Société des Missions Africaines - Province d’Irlande

O MAHONY Sean né le 15 mai 1920 à Cobh
dans le diocèse de Cloyne, Irlande
membre de la SMA le 1er juillet 1942
prêtre le 15 juin 1946
décédé le 7 août 2001

1947-1953 vicariat de Ondo-Ilorin, Nigeria
1954-1969 diocèse de Ondo, Nigeria
1970-1977 mission sma en Argentine
1978-1981 diocèse d’Ilorin, Nigeria
1981-1989 maison sma et paroisse ; Ibadan, Nigeria
1990-1994 diocèse d’Ilorin, Nigeria
1994-2001 Blackrock Road, Cork, retiré

décédé à Cork, le 7 août 2001
à l’âge de 81 ans

Father Séan Oliver Plunket O’MAHONY (1920 - 2001)

Séan O’Mahony was born at 23 West Beach, Cobh, Co. Cork, in the diocese of Cloyne, on 15th May 1920. He died in St. Theresa’s Nursing Unit, SMA House, Blackrock Road, Cork, on 7th August 2001.

Séan (known as ‘Séano’ within the Society) was one of three children born to Patrick O’Mahony who had come to Cobh from the Fermoy area in 1910 to work in his uncles’ greengrocer and florist business (‘Barrys Brothers’), becoming manager of the firm and eventually buying it out. Séan’s mother, Kathleen, was a member of the renowned Allen family from Cobh. Séan received his primary education in the Convent of Mercy school and the local National school. During these years he showed promise as an artist, emulating his father’s artistic ability. After primary school he got a scholarship to the Presentation Brothers’ Secondary school in Cobh, completing his Leaving Certificate in 1939. Séan was wing-forward on the celebrated Presentation Cobh team which in 1938 won (for the one and only time) the Munster Schools Senior Rugby Football Cup, defeating their much fancied rivals, Cork Presentation, by a drop goal (4 points) to a penalty (3 points) in Cork’s Mardyke field. Séan’s prowess as a swimmer was even more renowned. As a member of Cobh Swimming Club he was invited to attend Eglantine Street Baths in Cork for special coaching lessons conducted by a prominent American swimmer and Olympic coach, Chick Acosta.

After secondary school Séan spent a year working with his sister, Kathleen, in the family business. During that year thoughts of becoming a missionary also occupied his mind and he spoke to Bishop Roche of Cloyne who suggested a few missionary groups that he might join. Doubtless the seriousness of his resolve was stiffened by a canoeing accident in which a close friend lost his life but which Séan survived. His first contact with the SMA came during the summer when he went swimming with Maurice McCarthy, who had already spent one year with the SMA but had fallen sick and was back at home recuperating (He was later ordained in the Society). Séan was later interviewed by Fr. J.C. O’Flaherty and entered the Society’s novitiate and house of philosophy, at Kilcolgan, Co Galway, in the autumn of 1940. Two years later, having been received as a member of the Society on 1st July 1942, he completed his course and was promoted to the Society’s theological seminary, at Dromantine, Newry, Co Down, in September 1942. During these years he utilized his artistic skills in preparing stage scenery for student productions and in designing student magazine covers and ordination cards. Séan was ordained a priest in St. Colman’s cathedral, Newry, by Bishop Eugene O’Doherty of Dromore, on 15th June 1946. He was one of a group of fourteen ordained on that day.

Séan’s ordination coincided with the election of a new Provincial Superior, Patrick Martin Kelly, at the Assembly of 1946. Dr. Kelly was an ardent advocate of local arts, crafts and industries and, before he became Provincial, had already carried out a number of experiments in Western Nigeria where he had been stationed. As Provincial he decided to initiate 'the Oye-Ekiti scheme' – a Society rather than a Mission work - which was based on his unique philosophy of missionary education. He had already selected Kevin Carroll to head the ‘scheme’. Knowing that during his seminary years Séan had revealed a talent for art Dr. Kelly decided to prepare him to work alongside Fr. Carroll. To this end Séan was sent to London University to study art. A year later, his course complete, Séan went to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) to study the uses of clay in brick and tile work, as preparation for a posting to the Oye ‘scheme’. Six months later Séan joined Kevin Carroll who was expert in the uses of textiles. An account of the ‘scheme’ and its accomplishments is to be found in Kevin’s book, Yoruba Religious Carving - subtitled 'Pagan and Christians Sculpture in Nigeria and Dahomey' (1967). This book describes how Kevin and Séan identified the available sources of skill and organized the carvers and weavers, bead and leather workers, in a new and purposeful way. Much of the artwork produced related to vestments, ambo frontals, stations of the cross, door panels, tabernacle veils, crucifixes and other liturgical paraphernalia. There were other projects too, including the erection of a building using African tiles and brickwork, and the construction of a dam using local technologies.

In October 1953 the Society superiors in Ireland, in consultation with the local bishops in Nigeria – all members of the Society - decided to close down the 'scheme'. One of the principal reasons for this was the cost in maintaining the 'scheme' at a time when the Province's funds were low. There was also resistance from ecclesiastical authority towards 'Society works', which appeared to encroach on Episcopal prerogatives. When the ‘scheme’ was wound up Séan was incorporated into the Ondo diocesan staff. He was to serve in the Ondo jurisdiction until 1969. During these years he ministered in St. Matthew’s parish, Ondo town, assisting first Tom Shaughnessy, later Vincent Finnegan and, finally, Edward O’Donovan. In 1965 he was placed in charge of Ire-Ekiti mission and also appointed Director of Catholic Action for the diocese. A year later he was appointed parish priest of St. Matthew’s, Ondo town. Here he had Nigerian carvers produce a set of Stations of the Cross for the church interior, and panels depicting bible scenes for the entrance doors.

It was in St. Matthew’s, in the autumn of 1967 that a series of events occurred which led to Séan’s departure from Ondo diocese. A dispute arose between Séan and his parishioners, as was often the case in Nigeria, about the Harvest celebrations and, more specifically, the uses to which proceeds from collections should be put. There was a diocesan policy on this issue and Séan applied it rigorously, which displeased some of the members. One thing led to another as relations deteriorated; attempts at mediation were made and did not succeed. In the end Séan’s position became untenable and, feeling that he had not received sufficient support from the diocesan authorities, he asked his superiors for an appointment outside Ondo diocese. The circumstances which led to this situation were complex and mostly not of Séan’s making. This was recognised by the Provincial Administration in a letter which offered Séan a new assignment in the recently opened Society mission to Argentina.

The SMA presence in Argentina dated from May 1966 when, in response to Paul VI’s call for aid to the Church in Latin America, the Province announced its decision to open a new mission in the diocese of Cordoba. The appointment of an experienced missionary, such as Séan, was an important boost to this new effort. He gave himself freely to this new challenge, going to Argentina in February 1970, learning Spanish, and then taking up duty in the SMA parish of Parque Field, Rosario, a city some 180 miles west of Buenos Aires. This was an era of considerable unrest in Argentina with political violence endemic. Interested in liberation theology, though moderate in his outlook, Séan settled well in Argentina, writing to his Provincial in July 1970 that he was ‘immensely happy’. In January 1971 he was appointed Councillor to the Society Superior in Argentina and in 1975 became Assistant Superior of the foundation. By this time he was resident in Suncho Corral parish, in the diocese of Anatuya. Sean was to serve in Argentina until the summer of 1977, spending his last two years as vice-superior of the SMA branch. One of his most memorable experiences was the visit of the Irish Rugby team in 1971 when he was able to exchange his rich store of rugby lore with a host of rugby greats like Bill McBride, Tom Kiernan, Fergus Slattery, Terry Moore and Phil O’Callaghan.

In October 1977 Séan was given a year’s sabbatical leave, which he spent first on the Glenart Renewal Course, and then in London studying pastoral teamwork in Fr. Michael Hollings’ multi-racial parish in Southall. ‘It is like being back in Africa’, he wrote to the Provincial. ‘Our “open” parish house is something to be experienced and possibly quite unique… There is a stable staff of three priests, a couple of deacons, two seminarians, a few women who organise catechetical, secretarial and housework, all volunteers… There are so many parish activities’. During this time too, with a view to returning to Africa, he became a part-time student at SOAS (London University), specialising in Hausa language and in Islamic studies.

Séan returned to Nigeria in October 1978, taking up an appointment in Ilorin diocese where William Mahony was bishop. In 1981 the Society was looking for a Father to take charge of the Regional Superior’s house for Southern Nigeria, situated in at Challenge, Ibadan. Séan O’Connell, the Regional, secured Séan’s consent to take up the position and Bishop Mahony kindly agreed to his release. In Challenge Séan was not only guest-master, looking after the house and the many visitors who came there, but took charge of St. Leo’s church adjacent to the house, enlarging it so that it could accommodate several hundred people. It was during his tenure that St. Leo’s was erected as a parish.

In 1987 Séan took sabbatical leave, spending the year in Glenstal Abbey and then returned to Ibadan. In April 1989, entering his seventieth year, he wrote to his superiors suggesting that a younger man would be better able to cope with the demanding work at Challenge and the rapidly-growing St. Leo’s parish. He himself wanted time to ‘concentrate on catechetical work in the line of visual aids’ for which he had a considerable talent. His superiors were agreeable and when Séan returned from his next home leave he took up residence at Mount Carmel College in Ilorin diocese. During the next four years he assisted in pastoral work, but also produced an outstanding catechetical art book, ‘Bible Stories for African Homes’, which was published in March 1994. This collection of beautifully illustrated bible stories was to win for Séan the prestigious Vatican Multimedia International Award for 1994, given ‘for excellence in the use of media in evangelisation’.

Séan retired to Blackrock Road in August 1994. During the remaining years of his life he cherished the opportunity to pursue his lifelong interest in art and completed a number of projects, including a painted Crucifix for the chapel at Cork’s University College Hospital. Most of his time was taken up with religious artwork with an African flavour, which involved the production of liturgical and catechetical works, as well as a variety of cards and posters. During this time too he became keenly interested in iconography which he had first encountered during his sabbatical year at Glenstal. Séan became well known to artists in the city and county and took a number of courses to improve his technique. A number of his paintings were exhibited in various centres, including the City Library and in his native Cobh. He was a frequent visitor to art classes in the Cork Centre for the Unemployed. Up to the end, too, he was active in the SMA Blackrock Road parish church, saying Mass regularly for the parishioners and hearing Confessions.

Séan was not only an artist, but had an artist’s temperament and sometimes could be brusque and angular. He had a strong physique with a voice to match and a fine head of hair. He also dressed as befitting an artist. Even in the year that he died he presented a striking figure. In June 2001, suffering from severe arthritis, he was operated on for a hip replacement in the Bon Secours hospital. Séan had being diagnosed a diabetic many years before, an illness he was able to control by diet. In the wake of his operation his diabetes went out of control and his health deteriorated. He died peacefully in St. Theresa’s Nursing Unit, Blackrock Road, on the evening of Tuesday, 7th August.

He is buried in Wilton Cemetery.