Monsignor Padraig de Brun

A Machine Readable Version

Thomas MacGreevy

Original Source: Italy Speaks. July 1960. pp. 8-9.

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Monsignor Padraig de Brun

Since the Treaty of Westphalia, secularist propaganda has represented Churchmen as the inveterate enemies of humanism. The truth of the matter, however, is that, except where humanism, forgetful of the Kingdom of God that is within every human being, has shown signs of losing its sense of proportion—as on occasion during the century preceding the Council of Trent—Churchmen have been, all through history, its friends. In Ireland especially, we remember that, early and late, throughout the glory of our early Middle Ages, as in the darkest night of our history, which is to say during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Churchmen, whether as writers and artists themselves or whether as patrons of writers and artists, most nobly represented and defended the worth-while expressions of the human spirit.

Monsignor Padraig de Brún, who died on Whit Sunday of this year, has been, in our day, a supreme example of the Churchmen of that great tradition. Of prodigious natural gifts, he came, through his training as a priest, to develop them all and to apply them all, each and every one, with a truly extraordinary sense of proportion, with full consciousness of the relative importance of such development and such application to ultimate spiritual values.

Rector Magnificus of University College Galway in the last decade and a half of his life, it was as a mathematician that he was known academically. He owed his early mathematical training to his teacher-father. But when, later, he went to Rockwell College and followed the old "Intermediate" course, his tutor in mathematics was Mr. de Valera again who was his tutor when, a student at Holy Cross College, Dublin , the young cleric took the Honours course in Mathematics at the National University. It is permissible here to quote from the noble tribute paid to his memory by His Excellency, the President, on the day of his death: "An unrivalled student career was finally crowned by his winning, with his Master's Degree in Mathematical Science, the National University's premier award, the Travelling Studentship. A couple of years later, after studies at the Sorbonne, he secured with the highest distinction a Doctorate of Science in the University of Paris . He then continued his studies at Göttingen, after which he became Professor of Mathematics at Maynooth College."

Monsignor de Brún fully understood the most advanced mathematical theories of modern scientific discovery and their philosophic and practical significance for the future of mankind. He was in every sense of the word, a distinguished figure at congresses on such matters, in Ireland as a matter of course, but also as far afield as Oslo and Rome, not to speak of Cambridge.

Yet he was not only a mathematician and not only a mathematical philosopher. He had an Olympian capacity to appreciate the most exalted works of art and literature, ancient and modern. On his retirement from Galway a few months ago he had become President of An Comhairle Ealaoin, the Arts Council of Ireland. He knew Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German and English. And he knew them all well. Cherishing what was fine in all cultures, he was at home and made friends amongst the most outstanding intelligences in the many countries he visited. But, a patriot in all things, he set himself early in life to master the language of his fathers. And it was his dream to enrich Gaelic Ireland's already rich cultural heritage by helping to fill the gap that historical circumstance had created in Ireland at the very time that the ideals of the Italian Renaissance, as revised in the light of the edicts of the Council of Trent, were bearing fruit in other more fortunately placed lands. His was the heroic endeavour to make the classics of other literatures available in Irish translations that should be not unworthy of the great originals. He translated Homer and Sophocles, Dante, Corneille and Racine. His versions of the Oedipus plays of Sophocles, the Polyeucte of Corneille and the Athalie of Racine (these last two plays being the supreme works of Christian literature in dramatic form), were acted and published in his lifetime. The Irish translation of the Divina Commedia is due to appear shortly, the Homer works are to be published later.

Nor were Monsignor de Brún's literary interests confined to translation. He was a poet in his own right, a poet and a friend of poets. It was James Stephens who, getting on for forty years ago now, invited me to meet the already distinguished young cleric at luncheon at Mitchell's restaurant in Grafton Street. Both men were wonderful talkers. That day the talk was all of poetry and I remember that, for me, the high-light in two hours of enchantment was when I had reminded Monsignor of the opening scene, with Der Herr in red Himmel, of Goethe's Faust —which I only knew in our own John Anster's admirable English translation—and which he, in his rich musical voice repeated for me in the original German. I have made him repeat those great verses for me many times, over the years since then.

There was another evening, sometime round 1930, when, at home on holiday from Paris, Monsignor came in from Maynooth to spend the afternoon with me and he, hearing that I was going later to W.B. Yeats, asked me to telephone and enquire whether he might come too. For it had been some years since he had seen the famous poet. Needless to say, the suggestion was warmly welcomed. And I remember a grave discussion between the two men on the future of a poetry in the new Ireland that had come into being. As poets they differed in that, where Yeats wrote of modern Ireland mostly in terms of Ireland's heroic past, often using symbols of esoteric significance, Monsignor, the intimate friend of the men of his own generation who had given their lives for Ireland in the war years, wrote directly of the heroism that he had seen. Then again, Yeats could not make up his mind as to the place of the Irish language in the literature of the future—he never did wholly make up his mind on the subject—whereas Monsignor de Brún had faith in the future of the language and had already begun writing in Irish. I think his elegy on his dead brother was written about that time. But whatever their differences the two poets were united in their love of Ireland and their love of poetry. And also in deep respect for each other. A day came when Yeats gladly carried to Monsignor de Brún a message from Lady Gregory who, on her deathbed, had asked for him to be told that her greatest comfort during her last days had been the Beatha Iosa Criost , the Life of Our Lord, based on the Bible text, which [p.9] Monsignor, in collaboration with Monsignor Boylannow Parish Priest of Dun Laoghaire—had written shortly before.

With all his grave preoccupations, he had a blessed lightness of heart and sense of fun. Writing for an Italian publication, I may recall a story he told me of a misadventure he had on one of his Italian visits, which, in tiresome circumstances, brought the sense of fun into play. He had the happiest memories of all his numerous visits to Italy. But one evening a few years ago he arrived in Pisa without having booked a room in advance. Going into the first likely hotel he came to, he presented himself at the reception desk. It was late and there was nobody about except a man making up his accounts at the desk. Off-handedly he informed Monsignor that he had no room free. Monsignor insisted that any corner would do. With weary impassivity the man refused to be interested. Being used to the courtesy normally shown to visitors at Italian hotels, Monsignor asked whether the man would telephone to some other hotel and try to get a room for him. Even this the man refused to do. Suddenly Monsignor shifted his ground and asked whether the man had ever heard of a poet named Dante Alighieri! The man merely lowered his eyelids in disdainful acknowledgment of the query. But Monsignor insisted. Did the man know what Dante Alighieri thought of the people of Pisa? Faintly the man shrugged his shoulders. Obviously, if he knew, he did not, at that moment, care what Dante thought of the Pisans. So Monsignor flung the famous lines at him: ...Volpi si piene di froda
Che non temono ingegno che le occupi!

And, more pleased with himself than angry with the unco-operative hotelier, he picked up his suit-case and stalked off to discover, as needless to say he did discover, a more welcoming padrone a little further on.

Of his happy memories, a high-light of which he liked to talk was the visit he paid a couple of years ago to Fermo, the seat of the archbishopric which, just over three centuries ago, was held by Rinuccini, the Papal Nuncio accredited to Ireland at the time of the Confederation of Kilkenny when, for nearly a decade, the decade of the civil war in England, the dream of an independent, united Ireland seemed possible of realization. Monsignor de brún, desirous of paying homage to the memory of Rinuccini, drove from Rome to the little city in the Marches . Arrived there, he felt he should pay his respects to Rinuccini's successor, the present archbishop, Monisgnor Perini. But as it was near mid-day he decided to wait until after luncheon before presenting himself at the arcivescovato. When he did present himself, however, and confessed that he had deliberately refrained from calling at the hour of the mid-day repast, His Grace treated him to such an affectionately fatherly scolding as he had not had since he was a student. He was further informed that he was to bring in his luggage and stay, not only for supper, but for the night. Then followed one of the happiest afternoon-and-evening sessions of Monsignor's later years. Talking of it, he would grow tender at the memory of the warmth of Archbishop Perini's reception of him and of the charm of his conversation.

Nor did the Archbishop's kindness end when they said goodbye. Monsignor de Brún was leaving early as he wished to say Mass at Loreto. He would have taken his chance and waited his turn for a free altar. But the Archbishop gave him an introduction to the Superior at the Basilica of the Holy House so that when he arrived at Loreto and presented his letter, though every altar but one was occupied, and a priest was vesting preparatory to saying Mass at that one, nothing would do those concerned but that the Monsignor from Ireland should have the free altar immediately. And the priest who had been vesting insisted that he, himself, would wait and asked to be allowed to serve Monsignor de Brún's Mass. Which he did.

Recallig it all, the Irish translator of Dante used to rejoice at the thought that, in twentieth-century Italy, cortesia and civiltà are cherished as they were in the century of the great epic poet of Christianity.

Thomas MacGreevy