Remembering Sean Heuston's brother

By Fr Michael Commane - The Way I See It

Published 19/03/2016 | 00:00

During the 50th commemoration of the 1916 Rising there was a standing joke that everyone alive at the time of the Rising was claiming to have been in the GPO on Easter Monday. This, the 100th anniversary of the Rising, it's unlikely that there is anyone around who claims they were in situ on the famous day..

From what I know of my ancestry we had no one fighting on either side. But I have a tangible link to the great day. Seán or JJ Heuston, who worked with the railway was executed in Kilmainham Gaol on May 8, 1916. My mother knew his brother, Fr John, so it is something that links me, ever so tenuously to the men of 1916. Seán's brother was a Dominican priest. He was born in June 1897, took his first profession in the Order in 1915 and was ordained a priest on July 9, 1922.

I had the good fortune of living with him in Rome during my two years in the Italian capital. Somewhere in storage is a lovely letter Fr John Heuston wrote to my mother. I'd say it was written in the early 1960s Are you confused? Two brothers with the same Christian name? Before the Second Vatican Council when people joined religious orders they were usually given a new name, different from their baptismal name. So the young Michael Heuston, who joined the Dominicans in Tallaght in 1914, was given the name John. And it so happens that was the name of his famous brother, although he was more commonly known as JJ. For the rest of his life he was known as Fr John Heuston.

The Dominican priest was a multi-talented man. He was a polymath. A top-class mathematician, a keen photographer, a historian. He also knew his theology and philosophy. It was almost impossible to get the better of him in an argument. There was little he did not know. I'm aware of one of his books. Some of his pictures have been reproduced on facebook.

He played a significant role in the design and building of the Dominican priory in Limerick and while living in the Dominican priory at San Clemente in Rome he worked on a book on the famous world-renowned apse in the main church. It has often occurred to me whatever happened that project, was it ever published?

CIE consulted him when they were commissioning the bust of his brother, which was erected at Kingsbridge Station to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The station was renamed Heuston Station in honour of his brother, who worked at Limerick and Kingsbridge stations.

Fr John was also a kind and gentle man but eccentric too. He had an aversion to noise and would go to great lengths to 'shut it out'. If one managed to get through the man's eccentricity, a fount of knowledge, love and genuine fun was to be discovered. I remember on one occasion saying to him that he was away ahead of his time. He looked at me and in a flash said: "Not at all, it's the Irish Dominicans who are behind the times." He smiled and slipped away. It would make sense and indeed it would be an honour to the man to remember him this year on the 100th anniversary of the execution of his brother.

Fr John was granted special permission from the Dominicans to visit his condemned brother in Kilmainham Gaol. He died in Rome on Mach 6, 1984.

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