Gwynn's reputation outside Ireland. In the Foreword Professor Michael Tierney, president of University College, Dublin, emphasised the esteem in which Father Gwynn was held in his own country.
The essays gathered in this book are a well-deserved tribute to a man who has been a leader in historical work and in general scholarship for more than thirty years ... His unanimous election as President of the Royal Irish Academy was already evident of the position he held in the Irish world of learning... for a quarter of a century he has been the leader and teacher of a band of young scholars, and his pupils have achieved fame outside Ireland in countries where his own reputation had preceded them.'
Reviewing this volume in the Irish Times, another tribute was paid to Fr Gwynn by Professor F. S. Lyons, (later Provost of Trinity College) :
“Perhaps we are still too close to assess the full impact of Fr Gwynn on medieval studies in Ireland. But even now we can recognise that it has been very great. Great not only by virtue of his talents which, rather casually maybe, we have tended to take for granted, great not only because of the extent and quality of his published work, but great precisely through the influence he must have exer ted as a teacher”.
In addition to his constant work as lecturer or professor, Fr Gwynn displayed throughout his life an extra ordinary activity as a writer. Three of his major books are considered to be standard works of their kind, Roman Education from Cicero to Quintilian, Oxford, 1920, The English Austin Friars in the time of Wyclif Oxford, 1940. The Medieval Province of Armagh 1470-1545, Dundalk, 1946. He also collaborated with District Justice Dermot F Gleeson in producing the monumental History of the Diocese of Killaloe, Dublin, 1962. But, in addition, a flood of articles poured out from his pen, or rather typewriter. In the volume above referred to, Rey Professor Martin has listed over fifty of these articles, which are not articles in the ordinary sense, but learned monographs on ancient, medieval and modern topics. And this does not include the book reviews which he contributed steadily over the years to Studies and other learned journals. In this connection, a piece of Province folklore is worth preserving. Formerly book reviews in Studies were signed only with the writer's initials. Fr Gwynn felt that the initials AG were appearing with monotonous frequency, and alternated them with P.D. Asked what these letters signified, he smilingly replied ‘Poor devil'.
Although Fr Gwynn played such an active part in the life of University College, this did not mean that he he was in any way remote from the life of the Province. On the contrary, he was a most loyal and devoted member of it. He was a good community man, always in good humour, interested in the doings of others and ready to put his talents at their disposal. During his long stay in Leeson Street (he was Superior, 1932-'45), he did much to advise, encourage and help our Juniors who were passing through University College. For a considerable period he acted as editor of St Joseph's Sheaf, the organ of St Joseph's Young Priests Society, and enticed to write articles for it, thus giving them a useful introduction to the apostolate of writing. His loyalty to the Society in general was manifested by his constant study of its history, and many his articles dealt with the apostolate of Jesuits in various ages, especially on the foreign missions. Fr Gwynn had a special interest in the missions, and had close links both with our own missionaries and with others throughout the country, notably the Columban Fathers and Sisters.
On his retirement from University College, Fr Gwynn moved to Milltown Park. He lectured for two years on Church History and acted as librarian, 1962-6, but it became clear that he was no longer able for such tasks, and the rest of his retirement was devoted mainly to the revision of his articles on the medieval Irish Church, with the purpose of publishing them in book form. This again proved too much for his failing powers, and his final years were spent as a semi-invalid, consoled by the kindly care of the Milltown community, who came to regard him as a venerable father figure. His ninetieth birthday was signalised with a concelebrated Mass and a supper at which he received an enthusiastic ovation. He was reasonably active to the last until a fall resulted in a broken femur, the effects of which he was unable to recover. After some was weeks in St Vincent's Hospital, he was moved to Our Lady's Hospice, where he died peacefully on 18th May. His funeral at Gardiner Street was the occasion of a remarkable ecumenical event. It was presided over by BishopJames Kavanagh, representing His Grace the Archbishop of Dublin, and some of the burial prayers were recited by Right Rev.George Simms, former Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin and of Armagh, whose wife is a cousin of Fr Gwynn.
Fr Aubrey used to relate an incident which occurred when he was studying at Oxford. When the time came to submit part of his thesis to his supervisor, he followed the old Jesuit custom of inscribing the letters AMDG at the top of each sheet. The manuscript was returned to of him addressed to Rev A M D Gwynn, The writer unconsciously hinted at a truth. The familiar letters may not have been Fr Aubrey's initials, but they were most certainly the inspiration of his life.
Interfuse No 30 : December 1983
PORTRAIT FROM THE PAST : FATHER AUBREY GWYNN
Sister Sheila Lucey
A Columban Sister working in the Philippines pays tribute to the life and work of Father Aubrey
I first met Father Aubrey Gwynn in August in 1945, when I was assigned, straight after my profession, to our house of studies at 56 Merrion Square. Even then he had become a kind of Guardian Spirit to our young student sisters - some were studying medicine, others nursing, and I and a companion were taking up arts.
It was through Mother Mary Patrick that our sisters had come to know Father Gwynn. It seems that she had been a friend of his mother's. So, when the Columban Sisters came to Merrion Square in the early 40's a friendship started .which was to last throughout Fr Gwynn's long life.
His special concern was for the young student sisters. It was he who started the tradition of an eight o'clock Mass on Sunday morning, for the Merrion Square community, so that the students could have a longer sleep. He made it clear that there was to be no getting up earlier to study! When he couldn't come himself, he arranged for one or other of his brethren in Leeson St, to say the Mass, In later years, in the late 40's and early 50’s, he came for daily Mass.
Invariably he came for Midnight Mass at Christmas, in his very best attire, a beautifully-cut long clerical dress-coat. That was always a big occasion, and he seemed to enjoy every moment of it. Indeed, he was part of so many community celebrations in those years.
I remember how well he cooperated with all our clandestine preparations for Sister Mary Veronica's Silver Jubilee.
Right from the beginning, I found him a fascinating and stimulating personality, and a warm friend. He took a keen interest in each of us and in our studies. At the end of my first year I was asked to switch from German, as a degree subject, to history, which it was considered would be more useful on the missions. Certainly he made a difficult change easier for me. For two years I was his student. He initiated me into realms of history which were new to me, so I found his lectures valuabie, though I learned more from him outside the lecture-room than inside. Each vacation he arrived over to our house with an armful of books for me to read during the break, and he didn't limit himself to history - he also brought along some critical works on the English writers I was studying.
But it was after I finished my basic degree, and was sent on for graduate studies, that I really got to know Fr. Gwynn. At that time, he was coming for daily Mass, and at least a few times each week I was asked to see him in the parlour while he was having his breakfast, Those breakfast sessions stretched out longer and longer! He was so much of a medievalist that he could enter into all aspects of my MA thesis, on The Ancren Riwle (a medieval rule for anchoresses, which was also a treatise on the spirituality of that kind of life).
Later, when I got into my doctoral thesis, he got even more involved. This was right into his field, because the topic (English Prose Written by Irishmen in the Seventeenth Century) turned out to be as much historical as literary. It couldn't be otherwise in such a century, so full of religious and political controversy. From Professor Hogan I had imbibed a life-long appreciation of seventeenth century Eniglish literature. Now under Fr Gwynn's unobtrusive prodding I discovered for the first time that I had a glimmering of and historical sense after all!
Working on those seventeenth century writings, many of them anonymous, or written under pseudonyms, one had to be something of a literary sleuth. To satisfy" Fri Gwynn the evidence had to be exact and complete. He was a scrupulously honest scholar, and he expected those he worked with to be the same.
I certainly owe it to Fr Gwynn that I was able to persevere with my research and complete my PhD thesis. Theoretically Professor J.J. Hogan was my adviser, but he was an extremely busy person in those years. Besides he wasn't, familiar with the writings I had got into. In practice, Fr. Gwynn was my adviser and strong support throughout the years when I worked on my PhD thesis.
Indeed, many growing points of my life I seem to owe to Fr Gwynn. He it was who first launched me into print. While I was still a student he got me to review a book for Studies, a distinct honour in those days. (in fact, Fr Burke-Savage, the editor, asked that I used a nom de plume because “he didn't want all the nuns in Ireland to be wanting to get into the pages of Studies”. Shades of women's lib!). This was how I earned my first cheque for writing, and no later cheque ever made me feel so proud, (Strictly speaking my payment should have been the book, but Fr Gwynn purchased this for the Leeson St. house).
Another growing-edge of the mind happened when I'r Gwynn persuaded my superiors to allow me to go to Oxford and to the. British Museum in London, so that I could research by topic more thoroughly. Many of the writings. by Irishmen of the seventeenth century survive as very rare books, some indeed as single copies. The British Museum has some of them, others are in Oxford and Cambridge.
Father got quite a thrill out of sending me off on my Grand Tour, and he went to great pains to ensure that my visit would be a success. I went armed with letters of introduction to David Rogers of the British Museum, Fr. Basil Fitzgibbon of farm St.,and the library authorities in Oxford, He wrote beforehand to the Holy Child Sisters in Cherwell Edge, Oxford, where he knew some of the Sisters - his own sister had been a member of the congregation - and enjoyed their hospitality while I was in Oxford.
Of course, I fell in love with Oxford, as he intended me to, and he listened with happy amusement, as I shared my excitement with him on my return. This happened more than thirty years ago, in November December, 1950, yet it is still vivid in my memory. There was I, a young inexperienced person, given a welcome into the fellowship of scholars, and accepted as one of themselves. Ah, the daring and courage of youth!
Thinking back over all this, I believe I have hit on something very basic to. Fr. Gwynn's character, and very important: he helped people to grow. His own standards were high, and he helped others to live up to their highest potential, to a potential they weren't aware of until he pointed it out.
He was, too, a man of great patience and kindness. I'm sure a scholar of his calibre must have had to make many adjustments in trying to understand us young students. But his kindness bridged all distances. He had a genuine respect for others, and he paid: tribute to any gifts a person had, even if still in the bud!
It wasn't all an academic interchange. He had a puckish sense of humour, and those eyes could twinkle even over such daily dilemmas as “the problem of toast and butter: If I take more toast, I'll need another butter-roll, and if I take another butter-roll I'll need more toast to finish it!” At breakfast, one morning in our basement dining-room, I heard my gong ring upstairs. When I emerged at the top of the stairs, there was Fr. Gwynn, with a quizzical look on his face, saying: “How do you expect a fellow to eat his porridge without a spoon?” I had brought him in his breakfas. “You'd better stick to the History!”
Another time - I think it was when I was about to leave on my Oxbridge adventure - Fr Gwynn told me to kneel down for his blessing. Then, as I got up off my knees, he chuckled and told an anecdote about some Irish bishop, who was reputed to have said to his priests: “How did I get this cross on me belly? ... HARD WORRUK, YOUNG MEN, HARD WORRUK!” And he acted it out, standing tall and sticking out his chest.
He had a delightful sense of humour. I wish I could recall other incidents. I remember a letter he wrote shortly after he retired from UCD. He had been offered a chair of Philosophy (or History) in Milltown Park, he said, only to discover it was a sofa he had to share it with Fr. John Ryan!
It was while I was a student in Merrion Square that his father died. In fact, I answered his phone-call telling us the news. His father had been failing for some time - he lived to be a great age - and all the time Fr. Gwynn kept hoping that his father might be given the gift of faith before death. That did not happen I can recall the grief in his voice that morning over the phone. Later he described the funeral for us, saying how strange it felt to be an outsider at one's own father's funeral. As far as I remember, a dispensation had to be got from the Archbishop of Dublin, so that he could attend and, at the graveside, it was the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin who officiated and blessed the remains, while Stephen Gwynn's priest-son stood apart, on the fringe.
The faith; not given to his father, was very precious to him. In those years immediately after his retirement from UCD he got joy and great fulfilment from instructing some young. TCD students, converts to Catholicism. He referred to this in a number of letters written in those years.
It was in such things, and at such times, that the quality of his own spirituality shone through. It was never obtrusive. Yet, when he sensed that a person was anxious, or that obedience was hard, he knew how to say the right thing, or do just what was needed, tactfully, with gentleness and good hunour. He seemed to have a great, yet sensibly balanced, respect for obedience. But it was
his kindness and compassion, a compassion learned through his own suffering, that made him the person he was for others. There was always that the feeling that he too had been through it all.
He was a marvellous person to give anything to. He received as graciously as he gave, and never took a gift for granted. About two years ago I had a letter from him, thanking.me for the gift of a book on Philippine culture. Actually I hadn't been the person who sent it, but I had talked about him to someone who sent him the book as a result of our conversation - Fr. Miguel Bernad, SJ.
During all my years in the Philippines we corresponded a few times each year. Then, while I was in Ireland, from 1970 to 1979 I met him many times, mostly in Milltown Park, but once in the University club. On that last occasion we walked across St. Stephen's Green together - just imagine that!
There were times, too, when I went over to Milltown Park, only to learn that Fr, Gwynn wasn't well and couldn't see visitors. Then I knew that my old friend was deep into one of his bouts of severe depression, and I suffered with him. That finely-honed, brilliant mind, and yet the dark shadow of depression that hung over him so often ...
The last time I saw him, before I left for the Philippines in 1980, he was in great form, and he took some mischievous delight in my reaction to his beard. When I remarked that he looked the spit image of George Bernard Shaw, he said, “Sister Helen (he liked to call me by my old name), I would expect more originality from you!” Then he told me about all the other people who had made the same comparison, including a lorry-driver who had stopped beside him on the road and called out, “I thought Bernard Shaw was dead!” He was really enjoying his masquerade.
In his last letters to me, he told me about his latest and dearest research, the paper he was requested to write for the Royal Irish Academy, on the Mass in Ireland in the early Middle Ages. Much of it was based on a missal that had come to light in recent times. (Am I right?) He spoke of this paper with warmth and enthusiasm, as being the culmination of his life-work. I do hope that his failing eye-sight allowed him to finish this work, so dear to his heart.
I marvel at the courage of this man who, even at the age of ninety, was still using to the full those rare gifts God had given him, and sharing with us the fruits of his long years of reflection and study. I do not know now he died. I hope that his mental faculties were as sharp as ever. It would be poignantly sad if such a brilliant mind were dulled.
I thank God for the gift of this most dear friend, and for all that he has been to all the Columban Sisters.: His death is a personal loss for me. I miss him very deeply.