Castleknock College Union

John Cleary, class '50

1931 - 2000

Mar 9, 2000
John Cleary, class '50 -


I first met John Cleary in St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, in October 1960. I was a first year student in St. Patrick’s at that time, fresh from the Leaving Certificate. He was the college bursar. I soon got to know John as the energetic trainer of the basketball team. I have a very clear memory from those days of John as a tall, athletic figure striding across the College grounds with much purpose. He was also the patron of the college musical society and would regularly give the loan of his record playing equipment for our musical sessions. Many years later in De Paul House in Celbridge, I was at the receiving end of John’s generosity when he gave me the loan of his car to do a driving tour of France. John was like that. His philosophy was that things were to be used and he gave material things willingly and gladly. He was not in the least possessive. It was one of his many endearing qualities.

His sincere, honest nature was another endearing quality. No matter what John did, he brought a tremendous zeal to the task, whether it was bursar in St. Patrick’s, Drumcondra, chaplain to deaf people in Dublin and Ireland, director of vocations, parish priest in Sunday’s Well or superior of the formation house in Celbridge. Whatever John took on, he gave it everything he had. There were no short cuts or half measures.

Castleknock College was very special for him. He was a faithful member of the Past Pupils Union and attended Castleknock functions whenever he could. His love of the college began with his school days and especially from the time when he was Head Prefect. (1949-50). He would surely have approved of being buried there. John was an excellent athlete as a youth, and was a very good tennis player with many cups and medals to prove it. He also played rugby for Castleknock and one of his regrets was not playing at scrum half in the Senior Cup final in 1950. A passionate follower of the game of rugby, he spent his last few weeks of life searching for tickets for one of the rugby international matches in Landsdowne Road. He got the tickets but the illness which was to take him from us so quickly prevented him from going to the game.

He was very proud of his Tipperary roots and there was nothing he liked better than a few days at home every couple of months with his nieces and nephews. John loved the family and talked about them from time to time. At heart he was a family and community man and he often put himself out to make a quality contribution to community life. He loved to cook a meal, smoke a good cigar, have a nice glass of wine and enjoy good company. Those qualities made him a great homemaker during his time as superior of the communities in De Paul House and in Sunday’s Well.

For relaxation, John loved a game of golf. He was a good golfer and we played many times together. Needless to mention, he nearly always won. He was so competitive but he would always return from the game, full of bounce and energy, ready to take on everything and anything. Sometimes one got the impression that he brought his energetic disposition to bear on enjoyment as well as work. He also loved to shop. When I was Bursar in Celbridge and John was Superior of the community, he would go to some wholesale place, every couple of weeks, and fill the  car with all kinds of goodies for the house. Afterwards he would show me what he bought and talked about the bargains he managed to get. The fact that he was doing my job never entered his mind or, if it did, he didn’t say so. He loved being a Bursar and to be fair he was very good at it.

Occasionally John talked about his introduction to the deaf world. For many years he had been a very successful bursar in St. Patrick’s, Drumcondra and the late James Cahalan’s request for him to work with the deaf came as a bolt from the blue and was quite a shock. He was happy in St. Patrick’s, and, admiring the late Fr. Donal Cregan, he liked working with him. The last thing he wanted was to move house up the road to St. Peter’s and start learning the deaf sign language. Nevertheless he jumped to the invitation with alacrity, at no small cost to himself, let me add. After only five months of introduction to deaf work, he found himself catapulted, on Derry Sweeney’s sudden death, into an appointment as director of the deaf chaplaincy with responsibility for the pastoral care of 2,000 adult, deaf people as well as chaplain to the Schools for the Deaf in Cabra. That was a very difficult time – March 1971. Needless to mention, he faced the challenge head on and by 1977, when he formed the Friends of the Deaf, he was firmly established in the deaf world. Obstacles and difficulties brought out the best in him.

That appointment to the chaplaincy for the deaf was to prove a turning point in his life. Surely it was a defining moment. It started a life-long love for and relationship with deaf people. He became, in time, a champion of their cause with church and state, not only in Dublin, and throughout the country, but also abroad. He was one of the Co-founders of the International Catholic Foundation for Deaf Services and he put Ireland’s deaf on the map in Europe. He was President of the Dublin Deaf Association. He was on the board of the National Association for the Deaf, and the Irish Deaf Sports Association. He was a life long member of the Catholic Institute for the Deaf. But one of John’s most noteworthy contributions to the deaf community was the setting up of the National Chaplaincy for Deaf People in 1977. The chaplaincy established direct lines of communication with the bishop’s conference, which resulted in an annual grant for the chaplaincy. It also served to raise awareness of the needs of deaf people in every diocese. There were few bishops in Ireland at the time who didn’t know that John Cleary was a Vincentian and that he wanted the best for deaf people. He never gave up, even when his ideas and plans were rejected. Typically, he spent the last weeks of his life compiling a report for the bishops’ conference on the needs of the country deaf. I understand the report was on the agenda for their meeting on the day of his funeral Mass in Phibsboro.

John was very pastoral in his approach and his pastoral instincts were nearly always correct. One pastoral problem that attracted his attention, during his early years with the deaf, was the apparent weakening of faith and lack of Christian vision among young, deaf adults. John invited some of the leaders of the deaf community to come together for wellprepared search weekends using the Avec method-a method which some of us heard a lot about. At those weekends they discovered their spiritual and emotional needs and gifts. He was very proud of having initiated those weekends and I have no doubt it was a huge contribution to the faith development of young, deaf people at the time.

Much of his pastoral work with deaf people was centred on the social centre in Rathmines. Aware that the deaf community in Dublin needed a bigger and better equipped social centre, he formed an active group of people, experienced in business affairs, who called themselves the Friends of the Deaf. John’s gift of attracting people of influence to support his various initiatives was a notable feature of his ministry Their aim was to raise funds to build and equip a suitable centre for the social and educational needs of deaf people.

But his dream of a social centre was not to be realised under his leadership. His failure to build a new purpose built deaf centre was one of his frustrations in dealing with the deaf world. His dream was partly realised later on, under the leadership of Gerald Doyle, when the Deaf moved to the Sacred Heart Home in Drumcondra. I have no doubt John contributed to the move with his vision for a new centre about which he spoke so much and for which he worked so tirelessly.

A very special interest in liturgy is one of my abiding memories of him. He appreciated the importance of liturgy in helping people to raise their hearts and minds to God. Liturgies with deaf people created a real challenge for him. He was responsible for putting together a video of professional standard to describe how the faith is passed on to deaf children. Fr. Sean Swayne of the Carlow Liturgical Centre, encouraged John to celebrate visually stimulating liturgies. It was at this time that the deaf choir was formed. No doubt he had a hand in that too. The choir has continued to grace liturgies for deaf people by signing the words of hymns when hearing people sing the words. The deaf choir played a prominent part in his funeral Mass.

There were times when his zeal and intensity about his mission got in the way of his relationship with people. They say our strengths can be our weaknesses and so it was with John. He must have been very hurt at the way people reacted to his insistent and zealous nature. He knew all about the cold shoulder. Nevertheless, his goodness and sincerity was never in doubt and he never harboured grudges. He had the ability to bounce back again and keep going.

A brief word about his time in formation as superior of De Paul House and director of vocations. That was a difficult appointment. It took him away from his beloved deaf people and launched him into a very different world for which, in his own estimation, he was ill equipped. In truth he brought a wealth of experience to the task. John tended to measure his self worth by success. Anything to do with vocations gathering at that time did not enhance one’s self worth. Nevertheless he gave outstanding example to the students of hard work, simplicity of life, daily prayer and commitment to the vincentian community. John was very loyal to the vincentian way of life and took much pride in each production of the Vincentian News when he was the editor. He saw it as a service to the Province to keep us in touch with each other and with what was going on in the Province.

The suddenness of his illness and the quickness of his death took our breath away. It was hard to believe that someone so energetic and full of life, who always looked much younger than his age, could be taken from us so quickly.

His funeral Mass in Phibsborough was an extraordinary event. It was a celebration of a life spent in total dedication to the deaf community. There was standing room only. Where John stood in the affection of the deaf community was obvious for all to see and feel. Deaf people had come from Cork, Tralee, Galway, Donegal and other parts of the country as well as England and Scotland. There was a crowd of parishioners from Sunday’s Well, where he had served as parish priest for six years. There were many of his friends from the parish in Phibsboro, Celbridge and St. Patrick’s, Drumcondra. But his funeral Mass was a day for deaf people to honour John’s ministry and they did him proud.

The tribute by Maura Buckley left a crowded and hushed St. Peter’s in no doubt of what the deaf community in Ireland thought of John Cleary. Maura described his personality very well. Among other things, she said “he was a workaholic with an obsession for perfection and a great loving generosity with his time. He wanted the very best for the deaf… He was a true priest and was very close to God.” How true! She summed him up very well. Her tribute was a collective cry from the deaf of Ireland, mourning the loss of somebody they had loved, who had championed their cause, through thick and thin, for so long. There were few dry eyes in the church.
May he rest in peace.

Mark Noonan CM

Born; Carrick-on-Suir, 15 October 1931.
Entered the CM: 7 September 1950
Final Vows: 25 December 1955
Ordained priest: 15 June 1957 in Clonliffe College by John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin.

1957-’58: St. Patrick’s, Armagh
1958-’70: St. Patrick’s, Drumcondra
1970-’83: St. Peter’s Phibsboro
1983-’88: Celbridge
1990-’97: St. Vincent’s, Sunday’s Well
1997-’99: St. Paul’s, Raheny
1999-2000: St. Killian’s, Raheny
Died: 9 March 2000
Buried: St. Vincent’s, Castleknock


Shock, disbelief, anger… and then great sadness and a sense of great loss are our feelings when we received the news of Fr. John’s death. Fr. John was a very big part of our lives in the Deaf Community. I have known him for nearly 30 years. I have worked with him for many years.

Fr. John joined the Deaf in 1970 when he became Fr. Sweeney’s assistant. Fr. Sweeney died suddenly the following year and the big responsibility fell on Fr. John’s shoulders. He took his new position very seriously. He did not waste his time. He went on to learn Sign Language and took up many courses to understand us.

Fr. John worked very hard. Yes, he was a workaholic. He wanted the very best for the Deaf. He took part in many sectors of the Deaf Community. Not only was he our Chaplain, he was the Chaplain to St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s Schools for the Deaf, Cabra. He was President of the Dublin Deaf Association and took great interest in all deaf affairs. He was on the Board of the National Association for the Deaf and there he influenced the Board Members with his deep thinking and belief that work can be done to improve life for the deaf. He was one of the co-founders of the International Catholic Foundation for Services to Deaf People. At a Conference in Belgium in 1986, he succeeded in putting Ireland on the map with his brilliant presentation on how deaf children receive the Word of God. Bernadette and I were very honoured to be part of Fr. John’s team there. The work was hard, yet we had so much fun.

Fr. John, of course, officiated at many weddings of deaf people and baptised their children, not to forget the Holy Communion and Confirmation of deaf children in Cabra Schools.

One deaf couple, Patrick and Mary Power from London, faxed the chaplaincy to say that they will never forget how reliable and sincere Fr. John was. They highlighted one example; when they asked him to marry them. Given the date, Fr. John reacted quickly saying that he would be in Lourdes but told them no to worry, he would be there. On the day of the wedding, he arrived in Dublin Airport from Lourdes, then drove up to Sligo and officiated at their wedding. That was Fr. John. He never let the deaf down. We always trusted him.

Fr. John had a great love for sports. He was a faithful member of the Irish Deaf Sports Association. He even took part in many sports with us. He travelled to the World Olympics for the Deaf. He was a great supporter and thrived on our successes at the Olympics. He raised funds and interpreted for the Deaf there.

Last Wednesday, as he was dying, he was talking about the Sports Weekend in Galway at Easter. He knew he would not be there to say Mass for the Deaf on Easter Saturday. To ensure that the Deaf were not to be forgotten he made arrangements that the Mass is to go ahead for them on Easter Saturday. That was Fr. John. He was always very thoughtful.

Fr. John was a true priest. He was very close to God. That was evident in his many roles in the deaf community. He had a huge influence on us. He showed us how to pray. He started prayer groups. He brought hearing people to our prayer meetings. Many of them have remained to this day our very sincere friends.

Fr. John had a powerful presence in the Deaf Community. He helped us to see God in people, in nature, in our work and, of course, at Mass. He began the Deaf Choir because he believed that the Deaf can sing their praises to God. He organised many weekends for young deaf and hearing people away from Dublin to spend time in prayer and to form friendships with one another. Many people owe it all to Fr. John. He has deepened their faith.

Fr. John believed in us. He was our Advocate. He was the first to encourage the Deaf Drama Group to do a public show in his home town, Carrick-on-Suir. He believed that we should run our affairs by ourselves. He developed a weekly meeting with the deaf and hearing people (about 10 of them) and it was called the Wednesday Group. The emphasis was on prayer and discussions on deaf issues. This has, of course, influenced later the set up of the Irish Deaf Society.

Fr. John was a very sincere person. When he left us to take up a new position in Celbridge in the late 80’s he left the doors open for us to visit him. Many of us did. He did the same when he was Parish Priest of Cork. Many deaf stayed in his place. I could go on and on about how wonderful Fr. John was. We were overjoyed when Fr. John came back to us in September 1998. His new mission was to look after the Country Deaf. He was zealous with his country visits. He organised many social gatherings. He listened to them. From this he embarked on a very important project. He drew up a report to tell the Bishops that the Country Deaf need a Chaplain. He put all his energy and time into the Report. He completed it only three weeks ago. Two weeks ago at my sister-in-law Terry’s house, Fr. John talked about how happy he was that the Report was done. I will never forget his face when he said with a beautiful smile; “I have handed the Report in for the Bishops. My work is finished. I will be able to relax now.”

Little did I know that his work is really finished. Little did I know that he is really relaxed… in the company of different people. He is in the Community of Saints in Heaven. His wish has come true. He told one deaf member that he hoped to die among the deaf. It is strange that the Episcopal Conference of Bishops are meeting as we are celebrating Fr. John’s Funeral Mass. They are meeting all this week in Maynooth. Fr. John’s Report is there. It is on their Agenda. It has taken years to get our Report on the Agenda. It took a good man like Fr. John to finally put it on their desk. I still can’t believe how Fr. John completed this important task and then quietly slipped away.

I am concerned now about the Country Deaf as was Fr. John. What will happen to them? We cannot fail them now. We owe it to them and to the memory of Fr. John. I know that Fr. John will have an even greater influence on the Bishops this week. He will be watching them from Heaven. He will make sure that the Bishops listen to the Country Deaf. We, the Deaf Community, mourn the loss of our great friend Fr. John. The Deaf Community is poorer now… but we are very grateful to the Vincentian Priests for enriching our lives with Fr. John. We thank God for Fr. John. We loved Fr. John and will never forget him.

We sympathise with his sister Helen, his brother Gerry, his sisters-inlaw, Bernadette and Ann, his nieces and nephews and Fr. Gerry and all the Vincentians on their great loss. I would like to finish with this with a verse from the Gospel of St John; “The greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them.” (John 15: 13) Fr. John had done this. May he rest in peace.

Maura Buckley