Fr Dan Fitzgerald (centre) on the eve of his 100th birthday with Fr Seán Dwan (Kilruane, left) and Fr Seán McDonagh (Nenagh).

Former Nenagh priest Fr Dan Fitzgerald celebrates 100th birthday

By Fr Seán McDonagh, SSC



Fr Dan Fitzgerald was born in Cork City 100 years ago on June 28th 1916. He is the first Irish Columban to have reached the age of 100 years.

There are a number of words that I would associate with Fr Dan. These include gratitude, service, holiness and love.


Fr Dan was educated by the Christian Brothers at Sullivan's Quay in Cork. In 1933 he entered St Columban’s, Dalgan Park in Shrule, Co Galway, and was ordained there in December 1939. When asked what were the influences which drew him to the priesthood, he pointed to the good example of his parents: “My parents were daily Mass-goers and we had the Rosary at night.”


Fr Dan was very grateful to his parents for all they did for him. But all of us who have come to know Fr Dan, and especially the nurses and carers, have constantly heard him thanking people for their kindness to him.


In the summer of 1940, Fr Dan was appointed to the Philippines. Unfortunately, he could not leave for the Philippines as World War II was in progress. In the early 1940s he served as a chaplain to the Maria Reparatrix sisters in Cork and later worked in the Diocese of Nottingham.


In 1946, after World War II had ended, Fr Dan together with five Columban priests and five Columban sisters set sail for China on a troop carrier ship. Eventually, they reached Hanyang.


His initial impression of China was the summer heat and the presence of mosquitos. By today’s standards, China at that time was still very underdeveloped. There were no roads or railways. The only mode of transport was walking or taking a boat on the Yangzi River.


The task facing these missionaries was enormous. The diocese of Hanyang was roughly the size of Munster and it had a population between five and six million, and only one per cent of which were Catholics.


During Fr Dan’s six years in China, the political situation was quite chaotic. Nevertheless, for Fr Dan it was a great privilege to work in the diocese of his great mentor, Bishop Galvin – whom he held in such high regard.


Fr Dan was a true missionary who, like Abram in chapter 12 of the Book of Genesis, was asked to “leave his country, his family and his father’s house and go to a land that I will show you.”


In the weeks before Christmas in 1948, Bishop Galvin had withdrawn most of the priests from their parishes because he was fearful of what the communist army would do to them. One priest – Fr Hugh Sands (a man who in his time had met Mao) – was still in his parish, which was about 100 miles from Hanyang.


Bishop Galvin wondered whether Fr Dan would be willing to go to this parish and help Fr Sands. Fr Dan thought that, since it was coming up to Christmas and the Chinese New Year that year came just after Christmas, he would have time to weigh-up the request before making his mind. So, he asked the Bishop: when do you want me to go? The bishop replied that there was a boat leaving that night.


Fr Dan took the boat that night. When he reached Hugh Sand’s parish, he realised that Hugh was sick and needed to go down to Hanyang. And so Fr Dan was left running everything in the parish. His tasks included keeping the soldiers out of the church compound, watching inflation increase daily, to finally repairing the parish house.


When he got back to Hanyang, he said to Bishop Galvin that he thought preaching the Gospel was a spiritual task. The reply he got from Bishop Galvin stayed with Fr Dan all his life. Put S. Columban before you and St Patrick after you, put your head down and plod along. To this day, Fr Dan says that this was the best advice ever got in his life.


Fr Dan left China in 1952, but during all his life he continued to be interested in China and, especially what was happening in the Church there. In the 1950s, Fr Dan worked in Australia, Scotland and Ireland.


He came to Nenagh in 1989. He certainly made a huge contribution, not only to the Parish of St Mary of the Rosary, but right across all of North Tipperary. Fr Dan gave master classes in prayer, not in the Parish Centre or Institute of Spirituality but by the many hours he spent praying in St Mary of Rosary Church, as the people of Nenagh know very well; any time people dropped into the church to say a prayer, Fr Dan could be seen praying right before Our Lady’s Altar.


His daily communion rounds were legendary. He brought my own mother communion every day for the last six-and-a-half years of her life when she was house bound.


During his 23 years of service, Fr Dan visited the hospital every night. Almost every family in North Tipperary has some story to tell about meeting Fr Dan on nightly rounds. I remember my own mother being rushed into Nenagh hospital. I received a call to come home as they thought my mother was dying. When I reached the hospital it seemed that she was dying. It was only after Fr Dan’s visit that I wondered whether her potassium levels had fallen. If fact, her potassium levels had fallen. The procedure to address that helped save her life.


Not alone the patients, but all the hospital staff valued Fr Dan’s contribution to healing in the hospital. In an email to Fr Donal Hogan (who at the time was the Columban Regional Director) in March 2012, Fr Pat Malone, the parish priest of Nenagh, wrote: “Fr Dan is deeply loved, highly respected and greatly valued by the whole community.” He wrote that 21 nurses were willing to organise a rota to look after Fr Dan’s medical needs.


Fr Dan also spent many hours in the confessional serving the needs of people. His pastoral presence at the Christian Brothers School was deeply appreciated by both the staff and the students.


Apart from his priestly life, Fr Dan was an excellent golfer. In his youth, Jimmy Bruen (1920 – 1972) was a champion Irish golfer who won the British Amateur in 1946 played at Royal Birkdale. Fr Dan was a close friend of Jimmy and played with him on many occasions. In 1934, Fr Dan won the Palace Cup which, at the time, was one of the most coveted golfing trophies in Munster.


The high point of Fr Dan’s golfing career at Douglas was in 1942. He played with the Senior Cup Douglas team that reached the Munster final in Killarney. The Douglas team had beaten Cork Golf Club at Muskerry in the early stages of the competition, and Fr Dan had caused a stir by defeating Jimmy Bruen on the 18th green.


In that same year, in the final against Lahinch, he had a historic win when he beat John Burke of Lahinch, once again on the 18th green. In a newspaper article published in 1984, John McKenna had this to say about Fr Dan’s golf: “Fr Dan Fitzgerald was probably the best player I saw here in my time. He was plus one and could play to it.”


Just a final footnote: At the Douglas AGM on 26th February 1947, it was decided to make both Fr Dan and Jimmy Bruen life members on the club. Fr Dan’s response in a letter from China expressed his deep gratitude for being made a life member of the club.


During my research for this homily, the golf historian Robin Turnbull informed me that Jimmy Bruen’s wife is still alive; she is 97 and living in a nursing home in Cork. She and her son David send Fr Dan their good wishes on the occasion of his 100th birthday.


Fr Dan has lived a long and very fruitful life as a Columban missionary. On the occasion of his 100th birthday, we thank God today for his life and the way his life has touched and enriched all of ours.