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‘A schoolman all his Jesuit life’

This year, Fr Micheal Sheil SJ celebrates his 60th year as a Jesuit. He spent over half of that time in various roles in Clongowes Wood College SJ. Last week the staff and students paid a surprise tribute to him, marking his long years of faithful service. Below is an account of the event from Declan O’Keeffe, Head of Communications at the college. In it he notes the appreciation expressed to Fr Dermot Murray SJ, also sixty years a Jesuit and a former headmaster of Clongowes.

A warm welcome

It may have crossed Fr Michael Sheil’s mind yesterday morning as the gentlemen of Rhetoric applauded him along the corridor of the 1966 Building to the Concourse where the school community had assembled to surprise him, that neither building had existed in 1956, the year that he left Clongowes and – three months later – joined the Society of Jesus, which he has served with distinction for the last 60 years.

The 1966 Building replaced the old Higher Line Building – dormitories, gallery and playrooms – while the Concourse was the site of the Lower Line equivalent, both of which would have been well known to Michael and his peers in the years following the Second World War. While the Clongowes campus may have changed much since his departure, Michael retains all that remains constant, good and timeless about the school and the values of the Jesuit education it provides. His seven years as a student were followed by thirty-one years of his sixty (to date) as a Jesuit working in the college in various roles.

The warmth of the welcome he received in the Concourse was palpable as the Headmaster, Mr Chris Lumb, took to the rostrum. Although Fr Sheil would later say that it was like attending his own funeral, Mr Lumb came not to bury Michael, but to praise him. Tracing his career from his early days in the old Preparatory class through his studies in UCD and his work in Mungret College to his return to Clongowes as Higher Line Prefect, the Headmaster noted that the man known to generations of Clongownians as Mocky ‘has very much been a school man all his Jesuit life’. His return – in tandem with the new Headmaster (and fellow Old Clongownian), Fr Philip Fogarty ‘heralded a new era of changed relationships and a much friendlier atmosphere, a legacy which has endured, and is a key feature of Clongowes today’.

Higher Line Prefect

Following a nine year ‘inter-regnum’ in Belvedere (1986-95), Michael returned to Clongowes as Higher Line Prefect before succeeding Fr Dermot Murray (another Diamond Jubilarian) as Rector in 2000, while Dermot assumed the role of Headmaster. Between them Frs Murray and Sheil guided the college and community for four years until the former retired, while Fr Sheil continued as Rector until 2006 returning for a second stint in 2011 – a post he continues to fulfil with a vigour and energy that would put many a younger person to shame.

The Headmaster then presented Fr Sheil with a travel voucher to help feed his inner mendicant after which School Captain, Conor Galvin, followed Mr Lumb in praising Fr Sheil, while also remembering Fr Murray in his absence. Speaking of Fr Sheil’s ‘semi-retirement’ he said that it was that in name only ‘as he remains a central part of so much of what we do here in Clongowes [where he] is currently serving as Rector, Director of Ethos, assistant prefect in Higher Line, running both the Academy and the Lesotho Immersion Trip and [is] a member of the Senior Management Team. Conor then presented the Rector with a painting by Harry Durdin Robertson (OC’05) on behalf of the students.

Fr Dermot Murray

As mentioned, Fr Dermot Murray also marked 60 years as a Jesuit on Wednesday but was unable to attend the celebrations as he had departed to Lourdes with the Rhetoric pilgrims. When Dermot took over as Headmaster in 2000 he brought with him a wealth of experience as it it was his third such position in Jesuit colleges, he having served in both Gonzaga and the Crescent earlier in his career. Although his health is no longer what it was Fr Murray continues to have the sunniest of dispositions and be the most affable of men as well as the possessor of a marvellous singing voice often to be heard ringing out from the altar during school liturgies.

The celebrations continued at the (extended) small break where cakes and sparkling refreshments were served to the staff in the Community Library, while the College Archivist, erstwhile Geography teacher and long time collaborator of Fr Sheil – Ms Margaret Doyle – presented him with a picture of one of his totems – an unfeasibly large bunch of keys – with which instrument the former Higher Line Prefect was able to instil ‘respect’ into the most recalcitrant pupil in an instant.

A veritable feast

Were that not enough, the redoubtable Ms Ann Cooke and her hardworking staff – not content with feeding the majority of the school at the regular lunch hour – then proceeded to serve up a veritable feast for the teaching and prefecting staff in the company of the members of Rhetoric in what the Headmaster called ‘a truly Clongowes occasion’. After the meal Mr Lumb spoke more fully (and fulsomely) of Michael, expanding on his remarks earlier in the day and noting that ‘He has a very special gift for relating to young people of all ages and this has been the hallmark of his work in schools. He has remarkable energy to this day. He really enjoys school activities of almost any kind and his sense of fun commends him to those in his charge. Michael is held in the very highest regard by Jesuit alumni locally and internationally.’ (Full text of the Headmaster’s speech here).

Four of Fr Sheil’s colleagues then regaled us with memories from different aspects of his many-faceted life. The Vice-Rector Fr Barney McGuckian (who was himself marking 58 years a Jesuit) paid tribute to Michael’s energy, telling us that, although he was born two years before the Rector, he ‘has been trotting after him ever since’. School Counsellor, Ms Mary Maume spoke warmly of his good work in the Ethos Department and the support that she has had from him over very many years. Erstwhile pupil and current colleague Mr Tony Egan also spoke of Michael’s support for him as a novice Third Line Prefect as well as telling some tales out of school from his final year, when Michael was his Higher Line Prefect. Finally, Ms Margaret Doyle told of her chequered relationship with Fr Sheil over many an Eastern European Trip, all of which – eventually – ended happily as well as recalling his deep sense of privilege at being able to minister to people – especially at times of need.

The most satisfying way to spend a life

Fr Sheil was given the right of reply as he had already been twice that day and once again was quick to deflect credit from himself and attribute it to all of the students and staff that he has worked with in Clongowes over a span of five decades. To the surprise of many of us, one of Clongowes’ most successful rugby coaches confided that he didn’t particularly like the game at school, being more of an aficionado of the round ball, be it played with the foot or the willow bat. He did admit to one regret – that he had not persuaded enough of his past pupils to follow him into what he described (with feeling) as the most satisfying way to spend a life.

And so, on this day, 60 years on from his entry into the Society of Jesus, we joined with the Headmaster in giving thanks to Michael ‘for your service and generosity of spirit to Clongowes Wood College past and present. With colleagues and members of Rhetoric, I thank you for all that you have done and continue to do for the Clongowes family.

Ad multos annos’

Declan O’Keeffe, Head of Communications