Brother Anthony Cecilius Clay (1905-70)

Obituary by J. K. Horkan

Brother Cecilius Clay did not walk through the arches of a university; neither did he rise to any great heights of responsibility in the Congregation. Had he done so, there would have been plenty of material to enrich his memoir and sing his praises as a Christian Brother. Yet, in his fifty years, he achieved great things for God and in his own quiet way endeared himself to his many brothers in religion, and so earned a place in the hearts and memories of his ex-pupils and friends.

Anthony Clay was born on 9 April 1905, the second son of John Clay and Mary O'Brien, then living at 14 Roman Street, Cork. He was christened John Anthony, but was known to the family as Jack. He was a handsome child and a great favourite of his mother. She it was who taught him those domestic virtues so characteristic of the true Irish home. As a young lad he was very active and energetic, and loved those games which every youngster cherished. He was strong, robust, and in some ways a little tough. Some of his friends might describe him as an enfant terrible. Besides, he loved to play childish pranks and engage in innocent fun, and these often got him into trouble. He was well able to account for himself when some opponent thought him an easy prey. Among his own companions he was quite a leader: they idolised him.

Jack first attended the school run by the Sisters of Charity in Peacock Lane; later, he came under the tuition of the Christian Brothers at the North Monastery. Eventually, he received the call to join the sons of Edmund Rice. When he made his intention known to his parents they felt that a great sacrifice was being demanded of them. Nevertheless, they made the sacrifice and they were never to regret it.

John Clay entered the juvenile at Baldoyle on 2 July 1921 and after a short postulancy of eight months was clothed on 25 March 1922 with the habit. He received the name Cecilius. The young novice was lucky to have Brother Baptist Welsh as his novice master. His novitiate year completed, he was sent on his first mission to Wexford. It was here on Christmas Day 1923 that he made his first profession. Within the year he received what was to be his major posting: Gibraltar. Here he spent two long periods: 1924-40 and from 1960 till his death. On his arrival, he found himself one of a large community at Sacred Heart Terrace. His superior was Vincent Ryan, a man who believed in the strict and literal observance of rule. But it was a happy community, where the brothers found their happiness among themselves and in the many outdoor activities that were possible in Gibraltar. Under the Superior's guidance, young brothers fresh from Marino were put through a long and strenuous course of studies and class management. You could scarcely fail to become an efficient teacher and a keen student in the Gibraltar of those days and certainly Cecilius was no exception. Most of his school work was done in the elementary and middle sections, work which he carried out meticulously and always with that cheerful disposition so much a characteristic of him. He loved his work in the classroom and all his energy and devotion were focused on the welfare of his pupils.

I first met Cecilius in 1935 when I arrived on the Rock. To me he appeared gentle, modest, unassuming, and kindness personified. He showed me to my room and did all in his power to make me welcome. Naturally, as a young brother just out of Marino, I was lonely. I had been home for only the briefest of visits, and now faced life on the Rock! He helped me to forget my grief and in him I felt I had a true friend, one that compensated for the many I had left in Ireland. I enlarge on this because here you have the real Cecilius Clay. And my first glimpse of the man in school was in the technical department, surrounded by the noise of machinery and knee-deep in wood-shavings, happily moving among his charges, guiding and helping them in their efforts. That glimpse showed me the real man.

Let me here quote from an appreciation submitted by Brother Patrick Dolan (who spent many years with Cecilius in Community): 

Cecilius never brooded on what he had left behind. The barren aspect of the Rock must have been to him in stark contrast to the Emerald Isle in general and the fair city by the Lee in particular. He soon gained an affection for the barren Rock or rather the people on it. All his life he was more at home with junior boys than with the more sophisticated adolescents. The words of the Master were perhaps more congenial to him: 'Suffer the little children to come to me'. He became familiar with the Gibraltar character and the Gibraltarians came to regard him as one of their own. So simpatico was he! No doubt about it, he was the maestro favorito in the junior school, and not only in the junior school. Talk to any Gibraltarian who knew Brother Clay! Good humour always manifested itself in his associations with boys and brothers. He shared generously in all the activities both of house and school and was probably at his very best on Gaudeamus days when he would regale us with a selection of songs. 

In June 1940, war clouds threatened the peace and quiet of life on the Rock. A general evacuation of all civilians was ordered. And on the night of 18 June, the brothers of both communities arrived in Casablanca in Morocco. Villas had been secured both there and at Rabat and within a week, school work recommenced. At Rabat (one of the beauty spots in the French zone) Cecilius gave himself with complete dedication to the welfare and education of his young charges, who were now experiencing for the first time the trials and upsets of war. Three weeks later, the brothers found themselves back on the Rock only to be told that a convoy was ready to take them and as many of the civil population as wished to England. The departure marked the end of an important chapter in the history of Gibraltar. For many brothers it proved a blessing in disguise for it enabled many of them to qualify either at university or in training college.

Cecilius was posted to Prior Park College, Bath, and then to Brentwood, where we had a Home Office school. Finally he too was given the opportunity to qualify -- at St Mary's Training College, Twickenham. It must have been no easy task to settle down at the age of forty to a course of studies, with subjects like education, health education, physical education, music, general science and Spanish. Through sheer effort and determination he succeeded. He spent many hours in the college gymnasium trying to master the skills of PT. Those of us who, like him, were well above the age of students, were referred to as “the old brigade”. 

Brother Vianney O'Sullivan, currently Professor of Education at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, has this commentary on the period at Twickenham:
Myself and a number of young Irish brothers arrived in 10 Popes Grove in October 1943. This was London in the middle of a war. Like millions of others, we had to contend with bombings, food rationing, and a daily quota of fear and anxiety. At the end of our first year we were joined by a group of brothers from the English Province, among whom was Cecilius. To my young mind, with its rather warped view of age, he immediately took on all the hues of a middle-aged father figure. I had quite a shock when I first saw him. He was low-sized, rotund, and portly, fast going bald, with a round, smiling, red face. I could accept him as he was, but was utterly lost when equating him with the student. I never reflected what his thoughts were when he found himself in the company of a group of youngsters. These were first impressions but I have never forgotten them. I still see the receding hair line, the portly figure, and the large, red smile.

During that year (1944-1945) I developed an extreme fondness for Brother Clay. He was a great mixer, and, after a week or two, age was forgotten, at least on the surface. He was perpetually in good humour and took difficulties in his stride. Being one of us as a student, he was like some sort of anchor for us. We admired his good sense, took refuge in the smiling face, and enjoyed his many stories. He was a man of experience in the communities and schools; and indeed, he must often have felt the sudden change of life. We were largely unaware of any such difficulties. He often regaled us with his “advances” in the gym classes under the stern guidance of the PT instructor.

His death notice really upset me. It meant the passing of one of our companions of twenty-five years ago. As I write, I still hear a chuckle, and see a round red face, lit up with a smile. May he rest in peace. 

Cecilius did find life very depressing at times in the strange environment of a training college, situated on the outskirts of London, and during a war. No wonder he felt the need to relax on occasions and visit friends. One such occasion found the two of us trying to let these friends know by public phone that we were coming. Cecilius was busy on the phone. Suddenly, he changed colour, pulled his hat down over his eyes and in a faltering voice exclaimed, “O my God, Kevin, look who's coming!'' With the corner of my eye l beheld our superior (Brother Luke Ryan) and sub-superior (Angelus Hoban) passing along. Did they see us? ''A narrow shave'' said Cecilius. For days we were not sure whether we had been spotted; so we waited and wondered why we were not being carpeted! Evidently, we had got away with it! 

After temporary work in Stoke and Blackpool, Cecilius found himself back in Gibraltar (1947-52). Mainly because of the 1944 Education Act, there was a completely new set-up there: a grammar school, a technical school, and (for the rest of the 11+ children) a secondary modern school. It was at the latter establishment that our brother laboured for the next five years. The cause of the less privileged boys appealed to him in a special way. He devoted all his energies to the preparation of these boys for competitive examinations that would enable them to get apprenticeships at the dockyard, a job in a shipping office or in a bank, or with a local business firm.

In 1952 he was appointed superior of St Charles School, Brentwood, a Home Office school opened in 1938. Here he carried out his duties with cheerfulness and resourcefulness, and with the knowledge that the school was due to close within two years. Many of his duties brought him into close contact with officials from the Crusade of Rescue as well as representatives of the various local councils. It must have been a stern test for him to cope with the multitude of problems that arise in such a school, to administer its normal day-to-day running, and finally to exercise the tact and ingenuity required in the closing-down stages. Quiet efficiency seemed to mark this period, plus a loyal staff that fully co-operated with him. It must have been a sad occasion in 1954 when the school was handed over to the local authority; in that year also he suffered a personal loss in the death of his only brother, William.

We now find him acting as junior house-master at our college in Blackpool. We shall let Brother Robert Liddane describe him and his work for the five years he spent at St Joseph’s:
He and his partner in the senior school (Brother Paulinius O'Sullivan, who came to be his superior in Gibraltar in his last years there) were among the most hardworking men in the community. They combined a full day's teaching with the supervision of the boarders right up till bedtime. Even then they were not sure of a full night's sleep. It might easily happen that a knock on Cecilius's door about 1 or 2 am would be accompanied with a plaintive cry, “Pease, sir, I have a headache.” Brother would rise immediately to administer some harmless medicine which he always kept ready for such emergencies. The sufferer would depart comforted for the time being; back again in two hours to lament that he did not feel much relief! One needed the patience of Job. Cecilius had it.

He spent almost all his free time with the juniors and there were many times when he could justly claim to be free, but preferred to stay with the boys. He tried to solve all their little problems that inevitably occurred during play hours. Was it a goal? Brother Clay would be consulted, and even if he never saw the incident he would make a firm decision which everyone accepted. He liked them; they liked him immensely, for they knew instinctively that he had their real interests at heart. The parents soon came to learn of the interest he took in their sons, and they had a high regard for him.

Cecilius was a deeply religious man and, despite his onerous duties, was always in his place for the spiritual exercises. Outside those times, it was frequently observed that he made private visits to the Blessed Sacrament. His example must have had an enduring influence on the boys. His May altar had the reputation of being the most carefully prepared and tastiest in the college, this in the days when May altars counted high in our priorities.

He was an ideal community man, ever kind and helpful to anyone who needed his assistance. This facet of his character needs stressing more than any other. I would venture to assert that his eternal salvation hung on this aspect of his life. He loved his work and indeed he accomplished a great deal in a short time. His influence was widespread and enduring. He had hoped to spend perhaps the remaining years of his life at Blackpool. Nothing would have pleased him better. Perhaps, it was as well that he died in 1970, for the eventual closing down of the boarding sections would have left him heartbroken.

Now in his fifty-fifth year, Cecilius received his last appointment --Gibraltar. He took on a variety of subjects (mathematics, English, Spanish, general science, music) at the grammar school. Many of the children now under his tuition were the sons of former pupils of his and no doubt parents felt happy that the man who did not spare himself in fostering their own happiness and welfare was now devoting the last years of his life to the formation of their children. In itself this was a great consolation to Cecilius. All during his years of ''exile'' as he called it, he kept in touch with the Rock and the folk on it, whom he knew so well and who in turn had such a high regard for 'Mr Clay'. He loved people and places. He loved his native city, Cork; but he loved another city, his adopted city, Gibraltar. I am sure that if he had lived to celebrate his golden jubilee there, they would have given him the freedom of the city! Yes, he was very, very happy to return to Gibraltar. His feelings could surely find expression in the well-known lines: 

I'd almost venture another flight, 
There's so much joy in returning.

In all the classes, choral work had a place on the timetable. As the annual prize day approached, he was in his element, preparing suitable compositions for the occasion. These he conducted himself. Prior to the feast of Christmas, he and his choir would visit hospitals and old people's homes and they would gladden all hearts with both Christmas carols and local favourites. He loved music himself and he did his best to transfer this love to all whom he taught.

He found summer holiday time a major change from that of the old pre-war days. Now he and the community were free to choose a holiday in Spain; and then every three years one was free to go home. No one enjoyed these vacation trips more than Cecilius. He spent weeks preparing; on the occasions when Cork was being revisited, it was months of preparation! Presents had to be bought for his nephews and nieces and cousins! No one must be forgotten. And on his return to the Rock he invariably brought a selection of Irish records as well as some of the more recent to 'hits'. 

Travelling in Spain can be tiring and exhausting, especially in the mid-summer heat. Vacation routes nearly always included a train journey from Algeciras to Madrid. I remember an occasion when we all experienced a huge thirst. When the train pulled into Bobadilla, Cecilius and a confrere alighted and went off to purchase some light refreshments. On their return the train was gone! To all intents and purposes the train seemed to have proceeded on its journey, leaving our companions stranded! Panic and consternation gripped the two of them. There might not be another train till next day! And they had no money, only soft drinks! What to do? Why didn't someone pull the communication cord, or do something to let the driver know that there were some passengers stranded? The minutes passed; they felt like hours. Suddenly the train came backing down the line, where it linked with another train on its way to Madrid! We had many a laugh over that incident.

From 1965 onwards the tempo of life had to slow down for Cecilius. Class work was beginning to call for greater effort and concentration, and one felt that these had been somewhat impaired. Health began to show signs of deterioration. Heart trouble and circulatory disorder were diagnosed and periodic visits to his local doctor became a must. His periods of class work were reduced to a minimum. The journey from the city up to Sacred Heart Terrace inevitably meant a climb; so he was ordered to take a taxi when necessary. In many cases one of his friends would give him a lift. He was community bursar at this time and this kept him on the move.

He visited the home countries in the summer of 1970 and saw all his nephews and nieces as well as old friends. Apparently in good health he returned to the Rock, and for the next few months carried on his usual routine: class work, choral work, bursarial, and down-town visits. But on the evening of 26 November he returned home from Mount Alvernia, where his choir were entertaining the old folk. He did not feel at all well. In the early hours of the morning, one of the brothers sleeping immediately above him heard a noise as of someone knocking. He made a his way down to the next floor and found the light on in Cecilius's room but no one was there; he saw the light on in the bathroom but the door was locked. He knocked, called, received no answer. He forced the door open and there was Cecilius -- dead. 'I shall come like a thief in the night'.

His work for God and man was done. His last hours were characteristically spent in giving joy and happiness to his fellow-man through music. And surely his dearest wish must have been realised that he would be buried among his own best friends! 

The news of his death soon spread, as news so easily does in Gibraltar. A feeling of grief and personal loss gripped every home where he was known. This alone was an eloquent tribute to the kind of man he was. His remains were transferred to St Theresa's Church, where the Bishop (Right Reverend John Farmer Healy) and all his clergy were in attendance as well as a huge congregation of people. He was carried the short distance from church to cemetery by his own brothers in religion and was laid to rest in the shadow of the Rock, side by side with that noble band of Christian Brothers who also died in Gibraltar and who, like him, gave their life in the service of their Master.

The following extract from the Gibraltar Chronicle will help to sum up how Gibraltarians felt at his passing: 'It was a shock for many in Gibraltar to learn of the death of Rev. Br. A. C. Clay in the early hours of yesterday. The packed congregation at St. Theresa's Church, and later at the cemetery, gave ample testimony to the high regard the local people had for him. Having spent twenty years previously in the Rock, he returned for the final stage of his work in 1960. Many were delighted to welcome him back. During the past ten years Br. Clay had been teaching, guiding and encouraging the young boys in the Grammar School. His love of music was well appreciated by the boys and his friendly smile and pleasant manner will be sadly missed not only by the young but by all who knew him. In particular will he be missed at Christmas time when he led the carol singing in aid of charities.'

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A memorial to Br Clay at Sacred Heart Middle School, Gibraltar. (click on the picture to enlarge)

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