Fr John Fitzgerald: Carmelite priest and poet

Tuesday 11 December 2007 01:00

Michael John FitzGerald, priest: born Ludlow, Shropshire 3 February 1927; professed a monk of the Carmelite Order 1942, taking the name John; ordained priest 1951; Catholic Chaplain, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth 1964-70, Lecturer in Philosophy 1970-2004; priest, Parish of Llanelli 2004-07; died Carmarthen 28 November 2007.

The remarkable achievement of John FitzGerald, a Carmelite of Irish parentage but brought up in England, was that he learned Welsh and made it the language of his religious, intellectual and social life. He was not alone in this, but FitzGerald was unusual for having, besides his priestly vocation, an interest in literary matters and a talent for writing verse of a very high order.

He published two volumes of verse, Cadwyn Cenedl ("A nation's chain", 1969) and Grawn Gwirionedd ("Grapes of truth", 2006), though the second contains all the poems in the first as well as about 30 others. Here is the englyn (a four-lined epigrammatic poem popular among Welsh poets) which serves as an epigraph to his first book:

Iaith wr Sir Gr a gerais iaith dirion,

afradlon, hyfrydlais.

Rhan a chartref a gefais

yn ei swyn, a minnau'n Sais

("It was the civilised tongue of Carmarthenshire I loved, a happy language / prodigal and mellifluous. / I had a part and a home / in its spell, and me an Englishman.")

Many other poems, as might be expected, are devotional, though he also found inspiration in the natural scene, in people, in music, and in jeux d'esprit as in the poem "I'm gwraig", in which he addresses his "wife", adding in a note: "Perhaps I should note that I'm not married". Even when contemplating the numinous he found there was reason to ask difficult questions, for there was nothing complacent about his faith, and in this he may be compared with that other priest-poet R.S. Thomas, though he had none of the latter's bleak fascination with "the untenanted Cross".

He was born Michael FitzGerald in Ludlow, Shropshire in 1927 to parents from Co Kerry and spent his childhood in Chesterfield and Sheffield. At the age of 13 he was sent to board at Coleg Mair, a small Catholic seminary housed in Castell Brychan, high above the town of Aberystwyth. There he had his first Welsh lessons in a class taught by none less than Saunders Lewis, the eminent man of letters and nationalist who had lost his lecturer's post at University College, Swansea, after an act of arson at Penyberth on the Lleyn peninsula, where an RAF bombing school was under construction.

In 1940 Lewis was eking out a living as a journalist and part-time teacher at Coleg Mair. FitzGerald remained in close touch with Lewis until the latter's death in 1985, dedicating his first book of poetry "i SL am agor drws a ffenestri" "to SL for opening a door and windows". He shared Lewis's political views but steered clear of his right-wing intransigence.

From 1942, when he took the name John, to 1948, FitzGerald was a novitiate with the Carmelites in Ireland, and was to serve with the White Friars for the rest of his life.

At University College, Dublin, he began by reading Welsh in the department headed by Professor John Lloyd-Jones who advised him to switch to Greek and Latin, which he did, graduating with a first in Classics in 1946. He kept up his Welsh, however, by borrowing books in the language from Lloyd-Jones.

Having decided to remain in the Order, FitzGerald pursued further studies in Dublin for another four years and was ordained priest in 1951. There followed a year studying Theology in Rome and three reading Classics at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he came into contact with many Welsh-speakers at convivial meetings of the society known as Cymdeithas y Mabinogion.

He returned to live in Wales in 1953 on his appointment to the staff of Coleg Mair, which had by then moved to Tre-gib in Carmarthenshire. He had already written poems in English but now he turned to Welsh, mastering not only the rich idioms of Carmarthenshire but also, in the company of local poets, the intricate rules of Welsh prosody. His first successful poem in Welsh, "Calan 1960" ("New Year's Day 1960"), written after listening to Professor Bernard Lovell deliver a Reith Lecture, attempts to address the immensity of the cosmos.

After three years the college was moved to Cheltenham where Fitzgerald taught Philosophy to Carmelite seminarians until 1964. That year he was appointed Chaplain to Catholic students at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, and six years later to a lectureship in the Department of Philosophy. In 1998 he was a member of the ecumenical panel which produced a new translation of the Bible into Welsh. Having retired in 1992, he was once again made Chaplain but was obliged to quit this work in 2004 to assist in the parish of Llanelli.

Besides Welsh, John FitzGerald learnt Irish and a little Basque, and translated from Greek both ancient and modern, including Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and poems by Sappho and Cavafy. On the occasion of Gwynfor Evans's victory in the Carmarthen by-election of 1966, he began a poem of thanks which begins, "Lord, everlasting Father of all nations, almighty God, we know you aren't a member of any political party . . ." before ask-ing that the Welsh be woken to sing His praise.

"Father Fitz", as he was known to his students, or "Ieuan Hir" ("Tall John") in literary circles, had a puckish sense of humour, an infectious grin and chuckle, and a merry twinkle in his eye. One came away from a chat with him feeling that here was a man who was serenely happy in his faith and steadfast in his love for humankind.

The last time I saw him was on the field of the National Eisteddfod, at a stall run by members of Y Cylch Catholig ("the Catholic circle"), where he was to be found every August without fail. Of our conversation I recall the relish with which he told me about the beauties of Euskara, the Basque language, and how he was slowly acquiring it.

Meic Stephens

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