James Smyth SJ RIP: Friend of the poor

September 6, 2023 in Featured News, News

Fr James (Jim) Smyth, at 95 the oldest Jesuit in the Irish Province, has died in Cherryfield Nursing Home, Milltown. He passed away peacefully on the morning of Thursday, 31 August. His funeral took place on Tuesday 5 September.

He had a remarkable lifelong involvement with those on the margins in north inner city Dublin, living alongside them in a small one-bedroomed flat in Hardwicke Street. He was a friend to the travelling community, prisoners and anyone in need.

He was a member of the Gardiner Street Community for many years. Richard Dwyer SJ, Superior of that community offers the following reflection on his life.

Renowned for compassion and kindness

Fr James Smyth SJ was born on 13 August 1928 in Lauragh, Tuosist, Co Kerry. He went to Lauragh National School and received his secondary education at Mungret College SJ, Limerick.

On 7th September 1946 he entered the Society of Jesus at St Mary’s, Emo, County Laois and took his first vows on 8 September 1948.

After taking an arts degree at UCD, followed by 3 years of philosophy at Tullabeg, he went to Hong Kong in 1954 to study Cantonese and teach catechetics. He returned to Dublin to study theology at Milltown Park and was ordained to the priesthood on 28 July 1960.

He returned to Hong Kong for 4 years after his tertianship (1962) working as Socius (assistant) to the Master of Novices there and later as a teacher in Wah Yan College, Kowloon.

James returned to Dublin and from 1966 to 1971, he worked in Belvedere College SJ. Through a chance encounter on a bus from Rathnew in Wicklow to Dublin, he was invited into the Newsboys Club not far from Belvedere. He attended the club for a number of weeks and was told to sit in the corner and say nothing. According to himself, he felt awkward and embarrassed and spoke to no one. He missed one session and when he returned, the boys asked him where he had been and that they had missed him. This was the beginning of a remarkable lifelong involvement that James developed with the people of north inner city of Dublin.

He went on to live in Hardwicke Street flats in small one bedroom for a 12-year period and became part of the social fabric of people there. He became close friends with the parents and grandparents and became a trusted and beloved pastor, confessor and counsellor to them. He married their sons and daughters, baptized the children of those unions, and became a priestly grandfather to the numerous children.

He visited the sick and elderly. He was a frequent visitor to Mountjoy and St. Patrick’s prison and was renowned for his compassion and kindness. He highlighted the poor condition of the flats and the lack of any play and recreational facilities. James himself lived on a basic income of £20 per week and had to go without meat to buy a shirt or a pair of shoes. All of this time he worked as a curate in Gardiner Street Church and spent long hours in the confession box. He was loved by all who came to him and he was noted for his compassion and understanding.

Over his years in Hardwicke Street and the Church in Gardiner Street, he also was involved with the Travelling Community and again presided over many weddings and baptisms. In a nutshell, James discovered and developed in his heart a tremendous love of the poor and marginalized and the people of the North inner city and the Travelling Community took Fr James to their hearts and loved and revered him.

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s a heroin epidemic was devastating the lives of young people in the North Inner City. Along with the local residents, Fr James and Dublin City Councillor Christy Burke,set up a committee to rid Hardwicke Street of drug dealers and pushers who were making a lot of money from enticing friends and neighbours to take heroin. It was a wonderful example of a community coming together with great courage and determination to eradicate the scourge of hard drugs from their area and to prevent the death and utter destruction of young lives. Fr James and Christy received death threats as a result of their actions.

Fr James continued to live and work with the poor and marginalized in Gardiner Street Church up to his 85th year when ill health saw him transferred to Cherryfield Nursing Home. He settled in well to life in Cherryfield and was cherished by the staff as one of the oldest residents. The constant stream of visitors from the inner city, the Travelling Community and fellow Jesuits bore strong testimony to the love and affection he was held in, to the very end of his long life.

May he rest in peace and receive the fitting reward of all his good deeds in long priestly ministry.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a ainm dílis.

Richard Dwyer SJ

September 2023