Irish Men behind the Missions: Fr Gerry Keane SJ

Gerry Keane SJ and family

 

“Christ on a bike!”—or, a priest on a Honda 50—was rare in 1970’s Ireland, well in Tipperary anyway. I suppose it was summer 1974 when Uncle Gerard, as we referred to him, was on one of his visits to Ireland. In my hometown Thurles, he appeared up the lane unannounced and under the radar as usual. He took the windy mountains road from Limerick to Thurles. No one knew who it was until he lifted the helmet and beamed a big smile.

Then after we all sat looking at him for an hour, he said in his calm quiet voice: “Take it for a spin”. I think I was 11—this was some laugh—we had a long lane up to the house so we spent the afternoon wobbling and weaving up and down, my first and last time riding a motorcycle. To us Uncle Gerard was alternative and novel and fun and didn’t wear a collar, so the contrast was refreshing and “cool” in Ireland of the time.

Growing up in Thurles, Ireland

Our childhood and growing up years were marvellous in Thurles. We were fortunate: a big house with many people coming and going, family shop and pub and filling station. Marie Keane, my mother, was Gerard’s only sister and married my dad, Patrick Lambe in 1953. She was a student of the Ursuline Convent in Thurles and latterly a PE teacher there, which explains how she came to meet my father. She died from cancer in 1975 at the ridiculously young age of 48.

My Uncle Gerard looks so familiar to me, at 88, he now looks more like his mother and my mother, the big face-changing smile is a dead giveaway. One wonders how he heard the news of his only sister’s passing thousands of miles away and how he coped without close family with whom to grieve.

Our Uncle Gerard, a Jesuit priest in Singapore

In his all too rare visits to Ireland he would bring gifts for the women, dresses and kimonos and shawls, all in traditional far-eastern patters and styles, silks and satins: beautiful and graceful gowns in fantastic colours. For the men, linen summer shirts with outrageous colours and patterns, only worn in public for a bet!

Our earlier impressions and memories of Uncle Gerard are episodical, for the main part we only ever saw, or knew, of his life when he visited Ireland and there were long gaps in between. Strangely, Uncle Gerard didn’t discuss his missionary work at any length with us when he came to visit. He suffered from that false modesty and self-deprecation that we Irish do all too well. Only recently we have become aware of his writing and broadcasting accomplishments in Singapore.

“Please, no fuss”

When Uncle Gerard was in Thurles he would stay for a few days or a week. He loved nothing more that to sit in kitchens and talk into the late hours, and sip the whiskey, and smoke Consulate—my goodness those all-white menthol cigarettes I remember so well—and the laughing and the smoke filled room. He never had a tourist agenda, all he wanted was to meet people and spend time together.

He has just returned to Singapore after a visit to Limerick and Tipperary, only made possible by the unbelievable generosity and love of his friends in Singapore. And again this time all he wanted was just to meet friends and family and spend time: “Please, no fuss”.

I remember when he visited in a summer of the late sixties:he was driving a brown Morris Minor. We all piled into it with towels and swimmers and careered around the roads of Tipperary. I especially remember he drove us to our cousins in Templemore who had a marvellous garden and swimming pool. Well, the squeals of laughter can be still heard and the memories everlasting. Uncle Gerard is a dude and our coolest uncle.

When you try too hard to impress kids they are reticent and wonder : “What’s with this guy?” A gentle demeanour and a sense of humour are all you need and the communication lines are established, no in-your-face inquisition, just understated and calm. They say the loudest person in the room is the weakest. Well if this has merit, then the corollary is true of Fr Gerry.

In the heart of his family

We were and are immensely proud of him and his pioneering spirit. We loved to tell people of “our Uncle Gerard, a Jesuit priest in Singapore”. Even now in the globalised world of instant communication and fast travel, there is great kudos in having a gregarious missionary in far-flung places, and to have one as cool as Gerry Keane is a bonus.

Approaching our last few years, we would all want to have our loved ones close and to spend time just listening and talking and sharing. Gerard is our flesh and blood, our pride and joy, but his true family is with him where he lives, and has lived for most of his life, and we thank God for that.

It gives us great peace and comfort to know for sure that our dear and much loved uncle and brother is right in the heart of his family.

Author: Patrick Lambe, October 2015

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