Nine days after his 94th birthday Tom McMahon died peacefully on Saturday 24 January in Cherryfield, which he never tired of praising for the happiness and hope he enjoyed there. Not all his memories died with him. Apart from innumerable poems about his friends and enthusiasms, he has left a video clip (now on YouTube – also viewable on Jesuit.ie) taken from the DVD about the closing of the Sacred Heart Church in Limerick, and an interview about his life, made three years ago, which you can read below. His Limerick friends came in strength to his funeral, and he would have loved the sound of Cecilian voices filling the Milltown chapel.
The Society still has a kick in it !
An Interview with Tom Mc Mahon, Sept 3rd, 2005,
reported in Interfuse, Autumn 2005
You were born way back in 1915, at the very beginning of it. You’re almost 91, and you must have wonderful memories. Tell me some of your early memories of the time before school, at school, and before you entered the Society.
Well, I was only an infant when we went to live in Rathfarnham and, of course, Rathfarnham was completely different then. We had little cottages with half doors on them, and we had a forge in the middle of the village. And there was Prescotts, where the trams originally went round by the Protestant church, and then back; that was the tram station. And there was another one down in Terenure, opposite the Catholic Church. But I remember during the troubles in 1922, the Barracks that was at the corner there was blown up. But before that I remember we went to school in the Presentation Convent in Terenure. Myself and my older sister were walking down to school when we were stopped in horror by the Dodder Bridge, because there was a whole line of barbed wire across it. There were soldiers, so we turned back and hurried home. We were frightened out of our lives. I remember, for instance, the taking of a barracks on the South Circular Road. You could hear the shots in Rathfarnham. And one single shot I saw fired during the Civil War was when the Free Staters were leaving the Barracks. They walked up through the village and one fellow pulled out his revolver and fired a shot, because the Free Staters were coming up. But actually they had had a bolt hole dug through the Castle wall to escape through the Castle gardens and out that way, but they eventually went up through the village and away off, so that was the one shot I actually saw being fired.
You were only six then– you’ve a good memory to go back that far.
Yes, and, of course, Rathfarnham was completely open in those days. There were fields all the way across to the road where the steam tram used to go. And the tram went away off up to Blessington. The Castle was terra incognita, but you saw the Juniors coming out. We thought they were young priests, you know, and we would see them on Sundays, coming out for their walk. And they used to sing in the Parish Church. We thought they were magnificent, which they were. I learned one of the pieces of music I have loved all my life – it’s by one of the classical writers – I can’t think of the name just now but I was fascinated by it.
So did you go from Rathfarnham to school in Synge Street?
Oh, yes, yes. I went to Synge Street after that, and I used to cycle. And I remember we had to go to Catechism on Sunday morning, and I decided I’d cycle the whole way in without putting my hands on the handle bars – of course, on Sunday mornings there wasn’t much traffic but I did it. You wouldn’t do it now!!
You had Religious Education on Sundays, and you spent your primary and secondary school days in Synge Street?
Yes, something like ten years altogether. And I met some great brothers, including Brother Mulholland, the uncle of Father Joe Veale, a marvelous man. I remember one of the Brothers asking me what I was thinking of being. I said I was going to be a civil servant. I was too shy about telling him the other ideas I had.
What gave you the idea of the Jesuits? Had you some association with them?
Well, first of all, they lived opposite us – I could see into the grounds there in Rathfarnham Castle. Secondly the fellow sharing a bench with me at school was Terry Mc Parland, who became a novice with the Jesuits, though he died after eleven months there. He was a marvelous fellow – quite shy and retiring – but he really had something, for he managed to gather seven of us for a retreat the day after our Leaving Cert. In those days Bishop Byrne (I think it was he.) wouldn’t allow CBS boys to go on Jesuit retreats, because, he said, the Jesuits were taking all the vocations, which, of course, wasn’t true. So we couldn’t go until we had left school. Literally, the day after our Leaving Cert we went out on retreat. And who should we have for our retreat but Fr. Neary!
Ah, the man who later was to be your Master of Novices.
Yeah, and I can remember him well on that retreat saying (mimics) “Prevent, we beseech thee, O Lord, all our actions…” And then when we got to the novitiate, he came as Novice Master after Fr. Coyne. There he was again saying “Prevent, we beseech thee, O Lord…” (laughs). So that was my introduction to the Society.
And then, of course, you went to Rathfarnham, I presume.
That’s right – back to home territory. Interestingly enough, my father got a stroke and died during our Tertianship in the Castle. And I could see the blind pulled down in his window from where I was in the Castle. And, very kindly, the Instructor of Tertians allowed me to go home once a month to see him. And my father died at Easter, so I never got round to doing the statutory mission that the tertians went on, because he died just at that time. Charlie Heron was to have been with me in Milltown. I don’t know what Charlie did, but I was left off it because of my father’s death.
You have an extraordinary memory for so many things. So you went through the ordinary formation up to tertianship. And, after tertianship, where were you assigned?
Straight down to the Crescent.
But you didn’t spend all your life in the Crescent, did you?
No, but a great deal of it – the best part of 40 years. From 1949 (I think) till 1963, and then I was sent up to Belvedere, where I spent a year putting them on their feet (laughs). And, after that, I went to Galway for 11 years. I had quite an interesting time there. I remember I used to bring the boys out for their Irish fortnight to the Islands. But, once, I had to supply for one of the priests there. I don’t know what the islanders made of my Irish. However I got through. One very interesting thing happened when I was there. Do you remember there were two men – British soldiers – that rowed across the Atlantic in what I think they called a ‘dory’. And I met them when they came across because the islanders couldn’t talk to them in English, and I welcomed them onto the island. The next day the island was swarming with newspaper fellows from all over the world and there was a book written about it afterwards and I was mentioned in it. “Fr McMann” they called me (laughs)! So I was in Galway for 11 years, and then from 1975 on I was in the Crescent until I came a cropper!
Well, you don’t look to me as if you came a cropper! However, your time in the Crescent – boy, that was a long time!
Well, I had very interesting pupils: I had Cormac McNamara, who became a big man in Irish medical circles. He represented Ireland on the Continent and he also was, apparently, responsible for joining the two sections of the medical people here in Ireland. I don’t understand the mechanics of it, but he got them together into one. He was a very famous medical man who often appeared on TV. Brian O’Leary was another pupil, and there were quite a number of Jesuits. I can’t think of their names immediately, but they all went through my hands. We had great times together.
And, of course, if I remember correctly, you were kinda famous with the Cecilian society.
Oh yes. I ran with them for many years. And, if my memory serves me rightly, between the boys in the Crescent and the Cecilians, I think I did 29 shows. We used to do three a year at the beginning – a pantomime at Christmas and an autumn musical and an Easter musical. The result was that I never got a real holiday, because the Christmas holidays were banjaxed by the show, and the Easter holidays the same.
And were these present pupils and past pupils?
No, no. There were no present pupils in it. Really the idea was that it would be past pupils, recently left, and their sisters, and their girlfriends, and it was a very young group of very happy people.
It must have been a great time; you could use your acting ability.
Oh no, no. I didn’t do that at all. I did the singing and I did up to 21 hours of singing a week. I used to sing with the sopranos, the tenors, the altos and the bass! You see a lot of them didn’t know much about music, but they had an ear, and if you sang it at them, they’d pick it up! I literally sang for 21 hours a week!!
My goodness! And did you also play an instrument like the piano?
Oh I did, but I didn’t play it in the Cecilians. We had an orchestra and I was the conductor. It had 24 instruments in it. It was quite a thing! It was begun before the Cecilians as a separate entity, and then they all joined up. They were all amateurs at the beginning, but we got a teacher from the musical school, and he insisted on trade union regulations, and people had to be paid, which, of course, put an enormous burden on the Cecilians. They had a huge bill every year – and we’d all been amateurs before that. And then I had the church choir, and this is their last year. They’ll end up next June, because the Church (Sacred Heart Church, Limerick) is shutting down. I wrote a farewell thing to them ……. (goes and gets paper) There it is. I’ll read it for you. It’s entitled: SING, SING, CHORUS OF ANGELS, LORD, POUR GRACES AND BLESSINGS ON YE!
Now that I have passed my four score years and ten,
I must make contact with you all again.
‘Tis said that music soothes the savage breast,
Then think what it can do for all the rest.
The Crescent Choir for such long spell of time
Has sung the praise of God in notes sublime.
With John*, our first one, then our Bernadette,
And Sister Francis –the latest yet.
Our Gwendoline, and daughter Guinivere
To play our ancient organ loud and clear.
And then Marie coordinates the choir
And strives that they to greater heights aspire.
Whilst St Cecelia’s picture on the wall
Looks down with calm approval on you all.
Now that you start this last great final year,
Be glad of heart and shed no useless tear.
But think of all the graces you have won
Now that your final course is nearly run.
If next September you’ll not meet again,
Then end this session with a great AMEN!
(*This man is John Rush, the famous English organist.)
So have you sent it to them?
Oh yes I have – it’s what you might call a swansong.
And, please God, you’ll be able to be with them for their final session there. One thing, I think, readers of Interfuse would be interested in hearing is what you feel about the different changes that have take place in the Society and in the Province?
Well, I’m afraid I take an abstract and abstracted view of the whole thing. I feel it’s not up to me to either suggest or remedy anything. I leave that to the younger generation – and I think that’s fair enough too.
You’re comfortable with things.
Ah, look here, I’m in heaven here. I don’t know how I deserved it. Everything is so beautifully laid on. I believe it was Paddy Doyle who had the idea first of all, but, whoever it was, was inspired. You couldn’t ask for a nicer place or a nicer set of people, nurses and community and everything – absolutely marvelous.
So you still maintain that you don’t have to take care of yourself, as you said to me once, because THEY take care of you.
Yes, they take care of me – more care than I could possibly offer myself.
You certainly are a great advertisement for Cherryfield.
And, of course, I have a little – what would you call it? – business here. I do teaching of English and my first pupil was Darota – a great little soul – a Pole, and then I got a Chinese lady, who’s the wife of the gardener here, and two hours with her every Saturday which was pretty hefty, and then I got another Pole – Stasik – the short for Stanislaus in Polish. There’s a bit of information for you!
So you do that as a kind of sideline?
Yes, a sideline.
You’re keeping up your extra-curricular activities.
Yes. And do you know? I find now I have time for reading that I never had before. I’ve been reading Palgrave’s Golden Treasury for many many years back, but now I get through half an hour of it every night, or maybe three quarters of an hour. And then I have the Oxford Book of Quotations, on which I spend half an hour, and I do my main reading from nine until midnight and, at 5 to midnight I say Compline. And then, as people say, ‘so to bed’.
That’s a very good day there. Apart from what you’ve said, which includes a lot of encouraging words for the brethren, if you were to sum up your last words for this interview, what would you say?
Well, I’d say this. That I suppose, like my own generation, I began to feel that – ‘ah the spirit has gone out of the province and the Society’ and so on, and then you begin to read what they‘re doing, and you think, ‘My God, there’s life in the old boy still.’ You see, ignorance is part of it. You just don’t hear what’s going on, and then you find to your surprise and delight that there’s a lot of good things going on – a lot of them. You know its like saying that young people don’t go to Mass anymore. But there’s a lot of them that do – there’s a lot of them go to Confession, and so on. But the Society has a kick in it…
And that’s a very encouraging word, particularly for us who work in the field of communications. Now with AMDG and Update – not to mention Interfuse – we aim to share those things so that people may know what’s going on …
Yes, well take heart! An old fellow like me had his eyes opened when I poked around and saw what was going on – even by accident. I found out but it was good to know it, ‘cos otherwise I’d be a little bit soured in old age, which is a horrible thing to be. (laughs)
Well, you certainly haven’t been. God bless you, and thanks very much.
You’re most welcome. You’re most welcome.