A photograph, copied perhaps from a copy of the original, was passed to me some weeks ago following the death of Holy Ghost Missionary, Fr. John Gannon. Fr. John died in Mount Carmel Hospital, Dublin on 23rd June last, just a few weeks short of his 85th birthday. The photograph in which a young John Gannon was captured was taken in 1936 when he was a member of the first hurling team organised by the Christian Brothers in the secondary school in St. John’s Lane. The young hurlers were brought together and trained by Brother Peter O’Farrell who transferred to the local Christian Brothers Monastery two years previously. The team members are, with one exception, gone to their eternal reward. Their names however will be familiar to the readers of this column, as will those of the two lay secondary teachers which the house Annals of the Christian Brothers record as Liam Ryan and Pat Spillane. Liam Ryan came to Athy in 1934 and a year later Pat Spillane joined the staff of the local secondary school.
John Gannon was born in Shrowland in 1920 but the Gannon family later came to live in a house in Emily Square where his brothers Paddy and Bill were born. John entered the Holy Ghost Fathers in 1938 and received his first profession the following year. He graduated from University College Dublin with a BA degree in the penultimate year of the 2nd World War and two years later in 1946 he was ordained to the priesthood. Just a few years earlier two other ex-pupils of Athy Christian Brothers School were ordained for the church. Michael Coghlan, who sat his Leaving Certificate in 1930, was ordained in 1936, while Patrick Deegan was raised to the priesthood the following year. Following last weeks article I got a quick reminder from a loyal reader of the column that I had omitted to refer to Athy man Canon Patrick Deegan, late Parish Priest of Raphoe, when writing of my visit to the north west county of Donegal. The omission will be taken care of in a later article. Does anybody know anything about Fr. Michael Coghlan or his family background? I have never come across any reference to him other than that in the Annals of the local Christian Brothers Monastery.
Following his ordination Fr. John Gannon was sent to the Missions in Kenya where he became Head Master of a school in Waa which is located in Mombasa, a southern province of Kenya. He was later appointed Education Secretary for Mombasa, a position he held for a few years. During that time he opened up a Catholic Mission in Giriana, Mombasa and in 1952 he accepted the appointment as Education Secretary for the Archdioceses of Nairobi where Clare man Archbishop J.J. McCarthy held sway.
While there, Fr. John Gannon opened up several more Missions in places identified by the strange names of Lioki, Gatitu, Mangu, Thiogo and Ngarariga. This involved the building of churches and schools and the putting in place of teachers and religious necessary to keep the Missions open. His role was that of a pioneer who moved further and further into the bush, all the time opening up Missions which he passed on to others before setting off again for new territories.
The Athy man whose early language education was limited to English and Irish became fluent in Kikuyu, which is the language of the largest Kenyan tribe. He wrote catechetical books in Kikuyu, all the time advancing the cause of the Catholic Church in the darkest regions of Kenya. After 30 years in Africa he returned in 1970 to Ireland where at a conference of the Holy Ghost Fathers he was elected Provincial Counsellor for the Missions and also Superior of Kimmage Manor in Dublin. In 1982 at the age of 62 years he transferred to Ardbraccan just outside Navan in County Meath where a former novitiate was transformed into a retreat house and a home for the marginalised. Renamed “An Tobair”, meaning “the well”, the complex at Ardbraccan presented a new challenge for the former Kenyan pioneer. In 1998 John Gannon returned to Kimmage as Mission Procurator, a position which required him to keep all overseas Missions supplied and stocked with whatever was required for their work. He retired in 1996 and spent the remaining nine years of his life in Kimmage Manor.
Fr. John Gannon is survived by his brothers Paddy and Bill who live in Coventry, his sister Frances who lives in Vancouver and Mary whose home is in the Liverpool area. He was predeceased by his brother Dick and his sister Con who was Assistant Superior of the Order of the Poor Servants of God in Roehampton in England.
The photograph of the young Athy lads taken 69 years ago is a sombre reminder of the unrelenting passage of time and of young days spent in happy enjoyment with school friends in what for many of us was our alma mater at the top of St. John’s Lane.