Some months ago I met Donal McMahon as I was leaving the refectory in Maynooth. I was there for a meeting and joined the other attendees for lunch. As I say, I met Donal – who taught us English for the first two years we spent in Maynooth – I was happy to see him. We’ve met occasionally down through the years and, like the buildings in Maynooth, he seems to change little if at all!
He told me he was thinking of organising an evening in Maynooth whereby he might bring back former students to speak to the present day students. Since there’s a student in his class from Achonry Diocese, he thought I might like to come. I told him I’d be happy to. We parted company.
What I didn’t realise was Donal was approaching his retirement and wanted to mark that in remembering some of his former colleagues, sadly all now deceased, who worked along side him on the “Seminarist Course” in Maynooth – two years of Philosophy and Arts. In particular, he wanted to remember Frs Flan Markham and Pat Bradley (both members of the Sacred Heart Missionary Society SSCC) and Dr Tom Kelly. It was a kindly thought – to remember those who had journeyed with you on a road well travelled. Donal seemed anxious to focus on the ones who had died and their memory rather than the one left behind (himself) and some well deserved gratitude.
I had no idea what to expect when Donal emailed me about a month ago and said the date was set for Thursday last, May 2nd. I didn’t know how many would be there and only could hazard a guess at who might be there from the “TO” names in the email received. In any case, I knew I’d attend though didn’t know what to expect. A bit, as memory unfolded, like going to one of Donal’s classes!!
Truth told, I’ve fond memories of Donal – not so much about anything he taught but the way he taught it. To be honest, we cut loose a bit in his classes. Why? I’m not sure but I know it wasn’t disrespect. You couldn’t disrespect him. He was (and is) a sincerely good man. Maybe I do know why … I think it lay somewhere in the teaching style of one of those men he wanted to remember – Flan Markham – a tireless worker and devoted lecturer but at a price. He put everything he had into lecturing, shaping, challenging, unwrapping …. he wanted us to be clued in, ready, enthusiastic, questioning, searching – yes, and holy. His absolute desire for this led to him being quite controlling in the lecture hall. He knew who was there and, for that matter, who wasn’t. Equally he knew who was paying attention and, yes again, who wasn’t. He had a knack of keeping his eyes on you (Mona Lisa like) no matter where you were in the room. I’ve no doubt everyone else felt the same. Doodling or idling weren’t options. “Vincent, do I see a question on your face” was his way of letting you know that he knew your mind was elsewhere. The result? Classes tended to be a bit tense – at least in my memory of them – and that “third level” freedom didn’t find much scope for daydreams before, after and especially during “Flan’s” lectures. Even as I write these lines, I know I should have listened more but I must have managed to convince him I was listening since more often than not, lectures passed without any need to call “Vincent, do I see a question on your face”. I’ve no doubt there were many such questions ……
So back to Donal’s lectures. There was a freedom there. I’m certain advantage was taken of that freedom but more out of recognition of freedom than any desire to take advantage. There was a sort of “FUN” in the lectures that met Donal head on. He was deeply committed to giving us a grounding in English. He even told us that he knew we’d been through years of English studies in primary and secondary school but he had a sense of the two years we’d have with him being vital to our salvation!! Whatever chance English had to be something to and for us could, it seemed, only find life in his lecture hall and during the limited time we’d have him. His enthusiasm met often with our foolishness. The more sincere he sought to be, the greater the chance things would go astray. He ploughed on regardless “once the hand is laid on the plough ….” He never looked back 🙂 He’d pull on us for our carry-on, issuing “public warnings” that he’d never dream of enforcing. Three of them received in any one class meant expulsion for the remainder of the lesson … I recall one lad, who obviously had something he wanted to do, trying to get put out. He got two public warnings and, on his third misdemeanor, the public warning was issued to the wrong man. He immediately protested; “That’s not fair, he got my public warning!” I think Donal knew the score and could read the game very well.
He gave us freedom – freedom “to be”. He could have enforced more discipline, could have referred us to another authority figure but no. Deep down, he had a belief in us all and a desire for what was best in us all. I’ve no doubt he was pleased we had decided to pursue a vocation. In fact, that was one of the nicest things about the other night in Maynooth, he said he had never really seen the “end product” until that night – a sizable number of his past pupils (many of us sizable too!!) all priests and doing now what we had come to Maynooth to do. It was sort of sad too, that maybe we hadn’t let him see more of our lives in the years since we left Maynooth.
About thirteen past pupils spoke. It was amazing to hear their remembrances of Flan, Pat, Tom and Donal. All spoke well of the time spent during those first years of life in Maynooth. Many thanked Donal for the authors, writings, poems and love of language to which he introduced them. Somewhere, in all the messing, his message found its target and his words reached their audience and he made a difference. I really hope he realised that as we moved away on May 2nd.
Just before I left, Donal told me he likes this blog and encouraged me to keep it going. He has never commented on it, contacted me or made any reference to this before but I left Maynooth happy that the man who taught me English is tuned in!
For the invitation, the remembrance, the classes and all you did – thanks. Happy retirement Donal.
A few lines about the night are available here (Maynooth College Website)