Castleknock College Union

Donal F Cregan, class '30

1911 - 1995

Oct 13, 1995
Donal F Cregan, class '30 -


Donal Francis Cregan was born in Newcastlewest, Co. Limerick, in May 1911, where he spent his early boyhood before going to Castleknock for his secondary education. For his native Limerick and its countryside he had a romantic attachment all his life, frequently referring to himself as a country boy. This, needless to say, caused some surprise for those who knew him only as a sophisticated academic College President. It was a surprise I think Donal Cregan enjoyed. Just as he enjoyed the story he himself told of a boy from the North of Ireland asking him in class one day why he did not speak like another youth in the class from the same locality whose accent was broad and flat west Limerick. That the two educational centres where he worked were countryside in their clientele and not locally based, always had a strong appeal for him.

In his final two years as a boy in Castleknock, 1928-30, he was made a prefect of the house, a recognition of his exceptional qualities as a student, having as his partner in shared responsibility the late Fr Jerome Twomey. An interesting sidelight on changes in clerical education is the fact that in his last year, along with Jerome, they both took the First Arts course in UCD while remaining boarders in Castleknock. In 1930 Donal threw in his lot for life with the “Vins” and entered St Joseph’s, Blackrock, as a clerical student. During his theology studies he was also awarded his MA degree with first class honours for work on the life of Daniel O’Neill, an Irish Cavalier soldier of the seventeenth century. Ordained in 1936 Donal, having completed his studies, was appointed to Castleknock in 1937 and was to remain there for twenty years as a member of the teaching staff, Prefect of Studies and finally as President 1950-57.

As a history teacher in the college he was outstanding, and gave to many an historical perspective on life which was invaluable. His treatment of the lives of Renaissance Popes was so open and enlightening that the present writer has often gone back to it in the face of current difficulties in the Irish Church. Dr Jim Walshe, head of the government programme on AIDS, in a recent newspaper interview when asked about what interests he had outside of his work, mentioned history, and said that he had acquired it at school from a gifted teacher, Fr Donal Cregan, who made the French Revolution come alive in such a way that you were almost part of it. In 1948 Donal was awarded his doctorate in history by the National University of Ireland.

When Prefect of Studies his academic interests naturally enough had a wider field to operate in. Within the structures imposed by outside agencies Donal tried to have available as broad a curriculum as possible and as wide a choice of subject for every student. This was particularly true of continental languages. His European interests were always strong, and long before it was either fashionable or profitable. Two years after the ending of the second world war he was a member of the Vincentian pilgrimage to Rome for the canonization of Catherine Laboure.

As President of the College he got a chance to do something for the fabric of the institution and erected the Cregan wing so as to bring all the teaching facilities into one manageable area. By the time his stewardship of the College was over a unique collection of reproductions of all the major schools of painting was hanging on the different corridors, and the chapel with its beautiful plasterwork had been repainted. The temporal and spiritual welfare of the boys was always a particular concern of Donal Cregan. I remember as dean having to report morning and evening on the sick list, whether walking or in bed, and in the book of discipline there was only one grave matter and that was the question of bullying.

His approach to the role of Catholic educator was rather the indirect method than the direct. Feastdays were to be days of celebration and all that would appeal to a boy’s body and soul. His all round education was to be such that he would look back on it in after life with gratitude for its excellence, for the values it imparted, and for the quality and dedication of its staff. Thus the faith would be matured humano modo. He felt that Catholic colleges were not by divine right always the best. It was a crown to be won by each individual institution, and kept by hard work and continuous dedication.

In 1957 Donal’s services were requested for St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, by the then archbishop of Dublin, Dr J C McQuaid, and he started on the second half of his career and in many ways the most fruitful. T J McElligott in his book This Teaching Life gives pen pictures of six Irish pioneering educationalists, among whom is Donal Cregan. He writes:

By the time, some twenty years later, that he left St Patrick’s, the teachers had a magnificent new College, a college that he expanded from an enrolment of two hundred male students to one of nine hundred male and female students. A full degree course had been devised, a research centre created, a department for teachers dealing with special problems established, and a Journal of Education launched.

He later added:

Of few educationalists can it be said that they influenced education at all levels. Father Cregan was, in turn, headmaster of a secondary school, president of a primary teachers’ training College, and briefly, at his request, Professor of Education (UCD).

In the midst of all this extraordinary activity Donal was always conscious that he was a priest and a member of the Vincentian community. It was a matter of great pride for him that he was elected as one of the two representatives to the General Assembly in 1968-69. The international aspect of the Congregation appealed to him and the fact that the assembly was meeting in Rome was an added bonus. He sometimes mused in a humourous way that time robbed him of the one appointment he really would have liked, namely Rector of the Irish College in Paris.

He was naturally an intensely private person with a highly developed degree of self-discipline, and yet nothing gave him more pleasure than the company of the community, outings with confreres, and celebration of the great feastdays of the Church and the Congregation. Even today the community meetings held in Drumcondra to discuss the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council are distinctly remembered by several confreres, because of the insights contributed by Donal into the documents of the Council. The meetings, incidentally, were held in the open, on the flat roof.

One of his salient characteristics was a conviction of the need to change continually in order to meet the challenges of a changing world, provided always that change was fully thought out, based on sound principles, and competently researched.

He had an inherent sympathy for rogues, some would say dangerous, but I think it went further than that. For people in trouble the pastoral side of him came out, and for those who faced real crisis of faith and intellect he had a ceaseless concern and deep understanding. In this area many were helped in a quiet, unobtrusive and unpublicised way.

Perhaps the extraordinary diversity of his friends, who crossed all frontiers of faith, race, and opinion, was itself the ultimate recognition of a catholic scholar in the Newman mould. I think it would be fair to say that he shed the light of the gospel among many, who never quite saw it in that way before, and realised for the first time that the Church was not the monolithic bastion of authoritarian mind set that they had imagined.

Reading a paper on the Irish system of education in University College, Cork, in 1965 and speaking at some length on its problems and offering possible solutions he ended a masterly survey with these lines:

This idea of education as the panacea for all evils has grown stronger with the years. An interest in education is admirable of course. But there is a danger that, in our desire to improve and perfect by educational means we forget the most important factor of all, the mysterious operation of Divine Grace in the soul of each individual child. And it is a salutary thought to remember that many a child advances in wisdom and age and grace almost in spite of systems and curricula, and sometimes even of the well intentioned efforts of parents and teachers. For education is essentially a cooperation with Divine Grace: “Unless the Lord builds the house they labour in vain who build it”.

Patrick O’Donoghue CM


Born: Newcastlewest, Co. Limerick, 16 May 1911.
Entered the CM: 7 September 1930.
Final vows: 8 September 1932.
Ordained a priest in Clonliffe College, Dublin, by Dr Francis Wall, auxiliary bishop of Dublin, 27 September 1936.
1837-1957 St Vincent’s, Castleknock.
1957-1976 St Patrick’s, Drumcondra.
1976-1995 St Vincent’s, Castleknock.
Died: 13 October 1995.
Buried: Castleknock.