A man “full of energy, full of life [and] of dynamism” has been lost in the passing of Bishop Eamonn Casey, who died on March 13 at the age of 89.
This was the assessment offered by long-time friend Fr Dermod McCarthy for one of Ireland’s most high-profile prelates who would be recalled in his lifetime less for his championing of human rights and social justice than for the affair that ended his bishopric of Galway in 1992.
A native of Co. Kerry, Eamonn Casey was born on April 24, 1927. Educated in Limerick before entering St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, he was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Limerick in 1951. Over the following nine years he worked as a curate in Limerick parishes before being appointed to the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy Service in England.
Between 1960 and 1969 Fr Eamonn worked on behalf of Irish migrants, pioneering on their behalf the provision of housing; in 1963 was appointed national director of the Catholic Housing Aid Society by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
He was ordained Bishop of Kerry in 1969, and went on to become the first chairman of the Trócaire aid agency, at its foundation by the Irish bishops in 1973. It was via Trócaire that his passionate advocacy for social justice gained a higher profile.
He was subsequently appointed as Bishop of Galway, Kilmacduagh and Kilfenora in 1976.
It would be in Galway where Bishop Casey would again prove his social justice credentials when, at a time of straitened national finances, he established not only the Meitheal Programme – allowing individual parishes to borrow development finance from a central fund at a nominal cost – but also the Galway Social Services as well as outreach services for members of the Travelling Community and prisoners at home and abroad.
It was through his work with Trócaire that Bishop Casey would find himself thrust dangerously into the heart of the violent atmosphere pervading in El Salvador in 1981.
Present in San Slavador to attend the funeral of his friend, the murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero, Bishop Casey was among mourners in the Metropolitan Cathedral when the building and environs were raked by gunfire from surrounding buildings in an attack that was to leave 50 dead. One report from the time places Bishop Casey at the doors of the cathedral guiding people to safety. He would subsequently minister to the injured and dying.
Perhaps propelled by this experience, in addition to his wider work in Latin America, Bishop Casey would vocally oppose the 1984 visit to Ireland of US President Ronald Reagan due to his country’s foreign policy in the region.
Beyond such issues, Bishop Casey will also be remembered as a driving force behind Ireland’s hosting of St John Paul II on September 30, 1979, and specifically the youth gathering at Ballybrit Racecourse in Co. Galway where the late Pontiff addressed and prayed with 300,000 young people from all across the country.
The issue that was, for many, to override all others came in 1992 when Bishop Casey resigned amid revelations that he had fathered a son in 1974 with an American woman, Annie Murphy, and had used IR£70,000 in diocesan funds to support her. The funds were subsequently repaid by donors.
Departing Ireland amid the ensuing scandal, Bishop Casey was to become a missionary priest in Ecuador until, in 1998, he transferred to a parish in the English Diocese of Arundel and Brighton.
In 2006, he returned to Ireland, settling in Shanaglish near Gort, Co. Galway and later Carrigoran Nursing Home in Co. Clare, where he died peacefully on Monday.
Tributes that followed the announcement of Bishop Casey’s passing were led by the Primate of All Ireland Archbishop Eamon Martin who said of his fellow prelate: “Bishop Casey’s inspirational leadership of Trócaire pioneered a very significant pastoral outreach from this country towards the most vulnerable people in the developing world, while at the same time he energetically raised awareness of overseas development issues at home in Ireland…Both as priest and bishop, Bishop Casey’s ministry on behalf of Irish emigrants is well known and was of immense significance in particular to the Irish in Britain.”
Having learned “with great sadness” of Bishop Casey’s death, President Michael D. Higgins said: “After his attendance at the funeral of Bishop Romero who was assassinated in El Salvador, Irish awareness of the sources of conflict in Central and South America was significantly increased.
“While serving as mayor of Galway I was asked by Bishop Casey to visit, with other parliamentarians, El Salvador and to speak to the religious and others who were reporting on human rights and the killings that were taking place.
Other aspects of his life were the source of pain to others, for which Bishop Casey has apologised and expressed his deep regret, and he himself had the experience of pain visited on him in later life.”
Trócaire’s current chairman, Bishop William Crean, hailed the work of Bishop Casey with the agency, stating that it had benefited millions of people around the world.
“Bishop Casey spoke out courageously in defence of persecuted communities overseas and was willing to place himself in danger in order to do so. His campaigning, both at home and overseas, raised awareness of grave injustices and helped to bring about positive change.”
In addition to this, the prelate’s extended family described the man they knew as “a great source of love and support, making himself available to celebrate and to empathise with us in all our important family occasions”.
In the end, the duality that was Bishop Casey’s life and ministry was best summed up by Annie Murphy when she learned of his death.
“It’s the passing of an important individual in your country and my son’s father,” she said.