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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Who were they? What were they like?



Visiting places where dedicated women and men of Ireland left memories that lasted for 1,500 years, I wondered what kind of people were they? Where they aloof, antisocial, lost in their own world?

Yet many of them had the word ‘Mo’ attached to their name – Mo-oca, Mo-chua, Mo-chtae, Mo-genoc, Mo-ling, Mo-lua, Mo-ninne and Mo-laga. ‘Mo’ means ‘my’ as in the old song ’Mother mo-chroi’, ‘Mother of my- heart’. Obvious people felt close to them.

Recently I think I got a clue as to what they meant to people and why their memory lingers.

It was when I was at Mainham Cemetery near Clane and amazed at its wealth of history. Looking for traces of the holy man who first built a cell there, I came across a fortress–like church built by the Hospitaller Crusaders in the 13th century, a mausoleum just outside the boundary erected by the local landlord in 1783 because he would not pay the five guineas to have it inside and a tumulus that was the burial place of a first century Queen of Leinster who collapsed, ‘stricken to the heart’ on hearing her husband had been killed in single combat at nearby Clane

Then I saw a more recent memorial, to a man who struck me as a possible successor to those whose memory survived for over a thousand years.

This memorial was for John Sullivan, born in Dublin of Cork parents in 1861. His father, Sir Edward, was an eminent Protestant lawyer who became Lord Chancellor of Ireland. His mother was a devoted Catholic but, as was the practice at that time, the boys in the family were baptised in their father’s faith and the girls in their mother’s.

John studied at the Portora Royal School, a noted Protestant academy in Northern Ireland, and at Trinity College Dublin. A prize-winning scholar, he had no trouble entering the legal profession. However, at the age of 33 he joined the Catholic Church in London and studied to be a Jesuit.

After ordination as priest he was sent to teach in Clongowes College where he spent most of the next 25 year until his death in 1933. It was in Clongowes, near Mainham Cemetery , that his story begins to get interesting and it was not as a teacher.

He began by visiting families in the area, especially the troubled, sick and dying. His reputation soon spread as a genuinely holy man, close to the people and immersed in their problems. He became known as ‘the saint on a bike.’ People came to him walking, cycling, on horse and donkey cart or by getting a lift in a car. Cures were attributed to him.

The compassion and patience he displayed were attributed to his hours of prayers and fasting. Within a short period people were regarding him as ‘their saint’, their ‘Mo-John’.

Noble family, scholar, ascetical life of fasting and vigils, reassuring presence among the people, those were the hallmarks of an Irish saints. Some of them might have been extreme in their practices but that is what made them special to the people and earned them that prefix of ‘Mo-‘.

John Sullivan was buried in Dublin but the people around Clane raised their own monument to him in nearby Mainham Cemetery, the home of another saint who lived some 1,500 years before.

In a ceremony in Dublin on 13 May 2017 he was proclaimed ‘Blessed’, the final step before final recognised by the universal Church as a new ‘Irish Saint.’

On that occasion there were representatives from Portora Royal School in Enniskillen and the Anglican Church to honour their ‘Old Boy’.

Until I find a better illustration, John Sullivan will be my idea of what the early Irish holy men and women with the prefix ‘Mo-‘ meant to the people of their time and why they are long remembered.

(If you want to know more about places that are reminders of Ireland’s forgotten heritage, go to the hugh macmahon pages on Facebook.)

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