Michael Prior, CM.
Talks given at the Launch of Duncan McPherson’s book, Living Stones, published in memory of Michael Prior CM.
All Hallows College, 16 May 2006.
Mark Noonan CM:
I am very honoured to welcome you all to All Hallows for the launch of Doctor McPherson’s book in memory of Michael Prior. I welcome Michael’s family from Cork especially his brother Jim and his sister Nuala and some of his nieces and nephews and wider family members. I welcome Doctor Deacon Duncan McPherson who was a colleague of Michael in St. Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill for many years. I welcome also Duncan’s wife Ann and a whole bevy of friends and acquaintances. I welcome the staff of All Hallows College and my Vincentian confreres. After this introduction, Dr McPherson is going to speak and introduce the book which he has edited. Then Perry Gildea, a Vincentian priest, will speak and finally Jim Prior – Michael’s brother – will address you on behalf of the family.
Michael was larger than life. Michael and myself were students together in the Vincentian Seminary in St Joseph’s, Blackrock. I was ordained with Michael on May 31st 1969 in Castleknock College. After our ordination we went different routes but we kept contact over the years. I enjoyed our visit to the Holy Land in 1994 when Paul Roche, Jimmy Sheil, Michael and myself went on a pilgrimage to mark our Silver Jubilee of Ordination.
Michael’s knowledge of the Holy Land was phenomenal and of course his championing of the cause of the Palestinians was legendary. He had a great sense of justice and fair play and he threw himself heart and soul into the Palestinian Cause, not only in Palestine and Britain but in many parts of the world as well. He got himself into all kinds of trouble with the Israelis over his activities on behalf of the Palestinians. When we were in the Holy Land in 1994 he took great pride in showing us the police barracks not far from Jerusalem, where he spent the night after being arrested for taking part in an illegal march to highlight the plight of some Palestinian family. I have to admit I spent my time during that visit wondering when the Israeli Secret Service were going to arrest us and charge us with subversive activities.
Michael threw himself heart and soul into everything-whether it was playing hurling for the North Mon in a Hearty Cup Final-which the North Mon won by the way- or playing the guitar and singing his favourite songs or his love for the Irish language. One of Michael’s favourite pieces was the Dream of Gerontius parts of which I have heard him singing on many occasions with great feeling.
There were times when I used to think that Michael’s middle name was love-he just gave himself so fully to everything. There were no half measures. Michael loved Cork. He loved the family. He loved the scriptures and published a number of books on scripture, which have made an enormous contribution to scholarship in scripture. He loved Strawberry Hill and gave most of his priestly life in the service of the College. He was very proud to be honoured with a professorship within the last year of his life. He loved the church and being a priest. He loved the Irish language and music. He loved a party and there was nothing he liked better that having us all rolling in the aisles with laughter at his stories and his recalling incidents from the past in his own inimitable style. He embellished the stories to get the last ounce of humour out of them but that only added to the craic. He was a great mimic.
He loved the Vincentian community and its mission of evangelization of the poor. For many years Michael championed the cause of the travelling community in Britain and got himself into all kinds of trouble on their behalf.
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Michael made a difference no matter where he was. Whether you agreed with him or not you couldn’t ignore him. He was a man of very strong views and he articulated them forcefully and with great conviction.
And now he is gone-taken from us so suddenly and unexpectedly on July 22nd 2004. We miss his colourful personality so much at our Vincentian gatherings. May he rest in peace.
Perry Gildea CM
I was very pleased to be asked to pay tribute to Michael at this evening’s function. He was a long time friend and companion. He was also a rich and complex personality, and much has been said and written about him at the time of his death that need not be repeated.
What can be emphasised is the deep nature of his Vincentian identity. The motto of the Congregation is ‘He sent me to evangelise the poor.’ One of Michael’s earlier works was an in-depth analysis of the significance of the original passage from Isaiah and its development in the preaching of Christ. A treatise on Jesus the Liberator followed soon after. Michael gave all of us involved in the academic world an example of how we could equally be committed to the service of the poor. Duncan has already referred to the founding of the Living Stones, as an attempt to address the plight of the Palestinian Christians.
But Michael’s concern for the poor and those often deprived of just or fair treatment was not simply an academic concern. For many years he said mass every week at one of two travellers’ camps in London. It was another of his great gifts to be at ease with everyone. Simply because he saw the worth of everyone. He enjoyed the irregularity of the travellers’ culture too. One Sunday he came back for lunch laughingly describing a woman ironing tenners which had fallen in the washing. The table she was using was to be the mass altar. He became their active champion on a number of occasions. In one case helping them overcome an eviction from their site in Ealing in favour of a Tesco supermarket. They got their site back and with improved facilities. Similarly, he battled successfully with some of the College administration in favour of one of the students whom they tried to exclude on the grounds that she had a baby. Michael was always ready to take a stand against injustice as an attack on the Gospel values he so sincerely treasured.
Some of us were privileged to travel with Michael to the Holy Land (He always referred to Israel and the occupied territories). Not only did he bring us to all the significant sites connected with the life of Christ, where he eloquently broke the living word of the scriptures. He also brought us to meet Palestinian students at the Catholic University of Bethlehem. Memorable though the visit was to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, it was the visit he also arranged to a refugee camp on the outskirts which added a whole new living dimension to the poverty of the Messiah and the phrase “no room at the inn”. Sadly, the situation there is much worse now than then.
Michael was also a committed teacher. I was fortunate for a number of years in having to teach students in second and third year that had already been fashioned according to Michael. He believed in academic discipline in the production of work. Even more he believed in encouraging his students to think for themselves. Some would come in their early days to complain that he was a bully in seminars. Later they would express their gratitude. Certainly students ‘trained‘ by Michael were a delight in seminars. They really understood the necessity of reading and thinking.
Michael was a colleague and a friend. While we all appreciated his academic worth and commitment to his various causes especially the lot of the Palestinians it was his companionship that I miss most. He had a great sense of solidarity with his community and a great sense of fun. He was at heart an entertainer and his stories with actions and accents are fond memories. At one time in Strawberry Hill a tradition of staff student concerts developed. Michael was always ready to take part. I remember, along with everyone else being spellbound as he sat on with his guitar and sang songs in English, Italian, French, Hebrew and Irish. Someone remarked, ‘in London you would not even get the likes in the best cabaret.’ He loved his environment and living among the students. There was one character in particular whose exploits he loved to chronicle with his famous ‘cockney’ accent. Coming to his door his face all blood and denouncing Michael as a hypocrite. For no apparent reason was one such memory.
Michael loved company and many people counted him as a best friend. In particular he enjoyed the company and was enjoyed by some of the members of London Irish. In Michael’s own term he loved to move around among them swapping yarns as they ‘breast-fed’ their pints.
The sporting environment was home to Michael as well. I am open to correction but I think he had a schoolboys all Ireland hurling medal. He enjoyed sports either gaelic, rugby or football. He played tennis enthusiastically with Donal O’Leary. Again in Strawberry Hill he turned out as goalie in staff-student football games. He was particularly proud of a diving penalty save after which the students called him ‘the cat’.
Scholar, linguist, passionate about causes, entertainer. Michael was all these but under it all lay his priesthood. It sat easy with him as he could integrate his ministry into every aspect of his life. The pastoral side of Michael’s ministry is the quieter one as many people went to him for advice and help. They were never turned away, and students could come at any hour and often did.
The larger than life element of Michael’s personality disguised the gentler compassionate side. It was there. I owe personal gratitude to Michael. As my father’s body was being carried from chapel to grave, it was Michael who intoned and led the De Profundis as we processed with the coffin. That was twenty years ago and someone was recalling to me the beauty of the moment just a few days ago. At the end of my time in Strawberry Hill, Michael insisted on preaching the homily at the farewell mass. It was a generous tribute, which he later sent to my mother.
Michael was truly human. That can be taken in the sense of the largeness of his personality and gifts. It can also be taken in the sense of a human being who was above all compassionate. It is part of the Vincentian charism to experience and share compassion in community and with those to whom we minister. It was Michael’s compassion that moved him to practical measures either for the Palestinian Christians, for the Irish travellers in London, for students in difficulty, and to be loyal community member and friend.
We are fortunate that he has left us a large body of writing. He has left us a storehouse of memories too. Anamnesis or remembering is at the heart of Christian celebration. As we celebrate his gifts let us tell each other our memories and keep his giftedness alive among us.