Brother Colman Loman O’Brien (1926-2002)
Obituary by P. L. Holian
An Bráthair Colmán Ó’Briain, the subject of this memoir, was a man who gave of his energies and devoted his many talents to the work of the Congregation of Christian Brothers over many years and in different fields, in Ireland, in the north and south of England, and in Liberia, West Africa. He was a man always ready to answer the call, pack his bags, and move to the various assignments entrusted to him by his superiors. These assignments were always undertaken with great zest and enthusiasm -- one might say with great passion -- and, along the way, friendships were formed and new loyalties forged, which were acknowledged over the years with letters or by personal visits when he was able, right to the end of his life.
The picture I get of him from the memories and letters I have received from friends and colleagues is that of a strong passionate man, enthusiastic and dynamic, and yet full of compassion and loyalty. He was like a mighty west wind ready to set sails in motion.
As l lived in community with Colman for only a short time and was never on a working team with him, I have to rely a lot on the contributions I have received from his friends about him. I shall let those friends speak his story, but first I look briefly at the historical setting in which he grew up.
Between his birth in 1926 and his entry into our Congregation in 1941, Ireland was beginning to relish its status of nationhood, though not without the economic problems of the nineteen thirties -- problems that weighed heavily on the farming community; historians describe it as the Economic War -- between the new state and its former overlord, Britain. Then followed the beginning of World War II in 1939. The consequence of this was emergency measures in Ireland, with rationing and a hair-shirt regime. It was in those years that Colman grew up. Even with the restrictive measures occasioned by the war, his early years were, in a way, idyllic, but then life was simpler, untouched by the consumerism of today, which influences young and old. His youngest sister, Frances, has kindly given me the details of his boyhood years. She tells us:
An Bráthair Colmán, or Colman Aloysius O'Brien as he was christened, was born in Tallanstown, County Louth, on 14 December 1926. He was the sixth in a family of four boys and three girls and was named after his aunt, Sr Mary Colman, who was a teaching sister in the Convent of Mercy, Newry, Co. Down. His father, Patrick, a native of Easky, Co. Sligo, came from a farming background, and some of the family still live there.
Patrick met Mary T Roe when she was teaching in County Donegal --her first appointment after graduating from Mary Immaculate Training College, Limerick. Mary T or Minnie, as she was known, was a native of County Louth and was invited back by a friend of the family, Rev. Canon Dillon, to teach in his parish. It was there, in Tallanstown, a few years later that Patrick and Minnie married and settled down. He had purchased a farm nearby, and she remained teaching till her retirement at sixty-five. The house they lived in was on part of the Lord Louth estate. Lord Louth was a member of the Plunkett family, from whom Oliver Plunkett was descended, and for them the place was steeped in history, real and imaginary. No doubt it was here that Colman just learned about Oliver, to whom he had a life-long devotion. St Oliver Plunkett ranked with Blessed Edmund Rice in his affections right up until he died.
Colman's mother was very devout, very musical, and very national-minded. Back in the 1860s her father had been a Fenian and had been excommunicated from the Church for his ‘sins'. When Irish became compulsory in the schools, Colman's mother used to be driven into Dundalk every Saturday morning by her husband to attend special Irish classes for teachers. She also trained the church choir, was choir mistress for over forty years, and, even then, would enter her choirs in the local feiseanna. Colman had a great affinity with his mother No wonder then that he became so strong in the faith, had such love for the Irish language and for all things Irish, and loved music. As a young lad he had piano lessons and won book prizes for his piano playing. When he was a young brother in Trim, he formed the Trim Youth Band and put or productions of Gilbert & Sullivan operas. When he was being transferred, the editor of the local paper wrote, ‘Trim without An Br Ó'Briain will be like Hamlet without the prince.’ Colman attended Talanstown National School, where his mother taught, until he had finished sixth class. Afterwards he went on to the Christian Brothers School in Dundalk. He had a very happy childhood doing all the things young country lads do, like playing football, climbing trees, and rambling through the fields and woods with their dogs catching rabbits. The Glyde River flowed past the bottom of the garden and in summer, when the river was shallow, they’d go fishing for pinteens and eels. Further up the river was a deep part known as ‘The Lynns', and it was there that Colman learned to swim. 'The Lynns' was out of bounds for his sisters and their friends: it was a boys' bathing place. Colman's mother died while he was still in Trim, and that left a great void in his life. His father had died some years or before. But the family tried to take her place, and they remained very close always. His letters to them were all written as Gaeilge even when he was in Liberia, and a very poor view would be taken if they didn't reply as Gaeilge as well. He kept the family on their toes in that regard. As his nephews and nieces came of age to go to the Gaeltacht he'd revel in visiting them and bringing them ‘treats'. They all loved Oncal Colmán. It was he, indeed, who was responsible for giving the name 'Coláiste na bhFiann' to the coláiste in Rosmuc Gaeltacht when it was being founded.
Frances has given an almost idyllic description of Colman's boyhood. It is probably the description he would have favoured. But in every idyll there is a shadow or dark side, and, while every cloud may have a silver lining, there is the cloud. Colman's sister, Breda, sent me a contribution, in which she refers to the shadow side. We remember to cast our minds back to the 1920s and 1930s. In many an Irish household the father was truly the lord and master, and Colman's father was like that. As a consequence, at times there was tension in the house. Colman was never too keen to talk about it and would only recall the good memories. Moreover, because of his personality, his puckish sense of humour and mischief, he may have had the ability to shrug off pain.
In speaking of Colman's mother, Breda writes:
She was a woman of immense faith and prayer, and it was her oft-repeated prayer, ‘O Sacred Heart of Jesus, l place my trust in thee’ that saw her through her trials. She was a woman of humour and laughter and on her teacher's meagre pay she managed to rear and educate seven children. Colman acted as messenger for my father in cycling to Ardee to the nearest bookmaker to put bets on horses. Indeed Colman would say that on the day he left home for Baldoyle, he put on a bet for Da. Since the child is father to the man, you now have the background out of which grew all the talents, gifts, qualities, good and bad, that make up Colman's persona and character. We loved him, admired him, and tolerated his foibles.
His sister, Freda Murphy, paints a picture of a fun-loving child who could be full of mischief.
My recollections of our youth are few, as I went away to boarding school at the age of ten, when Colman would have been about six years old. Anyway, here are a few brief anecdotes. As an altar-boy he went off every morning with shirt collar undone and his boot-laces dangling behind him. During Mass he chewed his shirt collar. At a concert in the the village school, he sang a song taught by our mother called, The Tardy Scholar. I can still see him like a little ragamuffin aged six or under singing like a pro. That was a year or two before I went away. We had a fife-and-drum band in the village. On Sundays when they went to play in the outlying villages, Colman went trotting after them. He knew every man, woman, and child in the whole area. He could recount humorous tales about them all, and there was always a warm welcome for him in any house he visited. He was a fun-loving, happy, mischievous child with a wealth of local knowledge, which, we deeply regret, is gone with him. May our dear brother rest in peace.
Having received a glowing recommendation from the postulator, Br E C Markey, dated 1 July 1941, Colman set out for St Joseph's College, Baldoyle, 'to try his vocation', as we used to say, having been much influenced by the time he spent with the Brothers in Dundalk. Br J A Egan's reference states, 'He is a good boy, and l feel confident he'll make an excellent Christian Brother.’
My own memories of Baldoyle are very happy ones and allowing that rules and regulation are necessary for the smooth running of a boarding school, the atmosphere still remained homely and welcoming. Colman would have been welcomed by Br Joachim Kelly, who was superior that year, a very strict man who had little sense of humour. He was a man with a deep sense of vocation, and he demanded the higher standards in conduct and decorum from those who aspired to become Christian Brothers. The regime was tough and Spartan. What faced a postulant such as Colman, fresh from the freedom of country pursuits and play, was a rigidly controlled programme of study and prayer. Silence was observed at all times outside of recreation and minor infringements of regulations could earn you a penance. One would need to be made of stern stuff to survive the course. What stood in Colman's favour was his ability to take on the academic side of his training without difficulty. Joachim has been described as being ruthless in weeding out what he considered unsuitable candidates. Anyone surviving his scrutiny could be confident of moving on to the novitiate at St Helen's, Booterstown. Colman went there on the 16 July 1943.
The novitiate year is the spiritual year when the young Brother is instructed in the Constitutions of the Congregation, trained in various exercises of prayer, and has to follow a more precise horarium of work and prayer to see if he has the temperament and strength to lead the religious life. After an eight-days retreat Colman received the habit of the Congregation at a special ceremony which would have been a memorable experience for parents, but, sadly, it was not the custom for parents to attend the ceremony. He was guided through this year of work and prayer by Br Berchmans Reid, a gentle and holy man. On reception day Colman received the name 'Brother Loman' as his name in religion. On completing his novitiate he moved to St Mary's Training College, Marino. Life would be more hectic now, for the novice had to return to a schedule of study and teaching practice.
Training as a teacher presented no problems for Colman. It was a two-year course but, after the first year of studies, the trainee Brothers were sent out teaching for four or five years to acquire experience and practice the skills of classroom management. So on 20 August 1945 he was sent to Limerick.
Colman came to a city where in 1816, Blessed Edmund Rice had founded one of our first houses. The community in Limerick passed through many trials and suffering: lack of friends, lack of even the simplest amenities, and, worse again the insecurity of having no fixed tenure of the premises provided. In time, through the generosity of friends and the pence of the citizens, a fitting establishment was built for the Brothers and two large school houses in front of the monastery were opened in 1829. Colman was young and enthusiastic, fresh with ideas from his training college course, and he entered wholeheartedly into the life of the school and community. He was to spend five years in Limerick before returning to St Joseph’s Training College, Marino to complete his second year of teacher training.
I am indebted here to Br Fionán Ó Catháin for the following reminiscences:
I did second year teacher training in Marino with Colmán. Br Sergius Malone, Gaeilgeoir fíor-chruthanta go smior (an inveterate speaker of Irish, with a great love for all things lrish) was the superior and teacher. Sergius was slightly nervous and somewhat scrupulous, but he was the very essence of kindness, and he made the year a most pleasant one, during which great harmony reigned within the college. It was agreed that Irish would be spoken at all times and even those who were not particularly fluent agreed with this house rule. Colman found this rule quite acceptable, and he never spoke a word of English during the year.
Fionán describes him as cheerful and affable, a lively conversationalist, and an excellent student. The Louth team was his pride and joy, and his one wish was that his county team would win an all-Ireland football final, which, indeed, they did a few years later. The college had its own Gaelic teams, and they faced the might of the city teams drawn from the Brothers' Dublin houses. Fionán mentioned that it was an enormous shock for the Gaelgeoiri when they heard of Colman's transfer to the English province.
In 1952, now qualified as a teacher, Colman gets his next posting, to Trim. The story of this town dates back to the days of St Patrick. Here it the apostle fixed a bishopric under his nephew, Loman, so it was more than a coincidence that Colman, whose religious name was Loman, should be appointed to Trim. For an antiquarian and a lover of history, the little town has much to offer. At one time it could boast of an abbey of Augustinians. Adjoining the abbey was the ‘Yellow Tower' erected by Richard, Duke of York, in 1449, when he came to Ireland as Lord Deputy. It had its castle and was at one time the capital of Meath, and to it came Richard II. For these details l am indebted to the late Br Stan Gill, the Congregation historian. Trim was a late foundation for us. It was only in 1944 that the Brothers took possession of the Model School there.
Trim was still a very young foundation when Colman came to join the community. He had quickly made an impression in the classroom and in the musical life of the town. That he was one of a select band is evident from the editorial comments of the local newspaper upon his departure for Galway for university studies.
We read in the house annals: The school concert was again an outstanding success. It included Once upon a Lugger, with a number of choral items, drill, dancing, etc.
And again we read:
The Primary School made its presence felt in no uncertain way in Navan on the occasion of the annual Féis na Midhe. The following are evidence of their runaway victory: Two part choir: first place; three-part choir: first place; Ballad: second place; Christian Doctrine through Irish: first place, winning Bishop's Shield. One would not envy his successor in the music department. He would be well challenged to outstrip Colman's achievement.
Colman's transfer from Trim marked the end of his time in primary school teaching. In 1956 he went to Galway University where he read History, Irish, and English. The student Brothers lived in the Brothers' university hostel in Salthill, and it was a lively place, a miniature university in itself, as the students went into tutorial mode. Needless to say, Colman graduated with an honours BA in Irish and History. Fully qualified now he could launch himself with all his talents and vigour into secondary school teaching in Ireland. But this was not to be. In August 1958 he was transferred to our English Province. For a man so immersed in all things Irish, this change must have come as a great shock and a great test of faith and courage. In the few months I lived with him he never discussed this change and never complained. Now all the previous training, some of it very stern and demanding, stood to him in good stead. ‘You go where you are sent' or to put it in the anodyne terminology of today, 'You are missioned'. He may well have felt like the exiled Hebrews by the bands of the river in Babylon.
'Sing'—'How can l sing a song in an alien land?’ Yet sing he would. He comes through it all and, with characteristic 'O'B' resolution and vigour, accepts the challenge and wins through.
It is with some temerity that I now continue with this narrative as I was never stationed in any of our English houses, so l rely more than heretofore on the contributions sent by the Brothers and teachers who stood alongside Colman as he went through the immersion experience in a new culture, strange accents, and a system of education whose medium of teaching was English. If he grieved, he did not show it, and he wasted no time in becoming acquainted with the duties of his new mission.
Br Augustine Anthony writes:
I was in community with Br Colman Loman O'Brien during his first year in the English Province (1958-1959). It must have been quite a culture shock for him, a Gaelic enthusiast, to have to teach boys to whom most things Irish were alien, but he accepted the situation and threw himself completely into the life of the school. He organised a school choir and later on went into staging Gilbert and Sullivan operas. His pupils were possibly terrified by the way he would shout at them and use strong language, but they responded well knowing that what he did was all for their good.
As a community man he had a great talent for story-telling and a fund of repartee. This was very welcome among the younger members of the community, as the older Brothers had become staid in their ways, and Colman's addition to the community was like a breath of fresh air. His conversation, naturally, often turned to Irish Republicanism, but I do not remember it becoming embittered with past or present ills. There was certainly a desire in him to amend unjust situations, and he was able to bring a historian's understanding to how these had arisen.
Colman was regular with the community at its prayer and spiritual life and was unostentatious in his piety. No doubt he helped many people by his example and conversations. I found him a great help in community in Blackpool.
Br John Sreenan's contribution, from which l add the following comments, echoes the points made by Br A Anthony:
Br Ignatius Carroll was superior of the community at Blackpool at this me, and he appointed Colman head of the History Department. He settled into the English system of education very quickly. He was a ‘natural' as far as teaching went and he was full of enthusiasm for his subject. He related extremely well with the Blackpool boys and was an immediate success with them. He coached the under-fifteen teams in rugby with a little help from his friends. In addition to his duties on the rugby field, he coached and trained the choir. He also introduced Irish Dancing and persuaded me to look after those who were over fourteen, while he concentrated his attention on those in the eleven to fourteen age bracket. He also organised the Christmas concerts at the school, and the musical items for the Speech Day programme in the Winter Gardens Pavilion, Blackpool.
As I became involved in these concerts, l became a great friend of his, and that friendship continued when we were both transferred to Crosby in 1968. Br Colman had an immense capacity for work, and he drove himself to achieve the highest standards for his pupils. Unfortunately, he drove himself too much and, as a reset, his health suffered. He gave of himself one-hundred-per-cent to his pupils and they all had tremendous regard for him, both as a teacher and as a friend. The English Province is very much in his debt.
Peter McCarthy now shares the following memories of Colman:
I had a great liking and respect for Br O'Brien. Though he never taught me, he dragooned me into singing in both the senior and boarders' choirs at St Joe's (as he did with many of us sixth-formers and rugby players -- no excuse accepted). It is a tribute to him that not only did we enjoy the experience but a love of choral singing has remained with me personally ever since. I have now, in retirement, taken up singing more seriously with a local choral society and a G and S society. 'O'B' as he was always known and referred to, really did love Blackpool and became part of the local scene at St Joe’s. When l returned to the staff in 1970, he was still fondly remembered by parents, and his choirs and productions were still well praised. He was a determined and single-minded can who could be fierce and blustery but a loyal and good friend to those who knew him and shared his interests: music and history. He had a lively sense of humour and liked to share a good laugh. He was always a welcome face at the Old Boys' Dinners and seemed to take great pleasure on catching up, often late into the night, with so many whom he taught or worked with.
I remember one night, rather late, in the chapel at St Joe’s, when we were rehearsing a plain chant Ecce Sacerdos Magnus for a Confirmation the following day, one of the upper Sixth yawned and did not take it seriously. So 'O'B' ran from the back of the chapel, hurdled the altar rails, and dragged the six-footer out from the choir to 'remonstrate' with him. Suffice it to say the Confirmation went well, the singing was memorable, and the errant sixth former and 'O'B' had no lasting enmity. 'O'B' arranged to make a record of the senior choir, and all of us rugby players enjoyed singing Libiamo from Traviata, the Eriskey Love Lilt, and A Motet to the Virgin to make a record (old style) which I still have -- and I occasionally bore my wife with it! I think his success was due to his understanding of young men and his consuming passion for music. He chose good pieces that were enjoyable to sing, and his approach was totally different from the usual rather stuffy approach of other music teachers of the day. I shall miss him, God bless and rest him. We exchanged Christmas cards, and I always shared a bottle of wine with him at the Old Boys' Dinners.
On the occasion that I did not attend, I knew he would be round at my house the following day to berate me for not supporting it. He also got on well with my wife, and she is a good judge of character! May he rest in peace.
Coming through all the memories that I have received of Colman is his desire for love and friendship. He valued friendship and loved to meet with people. He was a social person and felt complete in the gatherings of Brothers, friends, or past pupils. Many of us, certainly as we age, would plead shyness when invited to social occasions. Perhaps we do not feel the freedom or, more needfully, lack the selflessness to share ourselves. Not so with Colman. He gave and received friendship, not counting the cost or reckoning with the fatigue that giving of self demands. One such friend is Br Ned Ryan who writes of him in a different setting -- that of Prior Park College.
Br Ned writes:
He put his heart into the Province from the day he arrived. As a boarding school, Prior Park gave him plenty of scope for his energy and his many talents and interests. Colman took charge of the 'top dormitory' in St Paul's, a task that was no sinecure for any man who did a full day's teaching as well. He was a competent school man for whom classroom management was second nature and never a burden. He excelled in teaching History and English. The president of the college, the revered Br Placidus Hooper (RIP), gave Colman permission to introduce an Irish class, as an out-of-school activity, and it really flourished under his enthusiastic tuition. And soon he was coaching a junior ruby team as well.
Colman was a gifted musician and he would have loved to take charge of the choral music, but, typical of the man, one of his great characteristics was his readiness to support others. This he did at Prior Park at a rather difficult time.
By the late 1960s I was at St Edward's College, Liverpool, and Colman was at St Mary's, Crosby. It was at that time that he set up the Young Christian Students for a group of sixth formers from St Mary's and Seafield Convent -- an 'adventure' that was quite novel at that time. It was in this social work that Colman had Cherie Blair in class, with whom he kept in contact down the years, little thinking that one day she would be occupying No. 10 Downing Street.
Colman's sister Frances writes of this enduring friendship: As an educator in England he also gave time as Director of the YCS which brought him into contact with students who would eventually be very influential in national affairs. In particular it sealed a long friendship with Cherie and Tony Blair. (Colman was a guest at the dinner given by our Government to the Blairs in Dublin Castle.) Among the many get-well cards that graced his sick room was one of the Blairs photographed with their new son, Leo.
I return to the concluding paragraph of Br Ned Ryan's contribution, signaling once more Colman's great capacity for friendship, worked opt in a hundred-and-one little acts of kindness and of love. He continues:
When Colman returned to Ireland our friendship continued. From time to time he visited my very elderly uncle (RIP), who looked forward to his visits. He came to my Golden Jubilee celebration in September 1990 and later to my Diamond Jubilee in Sunderland. When I suffered a stroke in 1991, I gave up driving and from then on Colman always took care of me when I went to Ireland. When l heard of his illness, l went to Baldoyle for a week last June, visiting him each day, doing little tasks for him, like lighting his cigarette.
When I was leaving he said. “Pray for me that I will not suffer too much at the end.” I can always remember his peacefulness during his illness. Last July was the Golden Jubilee of our Final Profession. I spent the time praying for his intentions. I can only end by saying “Dear Colman, a chara na gearad, guigh orm.” (Colman, dearest friend of all, pray for me.)
In 1972 Colman went out to Liberia as superior and principal of Carroll High School. Liberia includes that area of West Africa known to travellers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the 'White Man's Grave'. A hot, humid climate, unusual foods, and the danger of tropical diseases ended many a missioner's endeavours to spread the Kingdom. Monrovia, the capital, and its immediate surroundings were 'colonised' in the nineteenth century by freed slaves and others of African descent from the USA. But it was only in the 1950s that the country broke a century of isolation with the advent of multi-nationals and foreign aid. Rapid development followed in rubber plantations and telecommunications, but principally in mining for iron ore. The legislative and educational systems are modelled on those of the US. There are many Protestant denominations in Liberia. The Catholic Church has been there for over a hundred years, but, in spite of the strong position of Christianity in Liberia, there is still a good deal of paganism and superstition, especially in the country areas.
Edward Egan takes up the stop at this point:
Colman came full of energy and enthusiasm. He threw himself into making the school the best school in the country, not just academically but also religiously and culturally. Wonderfully performed productions of musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy enriched the students and gave pleasure to audiences in Yekepa and Monrovia. Colman had good leadership qualities, and he inspired staff and pupils with his zeal. He attracted two former pupils from Blackpool to give a year's voluntary service, and his promotion of the Young Christian Students saw George Flahn in Holland at an international conference. George is now a surgeon in the Midlands. The excellence of the school was recognised when President Tolbert agreed to come to the Graduation Day in 1974.
Colman loved to play as well as work. Many celebratory meals were provided by expatriates in the mining town, and Colman enjoyed these in the renowned Celtic way. I, who came from a more puritan tradition, had the temerity to remonstrate once and was asked if l thought I was Jesus! Despite such skirmishes there was a deep mutual love and appreciation of the different talents underneath.
The list of projects and activities in which Colman engaged the community and the students seems endless, and he shows a true apostolic pride in being able to report that at the end of 1972, the school had seven Baptisms and fourteen Confirmations.
I can do no better than let Colman speak for himself. In October 1973, as superior of the community, he sent this report to the Brothers of the English Province. I take sections from it that are relevant to our story. I note all the activity that took place in what was supposed to be the vacation. The report goes on to say:
During the long vacation we had visitors from the American Consolidated School in Monrovia, twenty-five sisters for retreat, the Ad Hoc national Team of YCS, and numerous callers. The first YCS study session was held here, as was the first National Council. We shall also have thirty Peace Corps members for a period of orientation, before they begin their two-year stint in various parts of the country. At the end of 1972 we had seven Baptisms and fourteen Confirmations. This year we hope to have about fourteen Baptisms and seven confirmations. The YCS continues to make headway in the school, where we have five teams in our section. The HQ of Liberian YCS is still at Grainfield.
Our principal music group was the most popular attraction at a National Youth Jamboree held in Monrovia in May. We have a fortnightly slot on Radio LAMCO called 'Carroll High Calling', in which the students take part in debates, quizzes, and musical items.
Since 'Do it yourself' is our basic method of operation here, we recently made an attack on an old warehouse full of heavy junk, cleared it, built a stage and gave it a face-lift, and we now have a very fine auditorium. At the moment we are busily engaged in producing Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and hope to perform it at graduation and in a concert that we plan to stage in Monrovia at the beginning of the vacation.
And so he goes on. There does not seem to be enough projects to absorb his great energy. To complete this account of Colman's mission in Liberia, I give the contents of an email sent by an ex-pupil of Carroll High School, Edmund Zar-zar Bargblor to Br Patrick Loughran:
Today when I came home from work, my wife informed me that Dr George Flahn called to let us know about the passing away of Br O'Brien. We are touched by this sad and happy news about the going home of such a great man, who has lived a good life. He was a man of service; he had a deep sense of compassion for those in need. When he was in Liberia, he understood the injustices of the Americo-Liberians' rule and of its impact on the lives of poor Liberians. Even when he was under pressure to admit more boys from wealthy Liberian homes, he endeavoured to create a balance between the poor and the rich students. On several occasions while in Liberia, he used his limited resources to help students in need of school uniforms and other materials essential to learning. Indeed, he will be greatly missed. It was men like Br O'Brien and others who have made the dream of Edmund Rice a living reality, not only among the poor youth of Ireland but among Africans, who, like the Irish poor of yesteryear, are finding it difficult to obtain the basic necessities of life.
The Cross of Christ has been brought to life once again in the life's works of men like Br O'Brien and others, whose lives have touched so many young people all over the world. Like Christ, he lived a simple but fulfilling life and, like Edmund Rice, he brought hope to and put smiles on the faces of so many poor kids. May his soul rest in perfect peace.
When he had completed his term of office in Liberia, Colman had the opportunity of doing the Pastoral and Catechetical Course at Mount Oliver Institute, Dundalk, Ireland. In a way it gave him a restful break while equipping himself to take up the post as Head of Religious Studies at St Aidan’s RC School in Sunderland. The Brookfield community was his new home. His old friend Br Ned Ryan now continues the story;
In the succeeding years Colman and his assistant, the former Brother Martin O'ReilIy, completely re-organised the religious studies throughout the school, And, as was his wont, Colman supported a wide range of school activities: the PTA (and, in particular, the socials), the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, which were a feature of school life then, and, of course, the games. He had the gift of keeping in the background when not in charge, but he could give excellent back-up when it was needed. Colman did much of the shopping for our housekeeper, who was rather elderly. We missed him when he returned to St Mary's Province, Ireland. He had fostered many friendships in his years here in the north-east, and he was warmly welcomed back in 1996 to the Golden Jubilee celebrations of St Aidan's.
Mrs Sybil Thomas, chairperson of the PTA of St Aidan's, Sunderland, sends this short tribute:
I first met Br O'Brien at St Aidan's School when I became chairperson of the PTA. He was secretary, and we organised many functions together – dances, nights at the races, and coffee evenings. He soon became a great friend to myself and my husband, Adam. He would OEM visit us. When he left St Aidan's and went to Ireland, he kept in touch through letters and Christmas cards. We went on a short visit to Dublin and went to visit him at St Mary's, Baldoyle. He had been in hospital for a hernia operation. The day we called to see him he was away visiting his sister, but we left a note of our hotel address with a Brother, and Colman contacted us there. He was unable to drive so soon after the operation, so he asked Br Dermot to do the needful, and we were taken on some wonderful drives through the beautiful countryside of Ireland. The last time we saw him was at Br Ryan's Golden Jubilee held at 'Brookfield'. It was lovely to see him again, but, sadly, it was the last time. His death saddened us deeply, but we will always have fond memories of Colman.
On his return to Ireland in 1982, he was transferred to the Somerton Road community in Belfast. It was there that l made his acquaintance. While he still showed the same zest for living, for meeting people, for having the prayers said in Irish, I felt that what I would call 'the school energy' may have dampened a little. He rested more and did not take on any after-school activities. I did not teach with him, so I have never seen him at work with full steam ahead. Br Liam Eustace, a retired member of the community at that time gives the following pen picture:
Colman came to us in Belfast like a gentle zephyr and left us as a milder breeze. When he joined the Edmund Rice College staff, l had retired from active service in the class room. Consequently I can only say what I heard. He was truly committed to his work, especially in the Gaelic department. He never spared himself in the furtherance of our native culture in language, music and song. He was a fine community man, gentle and unassuming. Patience, perhaps, was one of his most outstanding attributes. l saw him show the greatest restraint under provocation.
I have to mention also his love, respect, and veneration for the dead. Sometimes, at great inconvenience to himself, he travelled far afield to bury an acquaintance. Wherever he went, he brought credit to the Congregation -- always neatly dressed though never foppish. He had a good sense of fun and was ever ready to join in a good laugh even against himself. At times he must have found it difficult to smile and laugh for l feel that the condition that finally brought his end was beginning to knock gently but persistently at the door. Still he was not a man to bemoan his lot. He worked to the end doing marvelous work in the field of necrology writing.
The Colman I have written about on the previous pages is not quite the same man that left Belfast to return to Dublin. Perhaps Br Liam Eustace is right, and like the poet he did begin to hear 'Time's winged chariot' drawing near'. Intimations of Mortality would not be unusual after a life lived at the hectic pact that Colman had lived it. Depression, even deep depression, set in at times. After his return to Dublin -- for whatever reason --I was to meet him only infrequently, at funerals and the gatherings of Brothers. Latterly, on such occasions, when I would congratulate him on looking so well, he would remark cryptically “Ah Liam, it is in the mind.” That was about as far as he would go in alluding to any anguish he suffered. Yet, he did not cease to work. It was at this period that he undertook work on writing the lives of deceased Brothers for the Necrology. This is not an easy work. It involves a great deal of letter-writing, contacting Brothers and relatives for memories and data.
At this point we hear from Br Tim Monaghan:
As Colman and myself always conversed in Irish, it now seems unreal for me to pay this short tribute to him in English. Colman had a special love of our native tongue and for every aspect of our cultural heritage. On occasions when he led the singing at the Sunday Eucharist in Baldoyle, one could be sure that his choice of hymns was in the Celtic mode, and they were usually sung in Irish. But I wish to pay special tribute to him for his outstanding achievement in penning the lives of deceased Brothers. Once he promised to write the life you knew it would be done. Since his health deteriorated some years ago this work has fallen somewhat into abeyance. During his time in Baldoyle, I visited him often and he was always the perfect gentleman with a great love for the brotherhood. Many were his labours. May he rest in peace full of rewards.
A paragraph from Br Edward Egan's Memories confirms what Tim has said about his work in writing necrologies: I met Colman on and off in later years and was always happy to reminisce about old times and former acquaintances. A notable occasion was when Colman took me to Martin McNamara’s funeral at Clonlara in 1996. Colman knew so many people. He loved people and his devoted work as neurologist brought him into contact with many relatives and friends of Brothers all over Ireland.
I now return to the final paragraphs of the memories sent to me by Colman's sister Frances. This is how the family saw him at the onset and during the development of his illness:
The last time the family saw him on his feet was at the Bicentenary Mass for Blessed Edmund Rice in the RDS. They were shocked at his appearance. The man who was always particular about his appearance looked disheveled and somewhat lost. They concluded he had suffered a mild stroke, but when the doctors at Beaumont Hospital saw him, he was diagnosed as having an aggressive malignant tumour on the brain with, at most, a year to live. In fact, he was dead in four months. As the days and weeks melted into those months he became very resigned and patient, and the nurses in St Patrick's Nursing Home, Baldoyle, said he was one of the most undemanding patients they had.
While in Beaumont Hospital he asked for and got permission from his doctors to attend a concert in the National Concert Hall being produced by his niece, Maire. She had invited the No. 1 Army Band to perform at the concert and dedicated it to Colman's late brother, Brigadier General Martin O'Brien. It had been a proud moment for the family when Martin, as Commanding Officer of the Eastern Command, was one of the two officers to flank the Pope on his visit to Ireland in 1979.
The Brothers in St Mary's kindly brought Colman in the community 'ambulance' to the concert. At this stage he was paralysed down one side and confined to a wheelchair. A few weeks later the family brought him by wheelchair, at his urgent request, to vote for An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. On the third occasion they brought him to one of the centenary celebrations in St Mary's, where he was pleased to meet all his his friends in the Pastoral Centre. The fourth and last meeting for him was the centenary celebration in the Brothers cemetery in Baldoyle, where he would shortly be laid to rest. A group of us visited Colman in Beaumont Hospital at this time when the illness was making its final inroads. We were saddened to see the deterioration in him. When Br Dominic Keane, his former principal, complimented him on the excellent work he had done in Edmund Rice College, Belfast, he replied, “I did my best.” He paused for a while with eyes closed, then looked at us and said “ar son na Gaeilge” (for the sake of the Irish language.)
The following is an extract from the funeral homily delivered by Fr Padhraic Roe CSSp. For me it describes concisely the tapestry I have been trying to make out of all the coloured threads I was privileged to receive from Colman's relatives and friends.
Fr Padhraic said:
It is worthy of note that despite a vocation and mission which brought Colman from Dublin to Trim and, later, to Galway, Blackpool, Crosby, and Liberia, he remained deeply rooted in his own culture and tradition. This he delighted in passing on to others, be it family members or the many generations of students who passed through his hands. His inspiration drew on the well-springs of family and clan, rooted in the countryside of Louth and its cultural environs, whether these were pre-Christian legends or Christian stories. His mind and memory were a reservoir of family origins and connectors, which he passed on enthusiastically to coming generations in his family. I was only nine years of age in 1952 when Colman dutifully brought me back to Tallanstown for a week to be duly initiated into our origins as family and clan. This interest in people made him the hub of the family, and it is only with his departure that our extended family will realise how much we owe to him as the living memory of who we are and where we come from. For Colman, of course, an essential part of that family tradition was the faith which underlay everything.
And now to that other great family, the Christian Brothers, which was such an essential part of Colman's life. His affection for and pride in being a member of that religious brotherhood was firm to the end. He loved life, and as he recently told one of the families, he had no regrets. The Christian Brothers provided Colman with the opportunity to reveal another great quality of the man. He was given an outlet for that abundance of energy and generosity that made Him a great teacher and mentor to whole generations of students, many of whom remained in contact with him in later life. Like all of us, Colman had his prejudices. But, unlike most of us, he wore them on his sleeve, which made them easy for others to deal with. Recently in Beaumont Hospital, l broached as topic of conversation the World Cup soccer which was current at the time. I detected immediately that this was not a welcome topic. Colman could be argumentative, and he enjoyed the cut and thrust of mature debate.
It is with faith that we reflect on Colman's life. Thank God for that dedicated life, which has touched and graced and enriched all our lives.
I now quote the concluding paragraph of Br Edward Egan's contribution:
I had the sacred privilege to be with Colman in his last hour on this earth. He bore his suffering patiently and with courage. No doubt there will be dancing in heaven when St Peter meets the fiery 'Prince of Trim'. 'Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.'
I know your activities: your love, your faith, your service and your perseverance. (Rev 2:1)
A large gathering that included Colman's sisters, nephews, nieces, extended family, Christian Brothers, and many friends, attended the removal at St Patrick's Baldoyle on 3 August 2002. The Rosary and Evening Prayer of the Office for the Dead were recited. On the following morning after the funeral Mass, the mourners walked in procession to Blessed Edmund Rice cemetery for the interment ceremonies of a dedicated an inspiring Christian Brother.
Go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a anam dilis.
Back to the Obituaries Page.