TWO of Ireland's longest-serving missionary priests – with almost 150 years' service between them – died recently. Fr Bernard Farrelly died in Mauritius aged 96, on July 20, 2013, and weeks later his brother, Fr Matthew, died in Dublin on August 12, aged 99.
James and Margaret Farrelly brought up 11 children on their mixed farm in Drumbar, Kingscourt, Co Cavan, two others having died in infancy. Of the 10 boys and one girl who survived, two became missionary priests.
Elder brother Matthew (Matt) played Gaelic football for Kingscourt Stars, switching to rugby on enrolling in Blackrock College, Dublin, and played on the 1932 senior cup team. He was ordained a Holy Ghost priest in 1942 by fellow Cavan man and former Blackrock president Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. Matt's brothers cycled to Dublin from Cavan to see him ordained, as petrol was rationed.
Soon afterwards he was posted to the Gambia, making a perilous voyage to West Africa, in a convoy escorted by destroyers. There he taught in a school at Bathurst (Banjul), becoming headmaster and ecclesiastical superior of the mission.
Meanwhile Bernard (Benny), four years younger, was also enrolled at Blackrock College. Initially he was more studious and academic than Matt, with a talent for music. He too was ordained by McQuaid, and was posted to Mauritius. He taught English and religion on weekdays in the capital Port Louis, and went to help out in a remote parish at weekends.
Both spoke French. Blackrock College was founded by a French order, the Holy Ghost fathers, now known as Spiritans. Blackrock was once known as the "French college". And Matt's grasp of the language must have been a factor in his call to Paris in 1952 as private secretary to the order's superior general in Paris. Later he served in Rome as the order's general secretary. With some interruptions, including an eight-year stint in Mauritius as rector of the college where his brother Benny taught, most of his career was spent working in the administration of the Holy Ghost order.
For a while he worked closely with traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was Holy Ghost superior general before he rebelled against the Vatican II changes and left the order. Later Matt marched proudly down Fifth Avenue in New York behind St Mary's Brass and Reed band from Kingscourt on St Patrick's day in 1997, while posted there.
Matt Farrelly died in Dublin a few months short of his 100th birthday.
Benny often said he wanted to be a "real missionary" rather than a teacher. Posted to Nigeria in 1956, he thought his time had come, but teaching intervened again and curacy among the Igbo (Ibo) people did not happen until 1960. The civil war began in 1967, and the 300- strong Irish Spiritan group were gone by 1970.
He went back to Mauritius where teaching, pastoral work and hospital chaplaincy kept him busy into his early Nineties. Benny loved Mauritius and was saddened by the tragic death of Michaela Harte on honeymoon there in 2011.
Two brothers – Matt, a conservative administrator who always wore the Roman collar, Bernard, a hands-on pastor in an open-neck shirt – both were part of the great flowering of Irish missionary endeavour in the 20th century. The Farrelly brothers' lives spanned two world wars, independence at home and the winds of change that blew through Africa, Vatican ll and the decline of the Catholic church. Of their 11 siblings, just two brothers, Frank and Peter, survive them.