Farewell to a rock’n’roll bishop

I can well remember the last time I met Bishop Eamon Casey. I was late for a reporting gig at some event in the Crescent and we both ran on the footpath around the corner and crashed into each other, each of us as apologetic as the other. In hindsight, I should have been able to avoid him because as he walked, he sang and so his arrival was flagged well before he appeared.

Both of us were mildly embarrassed by the collision, but we brushed ourselves down. I picked up my scattered notebooks and he chatted away. “I spose we’re both heading to the same auld thing,” he said. “I should give you the quotes now and save ya the bother of having to sit through the next hour,” he said. He was in jovial form. It was one of those late Spring evenings where the dying sunset was bathing the street in a sort of golden glow.

This was April 1992, and although I didn’t know it then, all of life as he knew it, was about to change.

He was in the news at the time for his driving of the Developing The West Together Bishops’ Initiative which later evolved into various regional development bodies and eventually, the Western Development Commission, which has done sterling work for the recognition of the uniqueness of the west as a place to do business and to live. He was a vocal advocate for it, using all the skills acquired in battling for the Irish in London and for Trocaire and the many causes he advocated right across the globe. His sudden departure robbed it of its most influential member, its midfield general.

That evening, he came over at the end of the event and joked “I’m sure I’ll bump into you again at some stage,” and shook my hand.

And left.

And I never saw him again in person.

Three weeks later he was gone.

And never returned with the pomp for which he was accustomed, until last night, when he came back to Galway for the last time.

To rest here, in the crypt under the Cathedral, where he will be placed this afternoon.

1992 might seem like just around the corner, but it was still a world away in terms of what we accept as normal now. Back then there was genuine shock and disquiet, at what had emerged that sunny May 7, a Thursday morning. The story had broken in The Irish Times, but eventually it went mainstream and when the enormity of it broke, it created a whirlwind that put Galway into the international news cycle, ironically, just as it has been in this last two weeks.

There are many opinions of Bishop Casey for how he behaved, how he handled it, how he was treated by his superiors in the light of far more damning scandals elsewhere and it is not my role to judge the foibles of a human. Or to judge whether he was hypocritical. But they created an interest at the time which made him the most desired of journalistic targets.

An exclusive with or a photograph of Bishop Casey was the holy grail for many a reporter. Looking back now it seems unbelievable that the country got into such a tizzy over such events considering what was to come down the tracks. Whatever about 1950 being a different country, 1992 was still a space where you would think the country had moved on from the days of black and white. It was a year in which we saw the downfall of both Haughey and of a prominent churchman. It was the end of days, perhaps.

But this was pre-Celtic Tiger and there was the dying sense of innocence and subservience that prevailed and which has been decimated in the two and a half decades since.

The enormity of Bishop Casey’s role in Irish life, and not just Galway life, was signified by the fact his death received front page coverage in all of the national newspapers. It was rockstar status allocated to a rock’n’roll bishop who led a life of contradiction, contribution, controversy, and combustion.

Maybe it has been deliberate ploy by the Vatican, but the bishops of Galway who have been chosen to sit on the throne since 1992 have been the polar opposites of him in terms of bombastic personality. Both Bishop McLoughlin and retired bishop Martin Drennan were less vocal and less box office. And now with a decision due on a new Bishop of Galway later this year, the appointment will also be seen in the context of comparision to Bishop Casey

I often wonder what the last two decades would have been like if the revelations of May 7, 1992 had not emerged, what would have been achieved that was not? What would have been the impact on Galway, given that he was such a strong advocate for human rights? And given that the city has been devoid of talented leaders in many spheres in that period. What would he have made of the Celtic Tiger? Would the cards of Irish society have crumbled in the way they did, if those revelations had not been made public?

Vox pops across the city this week have shown that many people feel he was wronged in the way he was treated.

From this evening, he will be back in Galway again, lying beneath the vast cathedral suited to his booming voice.

May he rest in peace.


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