Jesuit priest Fr John Sullivan, who died in 1933, was declared blessed in a beatification ceremony at St Francis Xavier Church on Dublin’s Gardiner Street last Saturday.
I was deeply disappointed that I couldn’t attend, as I have a very special interest in Fr John due to an extraordinary experience I had over 40 years ago.
In 1976 I was a detective attached to the CDU in Dublin Castle. In October of that year, 24-year-old Gda Michael Clerkin was murdered by the IRA in an ambush near Portarlington, Co Laois. I was a member of the investigation team sent to pursue those IRA killers.
On a Sunday in early November, we arrested a suspect and took him in for questioning at the old garda station in Kildare.
At 7.30pm I decided to get some food in Newbridge and review the day’s developments.
I told the young garda who was acting station orderly that I’d be back in half-an-hour.
As I returned at about 7.50pm I saw through the half-glass door to the public office an elderly man standing at the counter.
He was no more than six feet away from me. He was tall, slightly stooped and appeared to be in his early 60s. His face was solemn, pale and worn and he had a sad but gentle appearance.
He had a full head of greying black wavy hair and wore a beige trenchcoat buttoned up to the neck.
He stood directly opposite the station orderly, who was seated behind the table at the other end of the room.
For some reason that I will never know, I retreated back out the front door and walked down the side of the station.
Through the side windows of the public office I saw this man still standing in the same spot.
I walked on down to the back yard and lit a cigar before returning about five minutes later.
As I walked up the side entrance, I could see the elderly man still in the same spot at the counter and the young garda at the table.
Without any further hesitation I walked around the station and pushed back the glass door into the public office. There was no sign of the man in the trenchcoat.
I asked the station orderly where the man had gone, and he replied that nobody had come in for the past 25 minutes.
I realised in that instant that the visitor was not of this world. As if I was being guided by an unseen hand, I took down a Sacred Heart badge that was wedged behind a wall socket and on the reverse there was a photo of the man I had seen standing at the counter.
The text under the photo read “Fr John Sullivan, died Sunday, February 19, 1933”.
The photo was identical to the man I had been surveying for the past 10 minutes. I have no doubt that the man in the trenchcoat was indeed Fr John Sullivan.
I froze, but in truth I experienced not fear but an emotional jolt. As an experienced police officer I was not then nor am I now possessed of a fanciful notion. However, what happened to me that night defied all logic.
While I was still standing there clutching the badge, a local detective who was working on the investigation walked into the public office and I told him what had happened.
He looked at me in disbelief and told me he had been present at the ceremony of exhumation in Clongowes Wood of the mortal remains of the same Fr John Sullivan on February 27, 1960. This was the first phase in the beatification of this holy man.
Still reeling from the shock, I took myself off duty as I was in no mood to continue any further interviews.
That remarkable night was the final link in a chain of events that began one day in June 1968.
I was walking that morning through St Stephen’s Green when I felt a tug on my jacket.
It was a very old man with a long white beard wearing a long, black, heavy coat.
In a firm but gentle voice he asked me to sit down and told me his name was Mr French and that he had a life-long devotion to Fr John Sullivan.
He showed me a miraculous medal that had been given to him by Fr John and told me details of his saintly life.
He pleaded with me to pray to him and warned me never to forget what he had told me that morning.
I never thought about that until my experience in Kildare eight years later.
During the course of the Clerkin investigation another remarkable coincidence occurred.
At one stage, accompanied by a colleague, I had called to interview Mr Pocock, the director of a textile factory in Tullamore, in connection with the movements of one of his employees, a suspect in the Clerkin murder.
As we were about to take our leave of him, I noticed a photo of Fr John Sullivan over the door with a lamp lit beneath it.
When I asked Mr Pocock about it, his face brightened. He told me that Fr John had been a living saint and he, Mr Pocock, had devoted much of his life to his canonisation.
He then told me an incredible story.
Years before, he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and doctors had held out no hope. He prepared himself for the inevitable and, as he lay on his deathbed, he heard a voice call his name.
He looked up and saw a man standing at the foot of his bed, who said: “I’m Fr John Sullivan, don’t worry.”
He awoke the next morning, rang the bell for breakfast and got out of bed. Nurses, doctors and consultants crowded around in amazement.
X-rays revealed no cancer and, within three days, he was back at home with his family.
I then told Mr Pocock of my incredible encounter in Kildare.
Out of curiosity, I made enquiries about the Sacred Heart badge in the station, and an old garda revealed to me where the badge had come from.
He said that many years ago an old man with a long white beard and a black coat called to the station one cold night looking for tea and lodgings.
The garda told me he gave him a bed for the night and a cup of tea. As he was leaving in the morning, the old man handed him the badge.
I have no doubt whatsoever that it was Mr French, who I had met all those years ago on Stephen’s Green.
That night in November 1976 defies all logic and remains a mystery.
However, I do now believe one great truth – that there is life after death.
The front page of the 'Irish Press' on April 6, 1970, was a busy mixture of domestic and foreign news: coverage of the funeral due to take place later that day of Garda Dick Fallon, murdered in the course of a bank raid in Dublin three days previously; intrigue in the Kremlin with rumours about the demise of Soviet premier Kosygin; and the ongoing Troubles in Northern Ireland. In the midst of that collection of stories was a 23-word piece headed "Relic stolen".