Fr Jim Feenan: Co Armagh-born priest 'belonged to both Ireland and Australia'
AS a clerical student in the late 1940s, Fr Jim Feenan of Tullyherron, Co Armagh overcame two life-threatening illnesses to embark on a 63-year commitment as a priest in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, where he endeared himself to generations of parishioners with his work ethic, superb social skills, natural kindness and approachability.
Born in 1926 to Frank and Mary Feenan, he attended Tullyherron primary school in the parish of Loughgilly and St Patrick's College, Armagh, where he won a MacRory Cup medal. He then decided to pursue the priesthood and entered Maynooth for the Archdiocese of Armagh in 1946.
Toward the end of his first year he was struck with pleurisy and almost died, spending three weeks in the infirmary before he was eventually let home. A specialist suggested he should not go back to Maynooth because it was a very unhealthy place with continual fogs coming from the nearby Bog of Allen.
He was also told on a visit to Cardinal John D’Alton that if he wasn’t going back to Maynooth he couldn’t remain in the archdiocese - the strict rule in those times of plenty. He then applied for St Patrick’s Carlow and was accepted.
Carlow was established to educate priests for the English-speaking world and from time to time bishops from various dioceses would write to the college requesting students to consider working there. On one occasion Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne wrote and that’s how Australia came into the picture.
In his third year in Carlow the even more debilitating illness of spinal TB afflicted Jim and he spent a full 12 months in Daisy Hill Hospital lying on his back in plaster, followed by another year at home recuperating. He was eventually accepted back to Carlow and ordained in June 1956.
Because the Suez Canal was closed owing to the crisis there at the time, his ship had to go right around Africa and across the Indian Ocean on a perilous sx-week journey. He remembered it clearly on his last visit to Tullyherron in 2012.
He recalled how left on the feast of Christ the King on October 28 1956. The journey began when his brother Frank drove him down to his sister Rose in Dungannon. Then her husband Paddy Rice drove him to the airport at Nutts Corner and he flew to London, his very first flight, and stayed with Paddy’s married sister for three days.
After he left port in Southampton the first ocean stop was Las Palmas, next Cape Town, then Durban, up the east coast of Africa, and following that the long journey across the Indian Ocean to Freemantle. He stayed there for three days and finally docked in Melbourne on December 12.
The five thousand mile wide Indian Ocean was extremely rough and for a long period passengers weren’t allowed on deck at all. The ship would go down as if it was going under the water, and then it would rise up again and one could see nothing but the sky. This lasted for three days out of the 12-day journey from Durban to Freemantle.
Thoughts of transportation in older times were not too far away regarding the much slower sailing ships and cramped conditions of those awful days. And the specific thoughts of John Mitchell were also there as written in his journal about staring up at the moon from this same expanse of ocean, the same moon that was shining down on his family 10,000 miles away in Newry.
In his recollections on his last visit to Ireland, Fr Jim well knew the three modes of martyrdom as recognised in the Irish monastic age - the red, the green and the white.
The first speaks for itself, while the second refers to leaving home and the comforts of life and entering monastic life in Ireland. The white martyrdom refers to leaving one’s country for the monastic cause and sailing into the trough and crest of the seas for distant lands.
As things settled toward Freemantle, word came that Ronnie Delaney from Dublin had won the 1500 metres at the Olympic games in Melbourne, beating the Australian favourite John Landy into third place. In fact Fr Jim had been promised tickets for various Olympic events but a two-week hold-up in the journey waiting to see if the Suez canal would open back in October meant it came to nothing.
He was met in Melbourne by a few Carlow priests and among them was Jim McGuigan from Crossdall, Middletown. He was eventually told he was going to a place called Diamond Creek and the parish priest Tom Curran came in on a cattle lorry to pick him up, and the housekeeper cleaned out a room for him and got rid of the snakes.
It was something of a culture shock and all a bit frightening, he revealed. The people understood him well enough even with his very different accent. The standard of housing was basic but good. The food was more or less the same as at home and he quickly found the people were good workers and above all were very welcoming.
But the sense of distance from home was a serious matter in the early days and the post took a long, long time to get to Ireland.
There was no phone at home in Tullyherron at the time and attempts to get through to a public kiosk resulted in very faint and largely inaudible sounds. But on the advice of a Belfast man he met he rang his sister Rose in Dungannon who had a phone in her hairdressing salon. It was clear as a bell, as if he was standing in the middle of Dungannon, and it gave him a great lift. For the sake of a pound he was suddenly not out of contact at all, and home seemed a lot closer.
When he went back for the first time in 1962 it was by air all the way. It took six weeks travelling out and less than two days getting home with six stops. That was before the long-range jets entered the scene in the eighties. But the age of long sea journeys between continents was over and he was among the last to have experienced them.
“When I arrived back to Melbourne in August 1962, I didn’t settle in until Christmas. I was very homesick. When at home I met all the people including many old school friends and I had to pluck up again and start all over. The upside of things was that they now had a phone at home, and I was in a better financial position and was able to go home again in 1966.
"From time to time in the early years I wished that I had been able to stay in the Armagh archdiocese. I remember one time when I was home visiting my sister in Armagh in the eighties. I called to the cathedral to say a prayer and heard this voice shout, 'Jim!' It was Cardinal Ó Fiaich.
“He took me into Ara Coeli and told me that if I wanted to go into the Armagh archdiocese I would be very welcome. He asked me to think about it. I though and thought. But I finally decided against it. For over 25 years Melbourne had been good to me and had kept me. And that was that.”
He recalled that while it had taken some years to finally settle down he had made up his mind from the beginning to give the people of his various parishes his total commitment, to use all his creative skills and sense of mission to the maximum. There could be no half heartedness, and after 25 years he was totally settled into the Melbourne way of life and it became his authentic home.
But he never became Australian, never lost his accent, nor his interest in his native area. He sought out Irish music and song where it happened in Melbourne and Geelong, got to know many Irish emigrants in the city and kept a collection of Irish records.
In his recollections he stressed the importance of being true to one’s full cultural inheritance as it gave a particular strength to his overall approach and relationship with the parishioners, that to be bereft of such an inheritance was to be drained of something powerful and rich.
Over the years in this regard he became more and more aware of the outstanding Irish imput into Australian life in the arts, business, education, politics and religion. He felt that this was part of what might rightly be termed the Imperium Hibernium, that is the so-called Irish Empire, the immense world wide Irish contribution to civilization over recent centuries, and reaching back into the monastic age. This was the manner in which he belonged both to Ireland and Australia.
Throughout his long span of seven decades he worked in seven different parishes as curate and parish priest. As a general rule he found the people respectful throughout even though things in the Church changed a lot from the fifties through the Vatican Council up until the present time. But one pastoral innovation deeply struck him. For a period the local bishop permitted general confession, known as the third rite, and the churches were utterly packed at Easter and Christmas. This was eventually stopped to his disappointment.
At the age of 80, Fr Jim retired in his own house in Portarlington beside the beach and looking across the bay to Melbourne He died aged 93 on September 3 in Arcare Nursing home in Portarlington, with funeral Mass on Wednesday September 11 followed by interment in Western Cemetery, Geelong.
At a special Mass last Sunday week in his home chapel, Fr Malachy Murphy, PP Loughgilly, told the congregation that Fr Jim never lost his strong connection with his native parish.
He pointed to the many people from the area who had enjoyed his hospitality in Melbourne and as much as he loved life in Australia he enjoyed nothing better than walking the fields of the family farm and meeting old friends like Ted Finnegan and Pat Carlisle.
He was described as a true embodiment of Loughgilly, and that his wonderful legacy would live on in the faith, music, heritage and community of his native parish.
Fr Jim Feenan was predeceased by his brother Frank, his sisters Mary Boyle, Warrenpoint, Nan Hatton, Armagh, Rose Rice, Dungannon and Betty Morgan, Crossmaglen, and will be fondly remembered by his nieces and nephews, wider family circle, neighbours and friends.