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Father who would have been great family man

Back in the medieval era, when I was aged about nine or 10, I had a teacher named Jarlath Dowling. He taught music in the school I attended in Dublin at the time.

He was a big man physically, ruddy-faced and cheerful, and he was big in his emotions also. Puccini could make him weep. Mozart made him laugh out loud with delight. His beloved recording of The Dubliners singing McAlpine's Fusiliers would have him punching the air at the chorus. He'd play a record to us in class and conduct the imaginary orchestra with his toothbrush. He'd mime trumpets or tubas or spangling banjos. He was passionate about music, all sorts of music. He'd get excited as he spoke about it. When he played it, his face changed. A boyishness illuminated his shy, intelligent eyes.

He'd say to us: "This is one of the reasons for being alive." Bach or the Beatles, Chopin or Shostakovich, Fats Waller or Louis Armstrong or Jimmy Durante, the genre made little difference. I remember him once making a remark we barely understood at the time: "There's no sadder person in the world than the person who never loved music. Music is what makes life sweet."

His other great love was for early cinema. At the end of the year, or sometimes just because he felt like it, he would get out an old reel of film and show it to us in the class, on a rattling old projector that had seen better days. It was usually the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy. He would be reduced to helpless glee as he watched the capers on the screen and the sight of him laughing would cause us to laugh too. You didn't see a teacher laugh too often in those days. It was some years before happiness became legalised in Irish schools, a move that would be seen as controversial.

Jarlath Dowling was a religious man, a Catholic priest. But he wore his holiness lightly, at least in public. He could be impatient but I never remember him uttering an uncharitable word or a thought that wasn't somehow touched by joy and hope.

I think he sensed the divine in the mysteries of music, in its longings, its yearnings, its consolations and its beauty. Every one of us loved him. He was a truly great teacher. When he died, some years ago, I felt that particular sadness we feel when one of those who opened up the world to us passes away.

Every year in September, as children return to school, I remember his laughing spirit with enormous affection. A man who saw God in the Marx Brothers.

And I thought of him last week when retired Bishop of Derry, Edward Daly, spoke of the need he feels for Catholic priests to be permitted to marry. I want to state plainly and openly that I never discussed this issue with Jarlath Dowling, that I do not assume for one moment that he would have shared Edward Daly's views. For all I know, he might have disagreed with them profoundly.

As I say, he was a person of passions, a man of remarkable courage and personal conviction and it is unimaginable to me that a man of such dignity and decency would ever break a promise he had made. But I can remember it seeming to me then, as it seems to me still, that he would have made the most wonderful father. He was kindly, understanding, patient, full of humour, gentle, hesitatingly wise.

That he had to choose between serving his God and perhaps having a family seems too hard a decision, at least to me. It must have been lonely sometimes, for him and for others. Was it worth it? I hope so. Who knows?

But there are many songs in the world, many ways of living decently. When the Catholic Church finally comes to understand this, it might begin the walk from its tomb. Some might call it growing up, at last.

Joseph O'Connor's Wednesday radio diary is broadcast on RTE Radio 1's Drivetime with Mary Wilson.

Sunday Independent