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Born: 18 November 1895, Dublin
Entered: 06 October St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, County Offaly
Ordained: 31 July 1927, Milltown Park, Dublin
Final Vows: 02 February 1931, Rathfarnham Castle, Dublin
Died: 02 January 1988, St Ignatius, Lower Leeson Street, Dublin
Early education at Clongowes Wood College SJ
Studied for a BA in French and German as a Junior
by 1918 at Stonyhurst, England (ANG) studying
by 1929 at Valkenburg, Limburg, Netherlands (GER I) making Tertianship
by 1945 at Campion Hall, Oxford (ANG) studying
by 1949 Fordham, NY USA (NEB) making Tertianship
Irish Province News 1st Year No 1 1925
We may mention here a school story recently published – “The Last Lap.” Its author is Mr. Fergal McGrath, SJ. The book, which was mostly written while the author was a scholastic in Clongowes, has had an enthusiastic reception. The Reviewer in the " Ecclesiastical Review " writes of it : “It is a splendid boys' story. Probably neither Fr. Finn, or Fr. Spalding nor Fr. Boylan has told any better”.
Irish Province News 1st Year No 3 1926
Mr Fergal McGrath's “Last Lap” has been translated into Spanish. Much difficulty was experienced in finding Spanish equivalent for such phrases as : “getting his eye in”, “the calculating pig”, etc,
Irish Province News 10th Year No 2 1935
Works by Father Fergal McGrath SJ :
- “The Last Lap” - Pub. Benziger Bros., N. York and the Talbot
- “L'Ultima Tappa” - Italian translation of the above by Father Celestine Testore, S.]., , pub. Marietta, Rome, 1929
- “Adventure Island” - Pub. Benziger Bros., N. York and the Talbot Press, Dublin, 1952. School edition pub by Talbot Press, 1954, sanctioned by Board of Education for Higher Standards of Primary Schools.
- “Un Drama en Irelande” - French translation of above by M du Bourg. Pub. Editions du Closer, Tours, 1934
- “Christ in the World of To-day” - Pub. Gill & Son, 1933 (Lenten Lectures on the Sacred Heart)
- “Mother Catherine McAuley” - (Biographical sketch contributed to The Irish Way) Pub. Sheed & Ward, 1932
- “The Beefy Saint” - Pub. Irish Catholic Truth Society (a story for boys)
- “Canon Hannigan’s Martyrdom: - Pub. Irish Messenger Series, (A story of Irish clerical life)
- “The Catholic Church in Sweden” - (Edited) English C.T.S
- “Stories of the Twelve Promises of the Sacred Heart” - (In collaboration) Irish Messenger Series, “Tenement Angel”.
Irish Province News 23rd Year No 4 1948
Fr. Fergal McGrath sailed from Cobh on 24th September for New York ; he will be lecturing in Fordham University in the coming year.
Irish Province News 63rd Year No 2 1988
Fr Fergal McGrath (1895-1913-1988)
Born in Dublin [on 18th November 1895) and educated in Clongowes (1908 12], Fergal McGrath was so dedicated to the Society, which he joined in 1913 on 6th October, after taking First Arts in UCD), that it is impossible to imagine him in any other way of life. He was very proud of his family, particularly of the involvement of his father, Sir Joseph McGrath, in the development of Irish university education, and as he became in his turn the patriarch, his love for the younger generations was evident in the quiet, almost shy, allusions which he made to his nephews and nieces.
Having taken a BA at University College, Dublin , and studied philosophy in both Stonyhurst (1917-'8] and Milltown Park (1920-'2], he taught in Belvedere (1918-'20] and Clongowes [1922-24] before beginning theology at Milltown in 1924. [He was ordained a priest on 31st July 1927.] Fr Fergal's tertianship was made at 's Heerenberg in the Netherlands, which was then a house of the Lower German Jesuit province. He found that tertianship dragged a bit towards the end and he was happy to return to Ireland and to Rathfarnham as Minister of Juniors in 1929. Fr Fergal became Rector of Clongowes in 1933, at a very important phase in the growth of the school, and remained in office until 1941, when he went to Gardiner street as Superior. Four years of study in Oxford, where he took a D. Phil., Occupied his years until 1948 and he spent a further year studying education at Fordham university in New York, Returning to Ireland, Fr Fergal was made Rector of St Ignatius, Galway, where he remained until 1953. Leaving the West, he moved to Leeson street as a writer and spiritual father, until he began his last superiorship as Rector of Rathfarnham in 1961. From 1967 to 1972, he lived at Loyola House. Leeson street was his final Jesuit home. Fr Fergal was Province Archivist from 1975 until 1986, but remained Custodian of the strongroom, dealing with researchers and with many written queries until he went to hospital early in December 1987. He died on 2nd January 1988.
Fergal McGrath was a writer, a Jesuit superior, a good friend to many people all over Ireland, with a vast correspondence and with an interest in everything. He could write scholarly books, short stories, novels of school life and many pamphlets and newspaper articles. He wrote with the same care and precision which he brought to everything he did.
There was no haste, but much prudence. He once said, rather unnecessarily, to somebody who knew him very well '”s you know, I'm a cautious man'” He gave himself heart and soul to any task assigned to him.
Blessed with a very strong constitution and with what seemed to be an inherent ability to avoid stress, Fr Fergal was remarkable in his adherence to a personal daily routine. He had great respect for his fellow Jesuits and found it hard to say anything even remotely harsh about anybody. Most of his experiences as a superior seemed to have been happy, but he never discussed any of the difficulties which must have cropped up in those years, such as the hardships incur red while building at Clongowes and the unease at being a superior in formation during what are known as the 'turbulent' 1960s. In a life which lasted for 92 years, there were obviously disappointments and 'might-have-beens', but Fr Fergal never referred to them. He was quite free from resentment and never wasted time by cultivating hurts. He recognised that the past had not been perfect and, with complete trust in the Lord, got on with the task in hand. This attitude made him a surprisingly free person, because first impressions could be of a man bound by many self-imposed rules.
It was this inner freedom, combined with his respect for others, which drew so many people to him. The person to whom he probably felt closest all his life was a man who died almost fifty-five years before he himself did - Fr John Sullivan. A biography was one sign of his devotion to Fr John's cause; another was his slide-show, of which there were both long and short versions. I remember a conversation in which he made an unconscious slip by referring to “St John Sullivan” and went on talking, unaware of how much he had revealed in that brief anticipation of the Church's judgement. He also did tremendous work for the Cause of Mother Mary Aikenhead.
Despite the long and very slow decline in his energies, Fr Fergal's last years in Leeson street were undoubtedly some of his happiest. As his long daily walk along the Stillorgan road was gradually reduced to a stroll in the back garden, as he became more and more grateful for the lift in the house, he gave the impression of great happiness, because he felt himself among a group of brothers in the Lord, who both cared for him and esteemed him. He lived to become the longest-serving member of the Province.
There were many changes in the Society which Fr Fergal accepted, but which he hardly understood and of which he did not fully approve, but here, once again, his obedience and his deep sense of commitment as a religious took him across hurdles at which he might have fallen. Fr Fergal was intelligent and was a liberal in the Edwardian sense of the word. Patience was one of his strongest suits and stood him in good stead on many an occasion when he might have been driven wild with exasperation, as when unpunctual scholars kept him waiting for hours after they were due to examine documents in the archives.
His radio was a prized and well-used object. Even at 92, Fr Fergal found that a session with his clarinet was a good way to relax and he never felt called to make major adjustments for the television era. His devotions took up an increasingly large part of his day and it was obvious that he was very close to the Lord. In somebody so accomplished, so well known that he received an honorary doctorate from UCD as recently as 1982, there was a profound vein of humility, as I discovered one morning when he amazed me by asking for my advice about some point in the Divine Office.
We worked together in the archives for several years. Having known many of the men whose papers are preserved in the Leeson Street strong-room, he was an invaluable source of advice. No question from me was made to seem silly, no letter from any enquirer was too demanding to merit his full attention.
I treasure casual remarks Fr Fergal made, such as “I don't remember Fr X, but I do recall the old men talking about him” or his stories about mishaps during a juniorate villa at Monkstown, Co Dublin, during the first world war. He spoke little about his own accomplishments, such as his classical learning and his good command of Irish, but he did pass on jocular pieces of advice, such as a piece of consolation he had been given in 1933, when somebody told him that “being a rector isn't too bad - there are even whole days when you'll forget that you're a rector at all”.
A quick glance around his room told the story of Fr Fergal's life better than any biography. His chimneypiece was lined with photographs of his family, of fellow Jesuits and of the present Pope. There was one small bookshelf and, piled beside it, boxes of papers relating to Fr John Sullivan. His wardrobe contained a few, well-worn clothes and his Jesuit gown hung on the back of his door. The attention of any visitor would be drawn to the most prominent object in the room: a desk, laden with letters from all over Ireland and abroad, with books which he was reading as possible material for the refectory and with a Latin Office-book placed close to his armchair.
Fr Fergal's last illness was mercifully brief. His sense of humour showed itself to the end, as he responded to a plea not to die in 1987 and thereby destroy the Province's death-free record for that year. When I last saw him, the day before his death, he was sleeping peace fully, his face serene. A well-lived life was drawing to its earthly close. It was a life in which many people were blessed with his friendship and I am very grateful for having been one of them.
Fergus O'Donoghue, SJ
Fr Fergal McGrath: Incomplete bibliography of his works
“Adventure Island “(Dublin and New York, 1932). “Tenement Angel and Other Stories “(Dublin, 1934). “The Last Lap “(Dublin, 1925; Italian translation “L'ultima Tappa”, Turin "and Rome, 1929; French translation “Au Dernier Tour”, Paris, (no date).
“The Consecration of Learning”: lectures on Newman's Idea of a university (Dublin and New York, 1962). “Education in Ancient and Mediaeval Ireland” (Dublin, 1979). “Newman's University: Idea and Reality” (Dublin, 1951). “The university question” in “A History of Irish Catholicism”, vol. V, pp. 84-142 (Dublin, 1971).
Christian doctrine: Christ in the world of today (Dublin, 1933). Life in Christ (Dublin, 1957).
Biography: Father John Sullivan, S.J. (Dublin, 1941).
“Catherine McAuley” in “The Irish Way”, edited by F.J. Sheed, pp. 244-'62 (London, 1932). “The conversion” in “A Tribute to Newman”, edited by Michael Tierney, pp. 57 83 (Dublin, 1945). “The Background to Newman's Idea of a University” in “The Month”, July-August 1945, vol. 181, no. 946, pp. 247-'58.
“Father John Sullivan SJ” (Dublin, 1942). “Newman in Dublin” (Dublin, 1969). “Youth Guidance” (Dublin, 1944). “James A Cullen SJ : A modern Apostle of the Sacred Heart” (Dublin, 1980).
◆ The Clongownian, 1988
Father Fergal McGrath SJ
A life-span of ninety-two years, almost all of it in active life, would fill a long chronicle. Fergal McGrath’s was particularly full, not just because of his health and longevity, but more because of his talents and fidelity to his Jesuit priesthood.. His associations with Clongowes are especially strong, and the most important of them are almost impossible to chronicle, because they consist of friendships with hundreds of Clongownians, scattered across Ireland, Europe and beyond, who will remember this large, kindly, courteous and always interested friend as an important part of their lives.
A photograph of Fergal's father used to hang in the Rogues Gallery in Clongowes, a respectable Victorian figure: Sir Joseph McGrath. He had been a teacher in the old Tullabeg College, later became co-secretary with Sir James Creed Merridith of the Royal University of Ireland and subsequently of the National University of Ireland, and in this latter capacity he was knighted by what in retrospect can be seen as a dying British administration. Fergal did not often talk about his father, but his own identity was different. He was a strongly patriotic Irishman, committed to his country and its language, and without the animosities that could have marred another son of a knighted father. He took pains to learn Irish well, and used it when he could; so he was at his ease as Rector of an Irish-speaking school, Galway's Coláiste Iognáid, in the early 1950s.
He was educated at Belvedere and, from the age of 14, at Clongowes; after First Arts in University College, Dublin, he entered the Jesuit noviceship, and later studied modern languages, then philosophy, then theology. As soon as he finished his Jesuit training, with a tertianship in Germany, he was loaded with responsibility: the charge of Jesuit scholastics in Rathfarnham, then Rector of Clongowes, Superior of Gardiner Street Church and community, Rector of Coláiste Iognáid in Galway, and later of Rathfarnham Castle.
Fergal carried these burdens with a genial ease, but paid a price for them. He worried about his charges and spent endless energy preparing, planning and providing. It was as a prudent and promising young man that he was appointed to succeed Fr George Roche. The Clongowes he took over in 1933, and ruled for eight years, carried what then seemed a crippling debt. In the climate of the Economic War, money was short to a degree we can hardly imagine. Pupils, the main source of revenue, were scarce, and with World War II became scarcer. The contractor of the New Building had gone bankrupt. The college was not insured against this contingency, and had to take over the management of construction, and all through the thirties and early forties, suffered from a pressing and sometimes mounting debt to the banks which coloured all administrative decisions.
His last two years in Clongowes were overshadowed by the war in Europe, with all the fears and uncertainties it brought. Fergal organised (through the scholastics) a fire brigade for contigencies. He saw a tide of refugees from England rise and ebb, leaving him with many empty beds and financial worries.
He once remarked that he went to Clongowes full of enthusiasm as an educator, loving the scope that the job seemed to offer; but soon found that all his energies were used in surviving. He was a slim man of 37 when he went to Clongowes, but the burdens of responsiblity and a sedentary job turned him into the portly figure we later knew. He tried in vain to reduce it. He was a modest eater, and well into his eighties he walked, and swam, and on holidays played consistent golf. His two splendid schoolboy stories, “The Last Lap” and “Adventure Island” show what an active, dreaming boy there was inside the adult frame. He wrote them in odd moments of enforced leisure, one in a convalescence from a long flu in the twenties, the other in spare moments when in charge of the Jesuit juniors. He relished the memory of a happy and carefree youth with its limited anxieties. Adult life as a Jesuit had for him few carefree moments.
Despite his worries, he was much appreciated in Clongowes, especially by the ten scholastics who constituted the most active and talented part of the teaching staff, and whom he supported and fathered in the kindest way. To the parents he was always accessible and understanding, generous in remitting fees in cases of bereavement or hardship, energetic in helping past pupils on their first steps in life. He never forgot Clongowes, though his last residence there ended nearly fifty years before his death. He would never miss a Clongownian funeral, and maintained an enormous correspondence with past pupils and parents who became his warm
Fergal's friendships were in many ways his greatest achievement - and he was a man of considerable achievements. He kept his friendships in good repair by visits and cor respondence. They were planned, as every thing in his life was planned. He would delicately invite a fellow Jesuit to chaperone him on visits to widows or spinsters. He would bring his clarinet to play duets with an aging bachelor, a former collegaue. When, in Galway, Bishop Michael Browne's mother died, Fergal agonised over whether it would be appropriate for him to approach the formidable old prelate with his sympathies. He made the move, and found that he was almost the only one to have ventured near the isolated and sorrowing bishop, who was deeply moved by Fergal's humanity. Here as elsewhere, Fergal's moves were for other people's sake, not for his own.
The others whom he befriended were from every part and condition in the country. Fergal knew the taste of poverty from his experiences of the thirties, and he responded positively, not just in individual acts of kind ness, but interested himself too in the struc tures of society. He initiated the Social Study weekends which brought all sections of industrial and agricultural society to Clongowes for seminars of a high quality in the mid-thirties. He gave much energy to the Clongowes Housing Project, providing flats for the needy in Blackhall Place; and also to the Clongowes Boys' Club.
Apart from these concerns, Fergal gave innumerable retreats and lectures, many of the latter focussed on Fr John Sullivan, of whom he wrote the biography as well as a popular pamphlet. On coming to Clongowes he inherited the aura of John Sullivan, and he did more than perhaps any other man to convey to the public the impact of John's saintliness.
The public obituaries of Fergal spoke of him in that most ambiguous phrase, as “a distinguished educator”. He was indeed a sound scholar, well equipped for the task with languages, patience, a broad educa tional background in his youth, and an extraordinarily methodical approach to work. His study of Newman's University was a major work of lasting value, the fruit of four happy years of research in Champion Hall, Oxford, then in its palmiest days.
When Fr Tim Corcoran vacated the Chair of Education in UCD, Fergal's wide educational experience and high reputation made him a likely candidate for the position, It is said that Chancellor Eamonn De Valera, at the meeting to appoint the new professor, asked: “Is Father McGrath not interested?” But Fergal had withdrawn his interest rather than contest the chair with Tim Corcoran's assistant, W Williams, who he felt had prior claim on it, and whose late application was unexpected. Instead he spent a year as visiting professor in Fordham University, his only transatlantic excursion, but one that he remembered with warmth and happiness.
Fergal was a conservative and cautious man to the end. In 1987 he wrote to a friend marvelling at her word-processor, but preferring still to tap away at a typewriter he had bought secondhand in 1933. He did not enjoy the major changes in the Church and in Irish Jesuits in the last two decades. The disruption of traditions and the loss of voca tions disturbed him - he was quite upset when the present writer grew a beard in the early seventies, and correspondingly relieved when the growth was shaved off. But he never became angry, bitter or vociferous. He reflected beautifully his master Newman's definition of a gentleman; one who never willingly inflicts pain. He was trusted to the end by all his brethren, whom he served to his ninety-third year as keeper of the Province archives. May one conjecture that what he must particularly enjoy in the Beatific Vision is “Deus Immutabilis”, in whom there is no shadow of change, who wipes all tears from our eyes, and has lifted all burdens and anxieties off Fergal's broad back.
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Note by Fr Fergal McGrath SJ about an article in Archivium Hibernicum, O’Doherty, Denis J, ‘Students of the Irish College, Salamanca, 1597-1619’ ii (1913), pp. 1-36.
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