When the novelist Benedict Kiely died in February 2007 Msgr Tom Stack, who had received his remains at the Church of the Sacred Heart, wrote an incisive tribute in the Donnybrook parish bulletin.
Benedict Kiley, he wrote, “was above all else, a storyteller. The need we all have to hear the ‘story’ was fulfilled for us by him in an unrivalled fashion. His spell binding voice and meticulous power of recall could hold his listeners in a state of rapt attention”.
On that grey February evening in Donnybrook, Msgr Tom had welcomed the eclectic gathering with a story delivered with his characteristic style and humour.
Unsurprising, given Tom’s love of the poet’s writings, it concerned Patrick Kavanagh, Ben Kiely and the death of an archbishop.
Both men were working on the Standard newspaper and were working on the obituary of Archbishop of Armagh Cardinal Joseph MacRory.
As Kiely told it, Msgr Stack explained: “Kavanagh coughed and rasped and, referring to the deceased cardinal, said ‘now he knows what I knew years ago – there is no God!’”
In introducing the story Tom commented that “on the surface it appears disparaging and irreverent but in reality [the story] discloses its own strong, beguiling and even heartening metaphysic.”
“Whatever about Patrick Kavanagh’s contorted eschatology on that occasion, in fact the teaching of Jesus Christ is replete with paradox, for example in the Beatitudes, though certainly in a different key,” linking the story to the readings at the service, taken from the Sermon on the Mount.
Like Kiely, Tom Stack had a gift for storytelling and deployed his skill with ease, recognising the power of the story as a bridge to interpreting the complexities of life.
Over the years he seemed to have assumed the unofficial role of chaplain to writers and journalists and so many of my encounters with Tom are linked to occasions of sadness.
He was an assiduous funeral-goer and was frequently called upon to preside at funerals of journalists, writers, and poets – many of whom may have had a tenuous connection to the official structures of the Catholic Church.
He revealed at the funeral of Anthony Cronin that the poet had discussed his return to the Church and a “renewal of a belief in God”.
Tom Stack loved the company of journalists and had a passionate interest in the media. He enjoyed a close friendship with the former editor of the Sunday Independent Aengus Fanning and was concelebrant at his funeral and was one of the few invited to celebrate Mass in the private church at Tony O’Reilly Kildare mansion, Castlemartin.
There were few editorial executives in both print and broadcasting organisations with whom he was not on first name terms.
Naturally gregarious with a love of current affairs and gossip it is no surprise that Tom spent so much time in the company of journalists. He was a great networker and enjoyed the glamour and glitter of media occasions.
As Mary Kenny tweeted following the announcement of his death: “Absolutely sweet guy. Liked him enormously. Lifted one or two gins and tonics with him (along with Maeve Binchy back in the day. Was kind of pastor to many journalists/writers. And friend. RIP.”
It would be easy to view Tom Stack as a celebrity chaplain and certainly he was sometimes perceived as such in some clerical quarters. In my experience he was available to anyone who turned to him for counsel or friendship.
I recall in particular his compassion towards a mutual acquaintance – not a media worker, who had fallen on hard times. With his good friend the late Fr Dan Breen they also comforted her family, from whom she had been estranged following her untimely death.
Tom recalled after the funeral that he had befriended her as part of an informal drinking circle in Dublin’s smallest pub, the Dawson Lounge in the late 1960s. When a relative of the deceased raised a disapproving eyebrow Tom once more fell back on storytelling, recalling the wedding feast of Cana as a sort of imprimatur for good wine and merry-making.
Moving in liberal, even trendy circles, often among the glitterati Tom Stack never compromised his principles and was the antithesis of the jaded guitar playing Fr Trendy stereotype.
His homilies and commentaries were reflective, often rooted in his love of poetry.
His devotion to the work of Patrick Kavanagh was reflected in his anthology, No Earthy Estate. In the introduction he refers to his own friendship with the notoriously difficult poet.
He wrote “I retain the cherished memory of a rewarding, if limited, personal acquaintance with Patrick Kavanagh himself who, despite his ambiguous public reputation, I found to be a person of uncommon courtesy whose conversation I found as intriguing as it was memorable.”
Tom Stack’s death breaks another link with the pioneering Radharc team. In the RTÉ Guide of November 16, 1973 there is a revealing insight into how Radharc secured a world exclusive interview by Fr Peter Lemass with Rose Kennedy for their documentary Mother of the Kennedys.
Tom Stack was on a visit to New York and visited an Irish priest in Florida, the brother of the Irish sculptor Edward Delaney who successfully mediated contact with the matriarch.
Mrs Kennedy later waivered but was persuaded to trust the Irish independent production team by Fr Dermod McCarthy.
The 425 Radharc programmes made between 1962 to 1996 are a remarkable legacy and his involvement in that enterprise undoubtedly shaped the subsequent career of Tom Stack, priest and storyteller.
Séamus Dooley is a journalist and Irish Secretary of the National Union of Journalists. Msgr Stack died on December 27, 2020. Anima eius et animae omnium fidelum defunctorum per Dei misericordiam requiescant in pace.