Castleknock College Union

Gearóid O’Sullivan, class '43

1924 - 2001

Sep 26, 2001
Gearóid O’Sullivan, class '43 -


In a memoir which he wrote in 1958 my father recalled his first meeting with Gearóid’s father thirty-six years previously:

He had been, I thought, somewhat inordinately self-assured and, indeed, perky and I had not on that occasion taken any great fancy to him. We were, however, to  become closely associated for the next couple of years and I had no difficulty, in the course of a very short time, in forming a very high opinion of his character and abilities, and getting to like him immensely.

My reaction to Gearóid was exactly the same as my father’s to his father. As boys in Castleknock we were only one year there together, and as he was in Fifth Year and I in Second Year we did not get to know each other then. He left after Fifth Year, having got the Matric, and enrolled in Pre Med in UCD. Half way through the year he switched to First Arts, but with so little preparation he failed in June. His reason for changing to Arts was that he was thinking of becoming a priest, specifically a priest of Dublin diocese. He went out to Castleknock to discuss this with Fr Tommy Hickey, who diverted him from Clonliffe to the Rock. Gearóid told me many times that Tommy Hickey had said that the Vins were secular priests living in community, and that that was what had attracted him. In his valedictory lecture in UCC, on 3 May 1991, he referred to his decision to opt for the Vins rather than the diocesan priesthood, and said that when he told his father of his decision his father said it was a good decision, because “in his experience he found bishops to be lacking in any vision about the country”. All through his life the possession, or lack, of vision was an important element in Gearóid’s assessment of a person’s worth.

It was in the Rock that I began to get to know him. One abiding memory is his surreptitious morning visits to the garden shed to see the gardener’s paper and bring himself up to date on international affairs, the Irish political scene, and soccer results. The attraction of living in community obviously did not eliminate a certain degree of independence, nor imply blank acceptance of convention.

He was ordained in 1950 and four years later I asked him to assist me at my ordination and first Mass. He was an excellent choice for this, as he told me that he was at my side should I need him, but he did not fuss and allowed me to get on with it.

He had two periods of teaching at second level, and two at third level. In St Paul’s and Castleknock his main subjects were History and English, for both of which he had great enthusiasm, especially for the former, which he communicated. He had a short period in Strawberry Hill, and he thought that he had been treated somewhat unfairly when changed from there. From his way of recalling this I would say that it did not amount to a chip on his shoulder. As he saw it, the decision to change him had already been taken, yet a confrere who knew this spoke to him, on the plane as they went to Dublin for the summer, as if he would be returning for the next academic year. Probably the reality was more complex, and also I think he realised, at least later on, that his primary degree had not provided adequate foundation for lecturing in education.

In the summer of 1964, Gearóid and I brought a group of thirty-eight boys from Fifth and Sixth Years to Italy, the first continental tour from Castleknock. We had a semi-private audience with Pope Paul VI, with two or three other groups. At the front of the hall the Pope passed along the line greeting each of the leaders. The first few received the usual papal platitudes, but when Pope Paul heard that we were from Castleknock he showed real interest, much to the amazement of the other leaders. He told us that he knew Castleknock and the Phoenix Park, as he had  holidayed in the Nunciature when he was a young monsignor. At the end of our conversation he asked us if he could do anything for us, and we said “no”. Outside, Gearóid said: “Why didn’t we say “English in the breviary and get rid of Christy”? Christy O’Leary was the provincial at the time.

When he got the opportunity of a sabbatical in 1970, he chose to study theology in Nottingham. I cannot recall his ever mentioning why he chose there, but later on he never liked to be reminded that he had been there. He had a scatological epithet to describe that centre of learning, though he had happy memories of his residence in the cathedral presbytery and returned there many times. He spent the next two years in Cambridge and developed a great enthusiasm for theology; he once told me that he could not get enough of it. He also told me that it was in Cambridge that he learnt the importance of making breakfast in one’s own room.

On his return from Cambridge he took up his post in UCC, and most summers he went to some theology course somewhere. Even though he could not get enough theology he seemed reluctant to share it, and I do not remember his ever contributing to any provincial meeting. I once asked him to write an article for Colloque on his experience with third level students, but he refused. In his reply to me he wrote; “One of the things I learnt very early is that you can do what you think best if you keep out of print”. I suspect he had a fear of being quoted. In formal lectures or in print he would have expressed himself in a balanced way, but I could understand his fear of being quoted for remarks made in conversation, at table or in the community room. When in full flight he could express himself in a colourful way. When he came to the punch line of his argument he had a way of looking straight at you, with his left eye partly closed, with his finger pointing at you, and uttering the sound which novelists write as “Hmph”.

I think he found his appointment to UCC to be the one in which he was happiest. In running the course for the Diploma in Catechetics he had a very large degree of autonomy, which suited him. He also liked the whole atmosphere of university life. In 1976, he went up for election to the Governing Body, and on his publicity leaflet he stated: “If elected, I would hope to contribute a fresh viewpoint to the resolution of College problems. I particularly emphasise the need for Christian human values at UCC”. (I wonder why he proposed to contribute a fresh “viewpoint” rather than a “vision”). He did not get elected, but he told me that if he had started his campaign earlier he probably would have been successful.  In spite of this assertion he never again offered himself to the electorate. He gradually got involved in the university chaplaincy and in ecumenism. When he retired from teaching his chaplaincy ministry became full-time and led to his being appointed Dean of the Honan Chapel, a title which he liked.

His great recreational relaxation was the history and operation of railways in Ireland, on which he was very knowledgeable. Immediately after ordination in 1950, he joined the Irish Railway Record Society, and later on served for a time as chairman of the Munster Area. Unfortunately he never gave a formal lecture to the Society nor contributed an article to its Journal, apart from one very short item. Perhaps, once again, he did not wish to be quoted.

He was in Dublin in February 2001 and I suggested he should come out to Rickard House to see Vinny O’Brien and Maurice Carbery. I met him at Seapoint station, but when he saw the slight hill on Alma Road up to where I had parked the car, he said he could not make it and asked me to bring the car down. I had not realised that his health had deteriorated to that extent. When he was leaving later he told me how impressed he had been with the set-up in Rickard House, and I think he filed it away in his mind as the place to be should his health deteriorate to the stage when he would need nursing care. But a period of deteriorating health in a nursing home, leading to eventual death, would have been tame in comparison with falling dead at the dinner table in Florence. Why be conventional?

Tom Davitt CM

Born; December 18 1924
Entered the CM; September 7 1943
Final Vows; September 8 1945
Ordained priest; May 28 1950 in Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, by Dr John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin

1950-’52 St Vincent’s, Sunday’s Well and UCC
1952-’56 St Paul’s, Raheny
1956-’59 St Mary’s, Strawberry Hill
1959-’70 St Vincent’s, Castleknock
1970-’71 Cathedral House, Nottingham
1971-’73 St Edmund’s House, Cambridge
St Vincent’s, Sunday’s Well and UCC
Died September 26 2001
Buried St Finbarr’s, Cork