My year with Micheál Mac Gréil SJ

February 8, 2023 in Guest blogger

EOIN GARRETT :: I first met Micheál Mac Gréil SJ (1931-2023) when I was a pupil at Gonzaga College and he was a student of theology in neighbouring Milltown Park. An early sign of his energy and capacity for organizing major projects was evident when he was asked to assist Fr Michael Hurley in promoting Milltown Park’s series of weekly public lectures. The outcome was an overflow of attendances every week! I attended Mícheál’s ordination in Westport in 1969 (by which time I was a Jesuit novice) – “a most memorable event” to quote his own description in his memoir The Ongoing Present (2014).

The main focus of this brief essay, however, is the year I spent working full-time as Micheál’s assistant (1972/73). How this came about need not detain us here. Suffice to say that the year was a more valuable education than the studies I was mismanaging both before and after it. In that year, Micheál was doing the work of several people. He remarks in his memoir that around this time a friend “detected the makings of a ‘workaholic’ in me. So be it. It did not worry me … I used to work night and day with great satisfaction”.

That academic year, he was acting head of the Department of Social Studies in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth (having joined the Department just a year previously). He was also directing research for the Survey of Intergroup Attitudes, the results of which would be the material for his Ph.D. thesis, and would eventually be published as Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland in 1977.

My role in this was to be an “administrative assistant”, a suitably vague title, which involved among other tasks, driving some of the fourteen interviewers to their interviewees in outlying areas (e.g., Tallaght, where the first new residents had recently arrived), helping to code the information from completed questionnaires, and eventually proof-reading the thesis and the book (I was also to proof-read the follow-up publication, Prejudice in Ireland Revisited, 1996). Micheál was also acting as editor of the Social Studies journal that year, several issues of which I also proof-read.

Some years later, after I left the Jesuits, I was being interviewed for a position in a national institution. A member of the interview board spotted Micheál’s name on my CV and asked what had struck me most about his research findings. I said something about the clear signs of latent racial prejudice, at which another member of the board angrily denied there was any such prejudice in Ireland. The question had little relevance to the job I was seeking. My interview was unsuccessful!

My close contact with Micheál and with his research broadened my mind considerably. His sharp observations in our many conversations, and his clear exposition in his writings of the nature of prejudice have, I hope, helped me to be tolerant of difference and open to listen to opinions I disagree with without dismissing those who hold such opinions.

Once he asked me why my parents had sent me to Gonzaga College. This was a loaded question, as I well knew his views on Jesuits running private fee-paying schools. Fortunately my answer was the only one he could not object to: “it was the local school”!

An unintended consequence of the amount of proof-reading I did that year and subsequently is that I cannot read anything since then without seeing misspellings and typos!

Micheál was National Chaplain of Pax Christi. 1972 was Ireland’s turn to host the annual Pax Christi International Route. This involved groups of young adults of many nationalities and their leaders walking from various starting points for a week and converging on Kilkenny. Each evening they would be hosted by families in the various towns and villages in which they stopped.

Micheál organized this hospitality with military thoroughness, as befitted his pre-Jesuit career as an army officer. We sent letters to each parish priest in the stopover places. Based in the Capuchin Friary in Kilkenny, I then followed up, visiting the parish priests, travelling by-roads within a hundred-mile radius of Kilkenny on my motor-bike. I got to see many parts of the country for the first time, and to meet some great characters among the clergy. The whole operation was, of course, a great success.

These were the main activities I was involved with that year. Micheál himself had countless other commitments, lecturing in UCD and the College of Industrial Relations as well as in Maynooth, involvement in various civic campaigns, and fulfilling frequent speaking engagements. He showed great trust in me to do whatever he asked, mostly without supervision. He was an inspiration to work with and any person who reads his memoir, The Ongoing Present, can only be similarly inspired.