MacMahon, Brian, 1907-1960, Jesuit priest and missioner

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MacMahon, Brian, 1907-1960, Jesuit priest and missioner

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  • The Bish

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Dates of existence

24 October 1907-15 August 1960

History

Born: 24 October 1907, London, England
Entered: 01 September 1925, St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, County Offaly
Ordained: 31 July 1940, Milltown Park, Dublin
Professed: 02 February 1943
Died: 15 August 1960, Dublin

Part of St Ignatius community, Lusaka, Zambia at the time of his death.

by 1932 at Valkenburg, Limburg, Netherlands (GER I) studying
by 1934 at Kaulbachstrasse, Munich, Germany (GER S) studying
by 1935 at Leuven, Belgium (BELG) studying
by 1951 at Chikuni, Chisekesi, N Rhodesia (POL Mi) working - third wave of Zambian Missioners

◆ Companions in Mission 1880- Zambia-Malawi (ZAM) Obituaries :
At an early stage in the Society, someone had the courage to tell Brian that he was speaking and acting like a bishop. General agreement consecrated him with the nickname of ‘Bishop MacMahon’, almost immediately reduced to its homely form of ‘The Bish’.

Fr Brian was born in London, England in 1907 and educated at Clongowes Wood College. After vows, he studied for his BSc and then his MSc at University College Dublin also obtaining a traveling scholarship. He went to Valkenburg, Holland, for philosophy. This was followed by a further three years of Biology, one of them at Munich, Germany and the other two at Louvain (changing from German to French!) where he obtained a Doctorate in Science with First Class Honors. He taught for a year at his Alma Mater and then went to Milltown Park for theology and ordination to the priesthood in 1940.

He was minister, Professor of Cosmology and Biology at Tullabeg 1942-1943, minister at Milltown Park 1943-1944, prefect of studies at Clongowes 1944-1947. He became rector at Mungret College, Limerick, in 1947 until 1950 when he departed for Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) with the first batch of Irish Jesuits. For several years he was rector and principal of Canisius Secondary School. In 1959, he moved to Lusaka as Education Secretary of the Bishops' Conference. Serious illness brought him back to Ireland where he died of cancer on 15 August 1960, at 53 years of age and 20 years a priest.

What of the man himself? He was a big man. Fr Dominic Nchete preached at the Mass for Brian at St Ignatius Church, saying, ‘Fr MacMahon was a big man. He had a big body, a big heart, big brains. He thought big, he spoke big, he acted big. Amid his many and varied occupations, he remained calm, kind, charitable, considerate and, above all, extremely patient; he was kind to all whether they were white or black’.

As a school boy, as novice and as a man, he was always ready to put work before play. His normal life was a steady application to duty whether it appealed to his taste or not. He would like to have studied Mathematics and Political Economy (under Fr Tom Finlay S.J.) but obedience took him down a different path of studies.

“He was dominant in height”’ one wrote about him, “but not domineering in manner. He could achieve a certain loftiness of style that well matched his bulk, but his dignity had a fatherly flavour about it; his natural superiority was almost lost in that kindly, friendly, good-humored way he had”. He loved to keep up with world news and his brother had sent him a subscription to the air edition of the Times which Brian loved to read, sitting in his office. As one scholastic once remarked, ‘The Bish's biography should be entitled “20 years behind the Times'”

Under his direction, Canisius Secondary School was improved and enlarged. He was headmaster (then called principal) from 1951 to 1959. Senior courses leading up to the School Certificate were introduced by him. Among the large number of African schoolboys who passed through his hands, he enjoyed a unanimous reputation for patience and kindness combined with an unwavering sense of justice. To his fellow Jesuits, devotion to his work and to the interests of the school was well known. Government officials whom he dealt with held him in the highest esteem.

He did not easily resign himself to the close of his life. He fought the blood poisoning and cancerous growth to the end. He remained buoyant and optimistic as long as there was any shred of hope of recovery. Eventually, in simple faith and acceptance, he answered the call to eternity.

Note from Patrick (Sher) Sherry Entry
For the next 30 years he served the young Church in Zambia selflessly and with unbounded generosity. In Chikuni he served as a kind of ‘minister of supplies’. Fr MacMahon would lean heavily on him but Sher had his little hideouts which constituted his survival kit!

◆ Irish Province News

Irish Province News 35th Year No 4 1960

Obituary :

Fr Brian MacMahon (1907-1960)

Fr. Brian MacMahon died in a Dublin Nursing Home on 14th August, 1960. He was born in London on 24th October, 1907, was educated at Clongowes Wood College and entered the Society at Tullabeg on 1st September, 1925. Having taken his Vows in 1927, he went to Rathfarnham Castle, where he studied for his M.Sc. degree at University College, Dublin. He was sent in 1931 to Valkenburg for Philosophy. He did special studies in Biology, for one year at Munich and two years at Louvain, where in 1936 he obtained his degree of Docteur en Sciences Naturelles at Louvain University. Having returned to Ireland, after one year's teaching at Clongowes, he went to Milltown Park for the study of Theology and was ordained in 1940. He did his Tertianship at Rathfarnham Castle. He was Minister, Professor of Cosmology and Biology at Tullabeg 1942-43, Minister of Milltown Park 1943-44, and Prefect of Studies at Clongowes 1944-47. On 25th July, 1947, Fr. MacMahon was appointed Rector of Mungret College, Limerick, an office which he held until 1950, when he was sent among the first missionaries to the new Irish Jesuit Mission in Northern Rhodesia. For several years he was Rector and Prefect of Studies of St. P. Canisius College, Chikuni. In July 1959, he became Catholic Education Secretary for the Southern Province of Northern Rhodesia and also Superior of St. Ignatius Church, Lusaka.
On 14th April, owing to serious illness, he returned to Ireland and after four months of suffering he went to his eternal reward.
Fr. MacMahon's death was not sudden, for he had been in hospitals in Rhodesia and in Ireland for several months. Yet it was surprising that it came so soon; it seemed to cut him off while he was still in full vigour and on active service. “A short life in the saddle, Lord, and not a long life by the fireside” is a prayer that might come to mind when meditating on the possibility of an inordinate affection for length of days. Fr, MacMahon's twenty years from the time of his ordination was a short life of priestly activity. He did not easily resign himself to its close. His habit of hard work and constant devotion to duty made him eager to recover from the blood-poisoning and cancerous growth which proved fatal in the end. Those who visited him in hospital did not have to cheer him up; he remained buoyant and optimistic as long as there was any shred of hope of recovery. And then in simple faith and acceptance he answered the call to eternity.
Many will remember Br. MacMahon as a novice, who was primus inter pares, in stature head and shoulders above the rest of us, an out standing Br. Porter, the very symbol of stability and regularity. He enjoyed looking up old Porters' Journals in order to find precedents for “Coffees” - indeed he claimed a record in this respect for his term of office. He enjoyed recreation and he liked to see others enjoy it. But, as schoolboy, as novice and as man, he was always ready to put work before play. His normal life was of steady application to duty, whether it appealed to his taste or not. He was an excellent example both as novice and schol astic, who was not exaggerated in any way, neither excessively recollected nor excessively austere, always a man of duty of the “no nonsense” variety. He was kind and helpful to the weak; he helped them to help themselves. He was both good humoured and strict in a remarkably well blended way.
Brian MacMahon had been a talented student in Clongowes, his strongest subject being mathematics. But his course of studies in the Society was not in accordance with his tastes, though well within his ability. He would have liked to include Political Economy - then taught by Fr. Tom Finlay, S.J.- among the subjects for his Arts degree; if that were not allowed, then mathematics would have been the obvious choice. But he was transferred to the Science faculty and the B.Sc. course in Biology. Holy obedience, sheer plod, mental acumen and a good memory brought him through triumphantly to the B.Sc., the M.Sc. and a Travelling Studentship. Two years of relentless application to Philosophy followed at Valkenburg, Holland, the North German Province's Collegium Maximum. Then three further years of Biology, one at Munich, till Professor Wettstein died, and two at Louvain under the direction of Professor Gregoire. This enforced move from one University to another meant for Brian a new start. He had to commence a line of research approved by his new Professor-an investigation into the chromosomal peculiarities found at meiosis of the pollen mother-cells of Listera ovata. It meant also a change of vernacular from German to French-no small cross for one who had very little gift for acquiring languages. Yet there may have been compensations; he may have found the circumstances and companionship at Louvain more congenial. He obtained the Doctorate in Science in the form of “Aggregé”, which is equivalent to First Class Honours or summa cum laude. He had done what he was told to do, had done it with éclat.
People looked up to him, and he spoke down to them. Everyone accepted the fact that it simply had to be so. Dominant in height, but not domineering in manner, he could achieve a certain loftiness of style that well matched his bulk; but his dignity had a fatherly flavour about it; his natural superiority was almost lost in that kindly, friendly, good humoured way he had. In the College of Science Mr. MacMahon was long remembered with respect and affection. He had been a very popular Auditor of the Natural History Club. He would have been welcomed as a Lecturer in the Botany Department. Officials and former fellow students took a friendly interest in his later career,
Among his contemporaries in the Society, Brian also won a considerable degree of respect and affection. He was respected as a model religious, conscientious, exact, living up to the greater and lesser obligations of his vocation. He was an example: what standards he maintained one felt one ought to aim at; what little liberties he allowed himself, one knew one could take with impunity. As regards affection, one might search for another way of expressing it: he was well liked, he was popular, for all his dignity he was a thoroughly decent fellow. He was a good community man; he fitted easily into any community and became one of its better ingredients. At an early stage in the Society someone had the courage to tell him that he was speaking and acting like a bishop. General agreement consecrated him with the nickname of “Bishop MacMahon”. But lest perhaps this might seem to declare him more pontifical than he really was, it was almost immediately reduced to its homely form “The Bish”. Those who knew him well will find far more meaning and pleasant memories in the mention of his nickname than in the bald statement that he was popular.
During the 1940's Fr. MacMahon experienced several changes of status: the fourth year at Milltown, Tertianship at Rathfarnham, Minister and Professor of Biology in Tullabeg, Minister in Milltown, Prefect of Studies in Clongowes, Rector of Mungret. His general capability made him an obvious choice for so many various appointments. As soon as he could be spared in one place he was sent to fill a need in another, especially a need for organisation and administration. He was eminently reliable; he could grasp and control a new situation at short notice. No doubt there are records of his successes at Clongowes and Mungret, for he was chosen to guide the educational policy of our Mission in Northern Rhodesia, a very important task to which as a matter of fact he devoted the remaining decade of his life. Round about 1930 he would have been glad to be chosen for the Hong Kong Mission, but his Travelling Studentship intervened; twenty years later he was suddenly asked to go to Rhodesia. As always he responded immediately to the wishes of superiors, to the will of God: “Here I am, Lord, send me”.
As Rector of the community at Chikuni, Fr. MacMahon was head master and Prefect of Studies of St. Canisius College, the secondary school for boys.
On completing his term as Rector he remained on as Principal. It was in this capacity that he is best remembered by students and staff. Under his direction the school was improved and enlarged and Senior Secondary Courses introduced. Among the large number of African schoolboys who passed through his hands he enjoyed a unanimous reputation for patience and kindness combined with an unwavering sense of justice. To his fellow-missionaries devotion to his work and to the interests of the school was well known. And the government officials with whom he collaborated held him in the highest regard.
In 1959 Fr. MacMahon was appointed Education Secretary-General to the Catholic Schools of Northern Rhodesia and Superior of St. Ignatius Residence, Lusaka, where he lived for six months before illness forced him to return to Ireland, The last months he spent in hospital, suffering a good deal, until death, for which he was well prepared, came to release him. His loss is very deeply regretted by his colleagues on the mission and by all those who benefited by contact with him" (Extract from Your St. Ignatius Newsletter, Lusaka, 21st August, 1960).
Under News from the Missions, Northern Rhodesia, in this issue will be found the panegyric preached by Fr. Dominic at the outdoor Requiem Mass at Chikuni on 19th August.

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Irish Vice-Province of the Society of Jesus, 1830- (1830-)

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Irish Jesuit Mission to Zambia, 1946-1969 (1946-1969)

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MacMahon, Brian, 1907-1960, Jesuit priest and missioner

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