Jesuit life: Phelan good

September 18, 2023 in Featured News, News

Tom Phelan SJ is an Irish Jesuit brother, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and motorbike enthusiast. In this interview with Susanne Plummer of Ballyfermot Heritage he talks about his life with the Jesuits and his early years growing up in Ballyfermot.

“Many of the houses, or ‘little boxes’ as they called them, were the same, but the people were different and that’s what I loved about Ballyfermot,” Tom tells Susanne. He went to school in Mary Queen of Angels and then to the Kylemore College Ballyfermot which is still there today.

At ten years of age Tom joined the Scouts in Merchants Quay. Even at that early age he loved music and Irish music in particular. “I never bought a Beatles record,” he boasts. He played the bagpipes with the Scouts and got free pipes to practise on. One fateful evening a TV rent collector came to his home in Ballyfermot and asked “who is playing the pipes?” This man happened to be the brother in-law of Tommy Moore, a great Irish musician and champion of the uilleann pipes who only lived down the road. He took Tom under his wing and ignited his passion for music. “Ballyfermot produced great people music-wise: The Keenans, The Furies, and Sam Lawless”.

During his late teens, when not on his motorbike, Tom worked in Fallon’s tailor shop on Talbot Street and later in Even Stevens mod shop on Capel Street. He became involved in trade unionism too. He attended the College of Industrial Relations, a Jesuit apostolate which later grew into The National College of Ireland. “That’s where I met the Jesuits”. Tom honestly admits some experiences he had with the church “grinded him” but “when I met individual Jesuits in the College it was the first time that anyone had ever related the gospels and the scriptures with everyday living”. He started taking more interest in his faith.

The thought of actually joining the Jesuits always lingered in the back of his mind, but he kept “pushing it aside”. At twenty two he knew it was the right thing to do even though “It might have been seen as a late vocation”. Tom laughs “by three months I will be out” he said. Luckily he was wrong.

As a novice he went to Milltown to study Theology. After one year he was invited to Zambia by the Provinicial who was in Dublin visiting. Tom sought permission to go and it was granted. He stayed “in the sticks” a place called Namwala. They had a football team called the ‘Blue Eagles’ and they wore red and blue kits but Tom had other ideas. He contacted a friend in Dublin who arranged to have Dublin football kits and colors sent over for the entire team which they wore proudly.

More of his work there included a collaboration with Sister Christine O Brien. They worked together to create jobs for young people in Zambia. Particularly for vulnerable women. With the help of a local shirt maker the young women were taught how to sew and make shirts. They even started a factory and “eventually the girls could go back to their own villages with their sewing kits” away from the dangers of the streets. “We would bring work out to them. We even started a piggery and rearing chickens”.

Tom went to Canada for a year to study in Francis Xavier University – Nova Scotia. He wanted to go back to Africa at this stage but he ended up in Ballymun for three years, working with the local community there.

After Ballymun he spent some time in Tullamore’s Rathnew retreat house. He heard pipes playing one night and upon further inspection he found a pipe band practicing. “They asked me if I played? and then I got involved with the Tullamore Band”. Tom ended up coaching the Tullamore Band. They “grew and grew and went on to do really well”. When Tom was “Pipe Sargeant” they got second place in the Edinburgh Festival. Tom moved on but makes sure to point out that “ten years later the band went to the world championships and they got first prize in their grade!”.

Tom was sent to Australia for twelve months for his tertianship (the final year of Jesuit training). He didn’t make it back to Zambia as he had hoped. Luckily the music scene in Austraila was just as big. “I ended up in the Sydney Pipers Band.” He had the honor of interviewing Jimmy Stines, a great Dublin player: “He (Stines) took Australia by storm”. Tom also worked in a prison in Australia.

On returning to Ireland he was sent to Gardiner Street Parish. “I loved every moment of it, all 27 years. I love the people of Dublin City”. Music once again drifted into his life. He was asked to arrange the children’s Mass but realised there were no local music players. So he went to ‘Charlie Byrne’s’ music shop in Stephen’s Street for some help. Charlie offered him 12 guitars. “A friend called Martin McMann came along by chance, he was a great guitar player who I met in Ballymun,” and before they knew it they had seventy four children and eight instructors from the area all learning to play the guitar in a project called The Music Makers which lasted for twenty years.

Tom spent some time in his sister’s place on Henrietta Street so he could learn to play the uileann pipes. In 2017 he went to the Clongowes Wood College community, where he is to this day (2023). He is Property Manager for the province and ensures that Jesuit buildings are in good working condition. He also finds suitable places to help those in need such as two Ukranian families which are housed in cottages owned by the Jesuits. He also secures spaces for the Peter McVerry Trust and their work with the homeless in Dublin City Centre.

Tom’s father Tommy Phelan was a fantastic community activist in Ballyfermot and along with others he had a significant influence on Tom. His mother passed 13 years ago and not surprisingly Tom celebrated her life and love through music and song. He composed “A Mother’s Embrace” as a tribute to her and her dedication to family. “Promise me ma you will watch over me, all of your love still present to see”. The song plays at the end of this interview.

You can still find Tom on his motorbike to this day but mostly for charity.