Brother Thomas O’Donnel

Br. Thomas O’Donnel (1889-1950) was one of the persons who most influenced and edified me. He died about two months before my first vows. The novices often worked under him and that is where I first knew him. He had charge of the pigs and said that even pigs responded to kindness. He could speak to us at that time but we couldn’t speak to him. There was often fun and excitement working for him. He used a team of horses and a wagon or sleigh to feed the pigs and transport us. His gruff manner was offset by a good sense of humor and a charitable twinkle in his eye. Though he sometimes yelled at us like he did at the pigs, he would tell us some edifying or interesting little story about Ireland, Mount Melleray or New Melleray Abbeys so that we came in from work in good spirits. 

What impressed me most about him was his fidelity to prayer and his vocation. On Sundays and holy days he spent hours before the Blessed Sacrament. Putting spiritual things first, he inspired them in me. So I always wanted to be a faithful monk like him. In those days the lay brothers had no special room. They used the chapter room where we all made the Way of the Cross. It was so impressive to see him making the Way of the Cross when he came in from work and then read Holy Scripture. I never saw him waste time. He sang with a strong, full voice in our liturgy. He was very devoted to our community and attributed his recovery from a heart attack to the community’s prayers, and died within a few months in peaceful abandonment to God’s will. Some of us wanted to know more about him so his brother Daniel wrote from Ireland about Br. Thomas’ life before he entered the monastery.

Br. Thomas’ secular name was Matthew and his mother died in 1896 when he was about seven years old. Dan wrote in 1950 shortly after Br. Thomas’ death:

I think this was the worst time in our lives as Matt, myself and all of us would be up by sunrise and betimes earlier bailing water for the animals before putting down the “spuds” for our own breakfast.

Around the year 1898 Matt made his First Communion. He excelled in the study and acquiring of religious knowledge. Pope Pius X had not yet lifted the ban on giving Holy Communion to the very young and for Matt nine years was at the time thought a very early age. In May, 1900 he was confirmed by Dr. Sheehan. The next day he climbed to the top of Knockmealdown accompanied by his brother Dan. It was Napoleon who said that an army marches on its stomach, but I think the two youths would not contest the truth of that statement on their way home from the hills. Were it not for the kindness of Mrs. I. McGrath who gave them half of a home made cake, they would have had a full test of the truth of Napoleon’s statement by the time they got back. Matt when writing to his family later as Br. Thomas, said he never met anything that met the case as well as Mrs. McGrath’s cake. He had the keys of the school after confirmation. This meant that he should open the doors of the school, light fires and keep the place swept and tidy. In return he would be fed and clad at Melleray. For him the twentieth century was brighter than the nineteenth.

Our grandfather knew very little English and so as children Matt and the rest became very proficient in Gaelic. Also the late Abbot Maurus started to teach Irish in the school. Feiseanna were started locally to keep the Irish Revival, and Abbot Maurus brushed up the boys for the competitions. Matt got a first place prize of one pound in Cork about 1901 for Irish recitation. He competed also in simple conversation in Irish. The pound helped defray expenses of the competitors from Matt’s school.

In school days he followed all the local sports and pastimes, fishing, hunting and snaring rabbits, hurling and he was not averse to paying an occasional visit to one of the neighbor’s apple trees—permission presumed His school days were all too few and ended around 1902-03.

After school he went to work for Father Kevin at the Boarding House for two years. Here they were also fed and everything went fine except that smoking was forbidden and Matt being an addict had to have a thorough knowledge of the numerous alcoves and alleys around the buildings in order to indulge his appetite for the weed. Later he worked at home under hard conditions which were the rule of the time. Between us we managed Matt and I (Dan) to build up the family fortunes.

In 1914 the Irish Volunteer were formed and began to drill in public. John Redmond offered them to John Bull to defend our shores. Matt became a Volunteer. Later when he saw that John Redmond and the Volunteers headed by him were not likely to get Irish freedom fron England he joined with Arthur Griffith and became a member of the I.R.A.

He was the heart and soul of the Independence movement around Melleray. He and some other local lads were drafted to Waterford City to keep order at the Redmond and White election. Later at the general election in 1918, he was a staunch supporter of Sinn Fein. When Sean Goulding, the leading local Sinn Fein leader was telling them how to get votes, Matt got up and said: “Tell them anything that you think will get the vote from them,” Goulding remarked: “You have the making of a grand politician.”

In 1920 Matt stood for election for Lismore, also his brother Dan in the Rural District Councils and the P.L.G. Sinn Fein was opposed by Sir John Keane of Cappoquinn. And to quote Matt: “as the woman said of the cabbage, Sir John got the hell of a dressing.”

As the Black and Tan regime become more severe many Sinn Fein members did not go to the Board Meetings (R.D.C.). Some were in jail, others on the run from Crown Forces, others busy at their jobs. Matt could hardly ever stay away lest they be short of a quorum. Often they had to send out for one of their members. Cappoquinn, Matt’s home town and Lismore, as all other towns in Ireland were armed camps with English toughs parading the streets and trying to terrify the populace. Matt studied how to make gun powder, home-made bombs, grenades and other weapons for use against the old Sassenach enemy. Matt O’Donnell was in those days no disciple of Father Matthew. He did not take any more water than he could help. There were tastier liquids to hand (and I don’t mean coffee). As a matter of fact I think his body sometimes gained a bit at the expense of his soul. Father Benedict knew that he and his pals often came home in the wee small hours singing at the top of their voices. Television or radar was not yet invented yet Father Benedict knew. He also had a passion for cards–especially the good old game of 45–and many a night he spent at the same. He favored dances, raffles and all forms of social entertainment. For a number of years he followed a horse-drawn threshing machine. Later he became agent for a wholesale seed company (agricultural). Neither venture proved a success.

During the time he was in the I.R.A. on one sunny summer’s day, Matt was ordered to take a run from Coolagurtwee to Moonamon to help in an ambush on the Black and Tans. The country was under martial law and the penalty for carrying firearms in the land of Patrick was death. But off be went. There were many incidents during this period, most of them exciting, and some fraught with danger with which Matt was connected. Matt stuck with the movement until the end and then when the Old Land had its measure of freedom he took the Master at His word “Come and follow me.”

He never paraded his piety as perhaps the narrative shows. He hid his virtues from the public gaze, but his guardian angel has Matt recorded as saying his rosary regularly–often at the end of a hard grueling day at work or war–often saying it out loud to keep himself company or to keep awake. Once the local I.R.A. companies were sent out for a night’s maneuvers on the Ballintayor mountains. It was Saturday night, so the boys after their fatiguing exercises went to Mass at Tour next morning. The worthy curate believed to be hostile to the cause had for the text of his sermon “We have labored all night and caught nothing.” Some of the lads thought he was being sarcastic.

At the end of national fight Matt entered religion. The rest you know about. We know about the national fight which he fought to the end. You know of the other, how he fought the second and greater fight and how he finished his course.