Ordained in 1980, he spent more than thirty years on the teaching staff of St Nathy’s College, Ballaghaderreen and was, at the time of his death, its Vice-President.
I never visited his rooms in St Nathy’s but, from memories of my time there as a student, imagine they were relatively simple – a sitting room and a bedroom, most likely – so the space he occupied during those years was relatively small but the rooms he filled immense. For the rooms into which he stepped each day were the rooms of the mind and the imagination, the rooms of truth and discovery, the rooms of enthusiasm and the rooms of inspiring faith.
The rooms – were his students. Initially St Nathy’s was an all-boys school but early enough in his time there, the schools of the town amalgamated and St Nathy’s became a co-ed school so, for almost thirty years, boys and girls from Ballaghaderreen, Gurteen, Frenchpark, Kilmovee, Carracastle, Monasteraden, Tibohine and many more places came to know him as priest and teacher – educator and entertainer. Like all teachers he lived in that strange place where the age of the audience remains constant though, for himself, the clock kept ticking and the years passing. He seemed however to keep apace with that change and retained an ability to connect, year in and year out with his students.
I often wonder what he was like in class. In conversation he was like a waterfall, words and ideas, phrases and images, puns (never intended of course!!), places, poets, songs, stories and of course, God … all fighting for their corner – all important – all hitting the river of life, the source and feeding again, the waterfall of his mind. I imagine, at times, he was all over the shop in the classroom and that bits and pieces were dragged into a well-ordered curriculum that may once have looked good on paper at a Department of Education meeting, but Andrew felt it was just a helicopter pad! I’d say he left pupils reeling at times – “What was that about?” It’s likely nonetheless that years later, maybe in a local field or office, a Government department, a classroom, a kitchen or perhaps on the Tube in London, the subway in New York or looking out over Sydney Harbour, some of those students thought, “Ah, that’s what he was saying to us …..”
It often takes time to recognise the truth, to appreciate the depth and to recognise the genius.
I was never a student of Andrew’s. I started my days in Maynooth, more or less the same time he walked into the Staff Room in St Nathy’s. I remember him coming to visit us in Maynooth with another priest of the diocese sometime during my first year there. He told us that he’d met a student in St Nathy’s that day – one I remembered well from the previous year and one that I’d have thought was a bit on the wild side! (Who am I to judge??) He told us that he stopped him on the corridor and said “Is there anything I can say or do to influence you to become a priest?” He looked at us for reaction and then said “Now, I’ve called him, it’s up to God to choose him”!! I remember laughing when he said this. Oddly enough I don’t think Andrew laughed. It’s clear to me now that he was exactly on the button. The call has to be direct. It can’t be much more direct than the one he offered that day. No, he didn’t become a priest but he heard a very direct call. I’ve no doubt but that lad went home with a fresh thought that evening – “Was Fr Finan serious?” He was ….
So, I was never his student and have no idea how he was in class. I have been a brother priest for nearly twenty-seven years, nine of those in Ballaghaderreen where he also lived. I heard of his homilies at the 8am Mass on many Sundays. People either got them or they didn’t but he seemed to have a flow of thought that either carried you or overwhelmed you!! Either reaction, it seems to me, is acceptable and far, far better than indifference.
I remember someone telling me that he went one day from the word “Levite” in a Scripture passage to Levi Jeans and explained that the levites were makers of tents, canvas, denim and …. Who knows, maybe as someone searched later in the day for a coin in the bottom of a jeans pocket, the mind went back to 8am Mass, the Levites, the callings, the miracles – back to the Altar and Eucharist. That’s why he made the connection … so that the penny might drop as someone searched for one.
What I know today for certain is that it’s in the past twelve months I came to know the man we buried yesterday. Just over a year ago, I stood at the back of Corrownagh Church (Ballisodare Parish) and heard him speak at his mother’s Funeral Mass. I was too late to join the concelebrants but happy to stand at a distance and listen to a son speak so lovingly of his mother and reassuringly to his only brother. His mother had been ill for many years and, towards the end the illness took her sight and voice. He spoke of her “White Martyrdom”, recognised by the church as the sacrifice offered without the spillage of blood – the offering of one’s sufferings for the greater Glory of God. He talked about the noises she made that, his brother seemed better able to interpret, and compared them to a ship, lost and out on the sea, sounding its fog horn in search of recognition and the reassuring response from the lighthouse. He spoke of her moving from Nazareth House to the hospital and asking for a scarf to cover her head. He said he wondered why she needed this, since she was moving from one enclosed environment to another. He then realised she wanted to cover her head, since that’s what women of her day, did in public. It was a sign of reverence for God that you covered your head. That’s where his mother’s request had its roots. He used a fourth image that, within days, I’d lost and I remember texting him and asking for it. In fairness, he replied almost immediately with the word but, out of context I couldn’t make the connection. I felt very proud of him that day and thought he did his mother – his brother – a great service and not without personal cost.
He stood at the back of the church that day, looking worn and tired but acknowledging all who passed by. It was, more than likely, a turning point for him. He hadn’t been very well for a while before that but we didn’t realise what lay in store.
I wasn’t at the Month’s Mind Mass but he told me afterwards he had to be helped into the church. He was happy nonetheless and obviously so, that he had been able to celebrate his mother’s Funeral Mass.
Some weeks later, Andrew was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. Bishop Kelly spoke to us of that at the Funeral Mass yesterday (a truly powerful homily) and of the obvious consequences that diagnosis held for Andrew – indeed for us all.
It’s since that time, and regretfully so, that I came to know, more fully and meaningfully the man that was Andrew. I visited him with James McDonagh in Galway and that was the first of a number of visits over the months. Each time, I came away realising what a good man he was.
He was so grateful to people. He was especially grateful to the students in St Nathy’s who were so kind to him. He told me that he had a number of falls in the school and the students treated him with such kindness. I’m sure he knew, deep down, that he had a very influential part to play in the development of that same kindness.
I went to see him before going to America and thought it probable that I might not see him again. He asked me for a blessing and, before giving it I said “and you might give me one”. I said the words, made the sign of the Cross and, as I was about to leave he looked directly at me. His arms and hands, at this stage, were powerless and lay unmoved by his side. He blessed me with words – “As one whose journeying has stopped, I pray God’s blessing on your journey. As one who cannot move, I ask God to bless every step you take, to help you enjoy life to the full ……” I can’t remember the exact words after that but I truly felt blessed. If I was a young lad again on a corridor in St Nathy’s, he’d have influenced me to become a priest ….
I’m glad we had other times to chat after that. I called to see him one day and he looked at me and said; “I’m here thinking about Philip Corcoran from Monasteraden” Philip died in June 2012, he too had MND. Andrew knew that I’d known him and celebrated his Funeral Mass. The link was obvious. He asked me about him and, deep down, he was probably wondering about time.
Bishop Brendan spoke to us yesterday about Andrew’s use of that time. It was so reassuring to know that Bishop Brendan spent so much time with him – vital time, blessed and sacred – God bless him for that time spent. He said the last words he was able to decipher from Andrew were “I don’t mind” … He also told us that a number of weeks ago, Andrew indicated that he wanted him to read some Scripture to him and the passage his motions directed Brendan to was the dreaded moment for Jesus of the “agony in the garden”. That was the Gospel Passage reflected upon at the Funeral Mass yesterday. Andrew surely knew that garden.
He knew too the support of Peter, James and John – that collection of family, friends and medical professionals who accompanied him in the garden. I’m sure at times they felt sleepy and wondered if they stayed awake with him – I’m sure we all wondered if we could do more – but the truth remains, they were close at hand, loyal and giving. May his family and close friends know joy and receive solace from that truth.
Yesterday’s Funeral Mass was deeply moving, beautifully simple and absolutely essential. It gave us a chance to gather around Andrew, his priesthood and his memory. It gave us too, the chance to recognise that “Garden” of suffering and of blood-soaked tears, where we meet difficulty, ask questions, find the scent of an answer and somehow, the strength (that is God) to carry on.
Andrew is now buried in his native parish. I travelled with the funeral from Ballaghaderreen, through my own parish of Gurteen, onto Ballymote, Collooney and out the “old road” to Ballisodare. I was impressed to see many of the cars we met along the way, pull in, stop a moment and acknowledge that someone (most likely unknown to them) had died. It’s a lovely tradition – that we allow our lives stop for a moment because someone else’s has stopped – and I think Andrew too would have liked that.
The stopping is over now, the prayers are said now and the grave filled in but the man, the priest, the memories remain. There’s no doubt the memories will fade in time for many of us and life will go on as usual but there’s something telling me that his name will pop up in conversation and in prayer many times.
His mother’s influence, her White Martyrdom, her calling to the shore, her covering her head in reverence … none of it, absolutely none of it, was wasted on him. He learned well.
May Andrew rest in peace.
A message board is available on our diocesan site if anybody would like to share a memory of Fr Andrew. Click here