Fr Stephen Redmond SJ talks to Pat Coyle about his life and vocation
A Stephen Redmond looks back over his 94 years, he counts his blessings: in the music that bubbles up inside him, in the love of parents and siblings, in countless friendships, in the roots he has in Donnybrook, Dublin and the opportunities for education.
His father looms large: a man of great moral courage and a promising GAA footballer who was headhunted for a Dublin team from his native Wexford (so “I owe my vocation to the GAA”) and became first a driver, then a manager for the Ballsbridge bakery.
With that promotion he moved house from Ringsend to Ballsbridge. His first marriage brought him two daughters and a son, who took good care of Stephen, the only child of the second marriage. Nora in particular was Stephen’s guardian and companion. He remembers one occasion in Herbert Park when their play was interrupted by the sound of heavy gunfire – Free State artillery pounding the Four Courts.
As Stephen grew, he would often walk with his father at the end of a working day, talking about what he had learned that day in Synge Street, his father happy to see Stephen getting the education that he had missed – but he was a great reader and collector of second-hand books. Stephen could lead you to the gateway in Herbert Park where he told his father that he was going to enter the Jesuits.
Both father and mother were happy and supportive of his vocation, and wept tears at his ordination in 1950. It had not been quite straightforward. The chaplain in UCD, where Stephen majored in history (a strong Leaving Cert had won him a scholarship to university), thought he should try the Benedictines, and it was possibly the example of his schoolmate Joe Veale that moved him towards the Jesuits.
Apart from his impressive academic achievements, Stephen had learned – from a brilliant female teacher – to love and play music – the piano and singing. “I have music in my head and imagination,” he says. Nora would bring him to musicals in the Savoy cinema. Teaching English to young boys in Gonzaga he put music on the poems both of the great classics and of his own composition. His bucket list centres round music. He would like to make a CD of his piano compositions, though writing music is time-consuming and wearisome. He would love to see another staging of his musical about the Spiritual Exercises. It was first produced in Zambia, where it was broadcast by national radio and proved attractive to people who had some religion. “Now I look at my superiors with doglike eyes, hoping to produce it again,” he says.
One moment of national focus was the Eurovision Song Contest of 1968, when Fr Stephen’s Gleann na Smól was admitted to the final six by mistake, because an official in RTÉ misheard Song M as Song N.
Zambia influenced his rhythms and creativity. He went there to work in the noviciate, and found the music bubbling up inside him. He puts his musical vocation in a phrase: “I want to express the Christ fact in music and song.” After listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Fr Stephen wrote a musical on the resurrection, in which Peter, Paul, Magdalene, Thomas and others sing their songs of witness. The audience in Zambia included the Prime Minister and the Papal Nuncio – “I must admit he slipped out for a cigarette at one stage,” he says.
Fr Stephen’s reflections are suffused with a sense of gratitude: for a pretty blissful childhood, surrounded by love; for the locality – Donnybrook – in which he is rooted and has spent most of his life; for Jesuit comrades and superiors who have shown him great kindness; for his many pupils in Ireland and Africa, who regard him with special affection.
He has seen a growth in personal freedom over the years, and had the great happiness of living through Vatican II, with all its ups and downs. On his only visit to Rome a local Jesuit told him that Paul VI, who inherited the Council from John XXIII, “was like a man on a bucking bronco”.
Fr Stephen’s legacy is already substantial; both in books published and in musical CDs. RTÉ has just given him a new CD which includes Gleann na Smol. He has written on the Faith and its witnesses, on the sacraments, the rosary, and on the Christian vocation: to share the humanity of Christ with its suffering, its ups and downs, and also to share his glory.
His head is still clear, and the music still bubbles, though the body is frail and needs lots of pills. It is lovely to see a man of 94 with such an appetite for things he still wants to do, a blessed bucket list.
*This article was first published by Irish Jesuit News, the newsletter of the Irish Jesuits province