Nicholas Furlong recalls the life of an extraordinary academic
Monsignor Patrick J Corish has died aged 91, weighed down with years and loaded with academic distinctions. It would be easy to list them at length but that would be to camouflage the magic of the man, for he was a phenomenon.
He was born in 1921 in Ballycullane, Co Wexford, where his father was principal of the local national school. Patrick entered Maynooth College in 1939 and was ordained in 1945. In 1947 he was appointed professor of ecclesiastical history, a position he held almost uninterrupted – he spent a year (1967-68) as President of the College – until 1975 when he was appointed Professor of Modern History.
His works, including especially Maynooth College, 1795-1995 and the masterly Irish Catholic Experience (1985), his editorship of Archivium Hibernicum, his work as co-ordinator of the history of Irish Catholicism project, were fundamental.
Monsignor Paddy was possessed of a sense of innocent mischief, or as some might say wicked cynicism fuelled at times with dark forebodings. Anecdotes about him abound – ask any of his students, young women and men, all of whom he regarded with fatherly affection and care. In the lecture hall he was entertaining, serious, sometimes provocative, always engaging.
He enjoyed his students' company and expected their response to his teaching to synchronise with the mental agility he recognised in them. It was entirely appropriate that his festschrift, Religion, Con flict and Co-existence in Ireland, published on his retirement in 1986, contains essays not by academic colleagues and peers as is usual in these tributes, but by 12 former students.
Dr Corish's extramural lectures and contributions were sought obsessively. To listen to him was to bask under an issue of gold. His simplifying of complexities was not only constant through his life in effortless oratorical balm; he extended the same to his eminently readable published works.
Monsignor Hugh Connolly, president of St Patrick's College, Maynooth, said at the funeral Mass at St Aidan's Cathedral in Enniscorthy that it was an opportunity to bring the three families that were so important to Monsignor Paddy together: the entire Maynooth family of St Patrick's seminary, pontifical university and Maynooth NUI to which he gave seven decades of his life and left an extraordinary legacy; the family of his brother priests and people of Ferns diocese; and his beloved blood family.
"For many of us, Paddy Corish was a giant at our shoulder. He was masterly in his discipline and yet had extraordinary humility and humanity."
In his homily, Bishop Denis Brennan quoted George Bernard Shaw, "When I die, I want to be all used up." These words, he said, accurately describe the passing of Monsignor Paddy Corish.
Ave et Vale.
Historian and former newspaper columnist, Nicholas Furlong is author of 24 books