The oldest priest in the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin, An tAthair Seán Ó Laoghaire, died on August 14 in the Abbey Nursing Home, in Gowran. He was 97.
Known to friends and family as Jack, he worked from 1949 to 1955 in Clane; and from 1955 to 1978 as a priest in Carlow Cathedral parish, the last four years as its administrator.
He was Parish Priest in Paulstown from 1978 to 1996 and worked on there for six years as curate until his formal retirement in 2002. He was the last survivor of his Maynooth class of 1949.
Born in 1923, he was the youngest of 10 children of Johanna and John O’Leary of Main Street, Graignamanagh. His father was the local baker.
When he went to Maynooth to study for the priesthood, he decided to study Irish, as well as Greek and Latin, for his degree.
His family, though they played Irish traditional music, were not fluent Irish speakers. However, Jack said he chose Irish because he loved it and but also because he wanted to be different. ‘That’, he said, ‘is what baby brothers do!’
He took a keen interest in the activities of Gael Linn and in their singing competitions and he spoke Irish whenever he could.
Indeed in the very last few days of his life he reverted to speaking Irish only. His last words to visitors before he died were: “Tá mé sásta.”
His first years in Clane parish included saying Mass for the big influx of Bord na Mona workers at their temporary church in the Dining Hall of their camp in Timahoe. This was replaced by the new Church of Christ the King, Cooleragh in 1963.
His first decade in Carlow saw the big changes that the second Vatican Council had brought about in church ritual.
As the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, The Right Rev Denis Nulty, said at the celebration of the 70th anniversary of Jack’s ordination, it wasn’t an easy time. Priests like Jack had to bridge the gap between the older Tridentine rite and the new post-Vatican 11 move to bring the Mass nearer to the people. This involved turning the altar and priest around to face the congregation and replacing Latin with the vernacular.
Above: Family and friends gathered to celebrate the platinum anniversary of Fr O’Leary’s ordination in 2019
In February 1968, Jack celebrated the first High Mass facing the congregation on a new Austrian oak altar in Carlow Cathedral. He was also heavily involved in the building of the new church at Askea.
Carlow people will remember his work in the community, particularly with young people. An enthusiastic supporter of the Scouts movement, he helped build a Scouts Den in Carlow in the 1960s from old telegraph poles, a Canadian design he had come across.
A keen swimmer, he was involved in raising the money which built Carlow’s outdoor swimming pool. The then Environment Minister, Bobby Molloy, who was a swimming champion, dived in with Jack and swam a length of the pool to mark its opening.
Jack, as his nieces and nephews can confirm, was pretty cool. He was involved in the Film Society in Carlow. He loved performances by the Carlow Musical Society and was always there with his panstick and kohl stick to help with make-up. He was friendly with Captain Dennis Mellerick of the Curragh Camp, under whose direction the South Kildare Musical Society was established and he helped out with their shows too.
He’d come to the beach with family and dive off the rocks with the rest and share a picnic and then he’d announce he was going off ‘to put the missus to bed’. This meant he was going off alone to read the Divine Office. Family mattered greatly and he was at almost every family gathering and was the celebrant at almost every baptism, wedding and funeral.
His sermons were to the point. Once in Carlow Cathedral, he was emphasising the duty of trades unionists to consider the people who might suffer if they went on strike. “Take me, for example. I’m a priest,” he said. “What if the priests went on strike and let you all go to hell?”
One family boating holiday with his brother Ned, and nephews and nieces, brought them to Ithica, Odysseus’s island. Up at the local café, Jack was introduced to the village’s Greek Orthodox priest.
Using his classical Greek, Jack managed to communicate with him. They called one another ‘Papas’, ‘Father’ in Greek, and the whole family were invited to a month’s mind mass next morning in the little white Orthodox church on the hill.
Almost high on incense and Kyrie’s by the time Mass was over, they joined the procession around the graveyard to remember the dead, and ate the almond cake which was traditionally given to each guest. That’s the sort of thing that happened on holiday with Jack.
His parish in Paulstown and Goresbridge became home from 1978 and it was clear to everybody how dear it was to him.
He loved the beautiful old Church in Paulstown, dating back to the end of the 18th Century, and he had good friends among the Brigidine community there. He took a particular interest in the schools in his parish in Goresbridge as well as Paulstown. He was involved with the GAA teams in Paulstown and, in trainer Paddy Mullins’ day, would go to Goresbridge to give a blessing to the horses before major race meetings!
When it was time to go into a nursing home, the Abbey home in Gowran was the one he chose, though there was some good humoured teasing that it was in the diocese of Ossory, and just outside his own diocese of Kildare and Leighlin. But he chose it partly because he would be near his beloved Paulstown,and parishioners could visit.
He lived there in the excellent care of the staff and Director, Mairead Byrne, and her predecessor, Brigid Kirwan, until his death.
In the nursing home, he still had a role saying Mass and distributing communion and giving blessings to residents of all faiths. He’d always reassure them it was an ecumenical blessing. He was a priest, a pastor to the end.
The youngest of his family, he helped to bury or scatter the ashes of all the rest. They were his sisters, Sister Michael (Betty) of the Mercy Convent in Carlow who was for years Principal of St Leo’s College; Dr Molly O’Leary Coyle, Blackrock, Dublin; Mrs Nessie Murphy, Graignamanagh; Mrs Kitty Clarke, Canterbury; Mrs Peggy O’Brien, Somerset; his brothers Ned, Derry; Michael, Graignamanagh; Paddy, Borris and Colm, Graignamanagh. He is survived by his many nieces and nephews, nieces-in-law and nephews-in-law, grandnieces and grandnephews.
His funeral mass was concelebrated at his old Parish Church, the Church of the Assumption, Paulstown on Monday, August 16 by the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, the Right Rev Denis Nulty, by Very Reverend James Kelly PP Paulstown, and priests of the diocese.
An tAthair Seán was buried, as he wished to be, in the church graveyard.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
- O O’L
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