Castleknock College Union

Tom Davitt, CM, class '46, The Vincentian Archivist

Where are they now

May 30, 2008
Tom Davitt, CM, class '46, The Vincentian Archivist -


Proemium: Apologia pro vita archivistæ

When Raymond E Brown published his The Birth of the Messiah in 1977, one reviewer asked the rhetorical question “Who but Raymond Brown would write a 600-page book on the Infancy Narratives?” Similarly, who but Tom Davitt would undertake to write biographical notes on all deceased confreres of the Irish Province? The answer is, of course, no one. Therefore, near the start of my eightieth year, omnibus rite perpensis, et contrariis non obstantibus, I have begun to do so. What gave rise to this?

The immediate trigger was when Kevin O’Shea, after taking up his new posting as superior in Mill Hill, asked me to do it. As Provincial he knew that in Rickard House I used to give some information after Mass each day about the confreres whose anniversaries occurred. This practice, in turn, owed its origin to Sr Carmel McArdle when she was in charge there. Each day at Morning Prayer the Sisters remembered the Sisters whose anniversaries occurred. I was asked to provide a copy of our Necrology so that the confreres would also be remembered, given the fact that there were some confreres resident in the house. The next step was that she asked me to provide some biographical facts each day about the confreres in question, which I did.

But one needs to go further back to see the development of my interest in such matters. I was appointed archivist in 1982, after the death of James Murphy. But before my official appointment I was “into” archival matters and co-operated unofficially with James, who always took it for granted that I would succeed him. Dick McCullen as Provincial encouraged me in my interest and, when I was in Strawberry Hill, suggested that I should go over to Paris from time to time and pick up useful or important old out-of-print CM publications. I got great help and encouragement over there from Raymond Chalumeau, who was glad to see that someone was showing interest. Equally, on visits to the archives of the curia in Rome, long before I was appointed archivist there, I got great help from Joseph Gazafy.

But one needs to go even further back in tracing the development of my interest in matters archival. After a short while in the seminaire I made the important discovery that French was not merely a school subject but a language and that books in that language were not just “prescribed texts” for exams, but could be read and enjoyed for their own sake, and so I started reading books in French in the seminaire library, on matters of CM historical interest (In passing, I made the same discovery as regards Latin). In reading Lucien Misermont’s book on the martyrs of the French Revolution I discovered the names of the martyrs Nicolas Colin and Jean-Charles Caron, who only recently have been added in to the Vincentian calendar. I asked James Cahalan why they were not in our calendar, but he could not say.

As a first year seminarist, 1946-47, I had been reader at breakfast one day, and therefore had “second breakfast”. Fr Joe Sheehy (1865- 1948) was also there; we were the only two. He initiated dialogue with me, thus violating the two rules of separation and silence, a double misdemeanour willingly connived at by myself. At that time, behind the priests’ table, there was hanging an almost life-size painting of John Gabriel Perboyre’s death. Fr Joe told me that when he was a seminarist in Paris in the 1880s, John Gabriel’s young brother, Jacques (1810-96), also a confrere, was still alive and in the house. At the time of the beatification there were no images of any sort of John Gabriel available, and because Jacou was reputed be very like him facially all images of John Gabriel were based on his brother. All through my life I seem to have had a facility, in one-to-one conversations with older confreres, for eliciting such nuggets, retaining them, and later on inserting them into the wider picture.

In Glenart, while I was librarian, I pointed out to James Rodgers that there was no book in the library on Justin De Jacobis, and asked him to obtain the one by Joseph Baetman CM, published in 1939, which he did. Kevin Murnaghan was professor of dogma for my first two years in Glenart, 1950-52, and in class he often veered off the subject at a tangent. He was the first confrere I heard casting doubts on Vincent’s alleged captivity in Tunis, and he said that Pierre Coste did not believe it but felt that as Secretary General he could not say so in his biography. Kevin had done all his formation in Paris and Dax, and Coste was still alive in those years. Many years later Raymond Chalumeau, archivist in Paris, confirmed to me that this indeed was Coste’s position. Kevin also pointed out that in places Joseph Leonard fudged his translations when he apparently did not like what the French actually meant, something which I later ran across myself. In a talk to the Comhluct Chuilim Chille about his visit to Rome for the Holy Year 1950, Kevin gave several useful tips on how to prepare for research trips, which I found very helpful later. While in Glenart I wrote some archival-type articles in Evangelizare, including one on Justin De Jacobis and one on the CM in Madagascar. As librarian in Castleknock later I obtained Pierre Coste’s fourteen-volume set, which, oddly enough, was not already in the college.

Archival Interest in Places

But one needs to go still further back. As a boy I read, and re-read, my father’s copy of The Neighbourhood of Dublin, by Weston St John Joyce, and often put it in the saddle-bag of my bike and headed off to visit some of the localities mentioned in the book. I also read his copy of Dr George Little’s Malachi Horan Remembers. This initial interest led logically to what I later reported in my articles The Grand Tour of Vincentian France in CLQ 40 and Seventeenth Century Vincentian Sites in Ireland in CLQ 54.

In my final year in Castleknock, 1945-6, I was the prefect in St Columba’s Dormitory, one of the group known as the Prep Dorms. This group included a small dormitory known as The Nursery, situated on the Priests’ Corridor. This was larger than the other rooms on the corridor and had originally been the Provincial’s, and later the President’s, room. Each week a different Prep prefect was “on dorms”, and he had to go through, at intervals, all the Prep Dorms, including The Nursery. I became aware of a small room, almost opposite The Nursery, which contained back numbers of the Chronicle and many copies of the Centenary Record. It was strictly out of bounds, but I began making brief surreptitious visits during the day, dipping into old Chronicles and picking up information on Vins, present and past, and also some articles in back issues and in the Centenary Record on local history.

Some years after my ordination Dick McCullen, superior in Glenart, asked me to write something on the history of Glenart Castle. I was dean in Castleknock at the time and on my days off I used to spend the morning in the National Library doing research on the project, and then go home to my parents for lunch and spend the afternoon and early evening there. This was my first essay into organised research on an historical topic, and the bug bit me. The result was about thirty typewritten foolscap pages. Some pirated copies of this, without the title-page carrying my  name, were circulated in later years. A few years ago Pat Power, a local Arklow historian, discovered that I was the author, and asked my permission to produce a new impression for his own use, and undertook not to make it available to others without my consent.

In the years before I became dean in Castleknock I was teaching Intermediate Certificate History, and the course included the 1798 insurrection. Armed with Dr Charles Dickson’s The Wexford Rising in 1798, (Tralee, nd), and the relevant one-inch Ordnance Survey maps, I took my bike to Glenart in the summers. I would take my bike on the train to now closed stations like Edermine Ferry and visit, and take colour slides of, all the important places connected with the Rising.  Later I did the same with Dr Dickson’s earlier book The Life of Michael Dwyer (Dublin, 1944). Incidentally, the book on Dwyer is now rare and valuable. I recently saw a copy for sale at €164, but I would accept slightly less than that.

My first trip abroad into which I managed to insert some research on a Vincentian topic was in 1971. In the summer of that year the Superior General, James Richardson, had asked me to spend three months in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, to replace Bob Crawford, who had to return to the US for surgery; someone who had both English and French was needed, and I had a long vacation from UCC. On my way back I took a roundabout route, including a sector from New Delhi to Addis Ababa and Asmara, on the track of Justin De Jacobis. While living in Saigon with Jacques Huysmans, a Dutch confrere, he  mentioned a number of times an Irish confrere with whom he had worked in Ning-Po, known to everybody as “Mac”; he could not remember his full name. It was many years before I discovered that this was Fr Michael McKiernan CM, from Co Leitrim, who was never a member of the Irish Province.

Archival Interest in Individual Confreres; Irish, English & Scottish

When a person was received into St Joseph’s his particulars were entered (or at least should have been) into a Register. The entries were in Latin, and one column is headed “Natus”, for the place of birth. However, what is actually entered, at least in many cases, is the address of the man at the time of his coming to St Joseph’s. The town, village or diocese at that time may not be the place of his birth, nor the place which he would regard as “where I am from”.

Younger readers might be puzzled by seeing that some confreres were ordained in places like Sligo, Kilkenny and Tullow; this was because at those times there were Vincentian bishops in Elphin, Ossory and Kildare & Leighlin. I am not sure why some, in the period of WW1, were ordained in Glasgow. It has been suggested to me that the reason may have been that ordinations were being held there at times which suited the provincial authorities.

My Modus Scribendi

At first I had intended to keep my notes strictly objective and factual, but I eventually decided to introduce the subjective element because over the years I have found that many older confreres, when I was alone with them, were only too pleased to talk about themselves, their times and their contemporaries. Also they often could identify photographs of even earlier confreres. Unfortunately there are still very many photographs in the archives, of individual confreres and groups, with no indication of name, place or date.

In the 19th and 20th centuries a number of Irishmen and Englishmen have joined the Congregation in provinces other than the Irish province; some of them joined the Irish province later on. For the next edition, the 10th, of the Necrology I have decided to include eight such confreres, three Irish and five English. I have two reasons for doing this: firstly, I think we should know something about these men, and secondly researchers in the future, seeking information on any of them, are likely to enquire at our archives. For that reason I have compiled files on each of them. The three Irishmen are Richard Hogan, Richard Judge and Michael McKiernan. The Englishmen are William & Vincent O’Hara, Francis Flynn, John William Kelly, and John Horwood.

In the 19th century quite a number of men of Irish birth joined the community in the USA. I decided not to include any of these in the Necrology, given their number and the fact that they are well documented in the archives over there.

In the history of the Irish province there has been, in each “generation”, one confrere interested, to a greater or lesser degree, in doing some research into the history of the province, and in doing some detective work seeking answers to what, who, when, where, why, and even how. My list of such confreres would be: Malachy O’Callaghan (1825-1913), Patrick Boyle (1849-1933), Joseph Leonard (1877-1964), Jerome Twomey (1912-1979) and James H Murphy (1917-1981), each of them with his own particular “angle”. Joe Leonard, for example, concentrated almost entirely in providing translations of French material at a time when knowledge of French was rapidly dwindling among Irish confreres.


As I put the final touches to this Prooemium I am already into my 80th year. Let me say, however, seventy-nine years elapsed notwithstanding, I have no intention of ceasing my research and detective work as long as I can do it, and writing it up when it is ready for publication.

Tom Davitt , 30 May 2008, the 54th anniversary of my ordination.