Saturday, 21 April 2007

Tributes to Sean, 'Doctrine and Life', March 2007

Sean Mac Reamoinn at the 1968 Merriman School. Photo courtesy of John Horgan.

For many years, Sean had a column in Doctrine and Life, in which he signed himself Oisin. These tributes are from fellow-writers to the magazine.

A Towering Authority

Louis McRedmond

Who else could have fused a music-hall ditty with an icon of French literature to explain the paucity of Irish novels about the priesthood? 'Yes', said Sean, 'we have no Bernanos'. And so we smile and laugh as we reminisce. Yet I worry a little. I worry lest the anecdotes gloss over the true worth of our friend.

To have been in Rome in the press rooms and at the conferences surrounding the Second Vatican Council - and, yes, in the bars and at the suppers - was to know Sean's full measure. Mischievous, of course, and playful with words and growling at injustice but also, and far more so, a figure of towering authority, consulted, deferred to, by colleagues from newspapers and broadcasting services far greater in repute and reach than those of our small island. Through them he wielded an influence that was profound and enduring and percolated through to their viewers, listeners, readers. He broadened and deepened their understanding of the Council. For me therefore he ranks among the great practitioners of Christian renewal in our age, not only in Ireland but far beyond.

Through myriad memories in near half-a-century of friendship, and touching many areas other than Church affairs, I fasten upon this, that Sean taught so many what it was to be of the People of God. Would that our country and world could hear him now.

I am being solemn and recall uncomfortably how Sean himself would hasten to puncture undue solemnity. One evening in Rome we journalists were racked by scruples over whether to report a rumour which we believed to be true but could not confirm for want of a convincing attribution. Sean looked up at the Venerabile building across from the trattoria and mused aloud: 'That's there. We're here. So we could say "sources close to the English College".' Smile and laugh again. But remember greatness too.

The Most Serious and the Least Stuffy of Men

Austin Flannery, O.P.

I first met Scan Mac Reamoinn in the late 1950s when a group of us decided that we needed to discuss theology regularly. We were at a loss for a location suitable for a small group. For a time we met in a room over a pub; later, the flat provided for the director of what was then called the Municipal Gallery in Dublin's Parnell Square becamethe location for our conversations. Immensely well informed, Sean was most generous in sharing his knowledge. His fluency in Irish and French as well as his competence in other languages, including Italian and German, enabled him to mix helpfully, knowledgeably and entertainingly in all sorts of company.

As so many have commented since his death, reporting on Vatican II and on the implementation of its reforms made Sean known to a wide public, and not just in Ireland. In 1967 the American writer Robert Hoyt, of The National Catholic Reporter, was greatly impressed by the group of Irish journalists covering the Synod of Bishops of that year. He wrote:

I'm thinking of suggesting to the Pope that the whole Church should be turned over to them for a couple of weeks. They might not be able to solve the crisis of faith or the crisis of authority, but they would at least postpone the crisis of boredom.

The man to put in charge of the whole operation would be one Sean Mac Reamoinn, who writes for Irish papers and talks for Irish television, and who is at once the most serious and the least stuffy of men. He has a round jolly face, a round jolly belly, a moustache as thick as is his brogue and a twinkle in his eye that should be patented and put on the market for the salvation of souls. Sean was a most willing and active collaborator in ventures aimed at helping bring about reforms called for by the Council.

He was a member of the editorial board of Scripture in Church since its very beginnings, in the Spring of 1971. In fact, it was he who wrote the press-release when the periodical was launched. Like all of Sean's literary efforts it was beautifully written and was very effective. The press conference was splendid, thanks to him. When in February, 1980, readers of Doctrine& Life first encountered Sean Mac Reamoinn's column, 'Laylines', he himself came to them heavily disguised. In those days he used the pen-name, Oisin. I explained the reason for using a pen-name when introducing Sean to our readers - at that time I was editor of Doctrine &f Life. It is now under the able editorship of my confrere, Bernard Treacy. I wrote, in 1980: here we have a distinguished Irish layman who has much to offer in the way of insight, comment, gripe or suggestion. He is a civil servant and protocol decrees that he may not use his own name if he wants to write about matters of public(civil) interest - which he may want to do from time to time.

His column proved enormously popular. A writer in the London paper. The Tablet, likened Sean's contributions to fine brandy. Sean managed to infuse into his writings that all too rare combination of seriousness and unstuffmess, that twinkle in the eye, coupled with a profoundly Thomistic sensus theologicus, a sense of history, a love for the Church, for Ireland and things Irish, a courtesy and an elegance of expression.

As John Horgan points out in the obituary in The Tablet, in the twenty years after his retirement Sean's 'productive energies barely flagged', as he spent his time 'in a continuous cycle of stimulation, activity, and intellectual and theological exploration.' All this despite a growing burden of incapacity, which he bore with exemplary patience, and the prolonged illness of his wife to whom he was unflaggingly caring. I am deeply grateful for the blessing of having enjoyed Sean's friendship for half a century.

Orvieto, Books and Weeds

Liz Meldon

My first real encounter with Sean Mac Reamoinn was at an Easter Sunday lunch many years ago. My liquid offering was a bottle of Orvieto which Sean said was his favourite. With hindsight, had I brought cooking sherry, I feel he would have greeted me and the bottle with the same enthusiasm.

At the time I ran a small bookshop in Dundrum which was very convenient for Sean, as he attended the church there and frequently had his lunch in the 'House' across the road. 'Has that wretched man Colin Dexter written anything new?' might be the greeting followed by a string of expletives if the answer was in the negative. Sean was an avid reader of crime and had his favourites.

In time, I knew the birthdays of his wife, Pat, and the entire family. New poetry, the latest book on dance, some P.G. Wodehouse, and detective novels were the core Mac Reamoinn purchases. As the years went on it became too difficult for Sean to climb the stairs to the shop; so, a new arrangement was put in place. Phone calls would come and I would gather together the requested books and meet him in the 'House' for lunch. Books and money would change hands and then I would have to tear myself away from conversation that I never wanted to end, and he could never understand why I had to go back to work.

On one such occasion the phone rang and that distinctive Mac Reamoinn voice was on the other end: 'My dear, I need a thirty-pound book-token, please, and I will be in the usual place, at about 1.15 pm.' Five minutes later: 'You would be passing the Spar shop on the way up? Well, a small sliced pan and the Telegraph, if you don't mind.' 'No problem, Sean.' The receiver had hardly settled in the cradle when it rang again: 'I've just remembered it's Pat's birthday. Would you pick up a bunch of flowers as well - oh, and a birthday card.' Armed with book-token, Telegraph, bread, card and a beautiful (my opinion!) bunch of flowers I arrived into the pub where Sean was seated having light refreshment before lunch. Everything placed on the seat beside him, I was about to embrace him when his greeting was heard the length and breadth of Dundrum. 'F**""g weeds. They're f*****g weeds. How much did you pay for them?' We proceeded to have a discussion about perennials and I tried to convince my outraged companion I had chosen Mother Nature's finest.

A phone call that evening at home informed me that Mrs MacReamoinn was delighted with his flowers and had them in 'every damn vase in the house'.

Orvieto will never taste quite the same again.

Man of Encouragement

Michael Hurley, S.J.

As well as being the internationally distinguished journalist and broadcaster now on his death being acclaimed by the media, Sean Mac Reamoinn was a highly cultured person and an intellectual post-Vatican II lay Catholic with a robust faith. The Church is deeply indebted to him and rightly proud of him. As a Jesuit I may perhaps be permitted to recall that it was from the Jesuits at Colaisde lognaid in Galway that Sean got the beginnings of his love of English, French and Irish: the language and literature, the culture.

One of my first meetings with Sean was to do a television programme with him for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It was ages ago,the first year of RTE, and my first practical experience of the new medium. Closeted with him in a makeshift studio, a cubby-hole in the Donnybrook premises, I did a straight talk to camera and then of course we withdrew to the Trocadero for supper.

My last meeting with Sean was on 6 January last. I wanted to share with him as he lay on his hospital bed something of the joyful spirit of the funeral Mass a few days previously of his friend, the Carmelite liturgist, Fr Eltin Griffin. We went on to lament the recent decision of the Hierarchy of England and Wales to transfer the Epiphany to the following Sunday. Why, Sean wondered sadly, hadn't they simply removed the obligation and let the traditional date stand? Eltin and I, with many others, had the privilege of being friends of Sean. He was personally as well as intellectually involved in the post-Vatican II movement for Church renewal and unity. Indeed he seemed at times to go out of his way to mention and bless my name in his 'Laylines', the lively feature which for many years he contributed monthly to Doctrine &f Life. Sean was a great encourager. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam dilis.

Man of the People - of God

Anne Thurston

At Sean Mac Reamoinn's funeral Mass I was seated in a row next to three priests. 'What are you doing here?' I asked in jest, 'Should you not be with your fellow clergy?' 'Oh no,' one of them replied, 'Today of all days, we want to be part of An PobalDe. That is what Mac Reamoinn would have wanted.' He was right: that's exactly what would have delighted Sean - a commingling of priests and people with no divisions save for the functions of liturgical office.

He embodied the model of Church as the whole people of God. Sean Mac Reamoinn didn't just talk about Vatican II; he lived it. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he numbered so many of the ordained among his closest friends, Sean Mac Reamoinn had no time for clericalism. He had great respect for the office but not for
what he saw as a caste system. He talked of the clerical/lay dichotomy as a 'cancer' in the Body of Christ. He bristled at a description of a defrocked priest as 'reduced to the lay state'. 'Liturgy' and 'laity' - these were topics that he returned to again and again in his columns in Doctrine & Life.

I admired Sean Mac Reamoinn's tenacity, I admired his forthrightness, his fearlessness and what the obituarists called his 'simple faith'. What did they mean, I wonder? Sean didn't fit any picture of conventional piety. He loved (and with a passion) wine, women and song. Criticism of Church is commonplace; what is uncommon is to have this combined with dogged fidelity. Sean Mac Reamoinn was indeed a 'practising Catholic' which is to say he felt himself to be one of the flawed, failing, fragile, hopeful human beings among whom the Word was made flesh. And so he rejoiced!

Friendship, Talk and Fidelity

Robert Dunlop

Sean Mac Reamoinn was one of the most articulate and affable radio journalists whom I can remember hearing. I was privileged to enjoy his friendship and was frequently stimulated by his thoughts,words and wisdom.

He saw into the soul of Ireland and was skilled in interpreting the profound changes taking place in society, the Churches and local communities. He managed to maintain a clear orthodoxy while questioning many of the tired practices which stifle progress. His regular writings as a columnist in Doctrine &f Life, which he titled 'Laylines', were provocative and informative but never destructive. His reflections were highly readable; and while he was skilled in several languages, pedantic sophistry was not his style. Sean was a lively human being who enjoyed life, engaged with people, and was a brilliant conversationalist.

He was one of the founders of, and a regular participant in, the Glenstal Ecumenical Conference. Ecclesiastically, he cast his net widely and, while demonstrating a primary interest in his native Irish Catholicism, seen through the prism of Vatican II, he was ready to explore theological and churchly questions with Dublin Anglicans, Northern Presbyterians, Welsh Non-conformists, and anybody else who was ready to talk.

Sean had no time for waffle or sub-standard scholarship. When someone was giving a talk or lecture which Sean regarded as superficial or inadequate, he responded with overt disappointment. When dissenting from some opinion, viewpoint or conclusion, he would sit back and utter his 'growl' which indicated exactly where he stood. As a practitioner of good communication thorough radio, television and the print media, he was always positive in encouraging those who took their work seriously and aimed at accuracy and balance in their presentations. Even his tetchiness and impatience with sloppy work did not threaten his readiness to promote the Kingdom of God. Deep down, he had strong moorings in Scripture, theology, Church tradition, and spiritual fellowship. Externally he was an unlikely anam chara; but I, along with many others found in him someone who drank deeply of the wells of salvation and souught to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.

Liberation Humour
Ricca Edmondson

The society which Sean Mac Reamoinn created around him - the pub conversation which he and his friend Herbert McCabe always said represented the kingdom of heaven on earth - evolved from his own ebullient personality but at the same time it was designed for a specific, eschatological purpose. It was open to anyone who could enjoy it, and the effect of its humour was to liberate; it was intended to turn conventional values upside down - or at least sideways - and to free us from enslavement to preoccupations of everyday survival, social acceptability or career advancement. To be part of this conversation was, in the most exciting, unnerving sense, an education. Undue solemnity about the wrong things was not squashed from above with a lecture on ethics: it was undermined from below with a joke which simul-
taneously showed one why one was mistaken and motivated one to try to be more right.

This is not to say that every joke had an immediate pedagogical purpose. This itself would have been a solemn arrangement. No-one was more conscious than Sean how love of humanity and of life diffuse enjoyment through everything - his humour was a constant marker of this, remembered now round the whole globe in countless tiny ways. Whenever he stayed at our house, he enchanted our children with unexpected remarks. He was going to get a cat, he told them, and name it Ceremony, and a dog which would be called Considerable Restraint. Then, when visitors called, he would ask them not to stand on Ceremony, and if they annoyed him he would announce his need to exercise Considerable Restraint. The children are now men, but last year when they introduced a kitten into the house they actually did call it Ceremony. Ceremony reminds us of much it would be dangerous to forget.

Loving to Share the Word of God
Margaret Daly-Denton

A precious memory that many people have of Sean Mac Reamonn is his reading of the creation story at the Easter Vigil. In 2004 I had the privilege of hearing him articulate his vision of the ministry of the word in a presentation to readers. The elegance and theological depth ofSean's title for his presentation said everything -'Reading the Scriptures: Word and Sacrament; Art and Craft'.

For Sean, it was essential that readers understand that they are asked to do 'a very sacred, important job': to carry the word of God, in their grasp, in their book, in their voice, and to bring it to God's people, telling them about God's love and care for all creation, especially as articulated in the coming of Jesus. As Sean saw it, this is what makes the liturgical reading of the Scriptures 'the primary missionary endeavour' of the Church. Sean was profoundly conscious of the responsibility of being brought so close to the centre of God's communication with humankind. He insisted that any artistry and craftsmanship that readers can bring to this ministry is simply their duty. He called for audible, intelligible reading that smooths the way for the word, so that at the end of the reading the people can genuinely say, Thanks be to God.' For him it was a particular joy that, unlike Communion ministers who can offer the Eucharist only to those who approach, ministers of the word can offer the word to everyone.

To quote Sean, 'Can we bring the word to people? We may never know, but there are times, in the mercy of God, when we hear from people that it has worked.' When Sean read in church, it worked. May he enjoy the reward of a good and faithful servant.

Friendship and Communion

John Horgan

The word anam-chara might have been invented for Sean Mac Reamoinn. Friendship was part of his extraordinary genius. But there was an additional, special dimension to it. It was not just that Sean made friends wherever he went: it was that, through some sort of osmosis, all the people who were friends of Sean's were likely, in the fullness of time, also to become friends of each other. In this way community was created, built, enhanced, and celebrated.

There are, I think, four words which are, in a sense, all different aspects of the same reality, and which defined and expressed Sean's nature and his commitment. They are: friendship, community, communion, and Church. They came together most memorably on that marvellous evening on 8 December 1965, the last night of Vatican II, when there was a motley gathering of around a hundred journalists, periti, and ecclesi-
astical hangers-on of all descriptions, clerical and lay, in the Trattoria Da Marcello, in a little streetjust behind Mussolini's Via della Conciliazione. At the end of a sometimes raucous, sometimes deeply emotional, and altogether heartwarming evening the journalists present appointed themselves cardinals and proceeded to the election of the first lay Pope. It was the shortest conclave in history, and there are no prizes for guessing at the name that accompanied the white smoke.

Sean generated many stories himself, and there are countless stories about him. But it is worth remembering also that the story to which he remained faithful was the greatest story ever - the Gospel,which was his benchmark for others, and the benchmark against which he knew he too would be judged.

Passion for the Best

Mary Troy

Somehow it seems impossible that all that Sean embodied when alive could be dissipated, gone forever, vanished. No, all that learning and love, the outrageous, acerbic, witty and clever sense of humour which came from the deepest seriousness could not just evaporate and fade into the air. His passion for the best, including language, poetry, music, the Catholic Church and so many other facets of life was laced with scorn for all that he considered venal, including lemon in his vodka, as many a barman knew only too well. In a prayer attributed to St Brigid she desires a 'vat of good cheer laid out for the men of heaven', that they would be 'cheerful in their drinking' and to which she would invite 'the three Marys', all the saints and 'Jesus too'.

So I do not imagine Sean lying 'in a wintry grave', but instead entertaining that good company in the same splendid fashion as he had done when alive, with gravely voice and growly laugh while reciting poetry in the many languages he spoke so beautifully. He was a good man, and as Yeats so beautifully put if. Tor the good are always merry, save by an evil chance and the merry love to fiddle and the merry love to dance', though Sean was a man who entertained with words rather than a iddler or dancer!

To offer to be Sean's driver was to enter on an adventure, and I often set off for an afternoon only to return home after two days of hilarity, having driven though the high ways and byways of Clare or any other county in search of musicians or poets or priests. He had a special love for two Irish towns, Galway and Clonmel. He
had gone to school in the 'Jes' in Galway and to university at UCG; and on his visits here he would meet up with friends and exchange anecdotes from his incredible memory. All this in the snug, Ti Neachtain, his favourite Galway watering hole. His capacity for friendship was such that to have once been a friend was to be a friend forever.

Sean loved, and often quoted on radio from My Clonmel Scrapbook,originally a scrapbook kept by my mother's father; and my mother loved the way he read from it. So, on a visit here in Galway I introduced her (she was then 96), and he read to her the poem The Two Travellers'. Later, she told me that since her father had died in 1924 she had never heard it read so perfectly. Afterwards they revelled on their mutual love of Clonmel and with much laughter discussed in detail all its nooks and crannies.

Sean was a man who shared his gifts with all. I first met when I was a naive student of 23, in Radio Eireann, then in the GPO, and over the next 40 years he became my mentor and friend.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

Tribute writers

Austin Flannery, O.P., was editor of Doctrine & Life from 1957 to 1988.
Liz Meldon is proprietor of The Rathgar Bookshop, 100 Rathgar Road Dublin 6.
Michael Hurley, S.J., is founder of the Irish School of Ecumenics and of the
Columbanus Community of Reconciliation.
Anne Thurston is a writer and lecturer.
Robert Dunlop is a retired Baptist minister, living in County Kildare.
Ricca Edmondson lectures in sociology at the National University of Ireland,
Margaret Daly-Denton is a liturgical composer and a teacher of biblical and
liturgical studies.
John Horgan reported on Vatican II for The Irish Times.
Louis McRedmond reported on Vatican II as editor of The Irish Independent.
Mary Troy teaches Scripture at Western Theological Institute, Galway.

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