14Aug Sean Freyne should have been ‘Mayoman of the Year’

As Mayo rampaged over a dis-spirited Donegal team in Croke Park, in a
performance as accomplished as it was unexpected, you could almost sense a
world-wide swelling of Mayo pride, as wave after wave of Mayo power and
skill broke over Donegal’s hapless shore. In Sydney and Swinford, in New
York and Newport, in Dubai and in Doohoma, in Los Angeles and Louisburgh,
Mayo cheers were raised to salute not just the achievement but the manner
and significance of it. The dream lives.
A parishioner, struggling to explain the significance of the Croke Park win,
remarked that it was the closest to heaven he had ever been. And Mayo people
everywhere could empathise with that feeling.
The day after the Great Happening news filtered through that Seán Freyne had
died. For those who knew Seán, the confluence of the two events was
significant because Seán was the quintessential Mayoman and the
quintessential GAA man. As a fan of Seán tweeted when he heard the news,’If
Mayo win the All-Ireland this year, could God be so cruel as to deprive Seán
Freyne of the satisfaction of a witnessing a Mayo victory?’
The GAA was a very important part of Seán’s life. A bit like the Catholic
Church it was so much part of him that he always sought to forgive its many
trespasses. As captain of the Mayo minor team in 1952 that won its way
through to the All Ireland final Seán discovered to his horror that his
entry into Maynooth to study for the priesthood debarred him, in the eyes of
the Maynooth authorities, from playing in the final in Coke Park.
Efforts to get a dispensation from such a silly rule failed including a last
minute intervention by a neighbour passing through Maynooth on the morning
of the match. Later the neighbour who met Seán on that morning, robed in
cassock and biretta as was the clerical garb at the time, said, ‘It was bad
enough that they wouldn’t let him out for the match but if you saw the
hateen they put on his head!’
After a brilliant academic career, Seán was ordained and predictably enough
was sent for further studies in Scripture. Inevitably an appointment in
Maynooth followed and I had the joy – and the word is not over-used in this
context – of savouring his lectures in New Testament for just one year. It
was like discovering Ballygowan in the middle of an arid desert.
Seán was a great enthusiast. He lived every lecture. He had an extraordinary
capacity to communicate his excitement and, I remember too, an extraordinary
ability to ground the scriptures in the ordinary and the everyday. In paying
tribute to his gifts at the lectern, the usual cliche of ‘inspiring and
dedicated’ applies but, more commonly, it is simpler to say that he was
wonderful lecturer with a contagious enthusiasm for his subject. In Joe
Cassidy’s wonderful phrase about the late Tommy Waldron, he ‘made the Word
Back in 1990, another eminent theologian, Enda McDonagh, decided to publish
a book of Mayo theology, called Faith and the Hungry Grass, in an effort to
‘ground’ theology in the everyday by producing a hybrid between theology and
Mayo! Enda was encouraged in this task by the nest of impressive
theologians, centred around Ballyhaunis –  Enda Lyons, Seán and himself –
and other Mayo scribblers who basked in their reflected glory. I was one of
fifteen ‘theologians’ and I remember Archbishop Joe Cassidy wondering aloud
at the launch that if Enda could have found fifteen theologians in Mayo why
could Mayo not find fifteen footballers to secure the Sam Maguire. If ever a
book intersected two great passions of Seán’s life, Mayo and theology, this
was it.
After Seán left Maynooth to lecture in America, he met his future wife,
Gail. Later they came back to Ireland when Seán was appointed Professor of
Theology in Trinity College, Dublin. As a non-frequenter of theological
conferences our paths didn’t cross but as Mayo supporters inevitably they
On a damp and windy February Sunday, with the unforgiving rain pelting down
around us, I found myself standing beside him at a Mayo league match in
Crossmolina! Mayo was playing Monaghan and a small group of intrepid fans
had braved the conditions. I was living in Ballina at the time and was in
self-congratulatory mode regarding my commitment to Mayo football, then in a
depressing state and with little hope on the horizon.On the other hand, Seán
had driven from Dublin and was buoyant and full of optimism for the coming
year. Everywhere he looked he could see a promising full-back here or an
effective forward there and you never know, he would say, when another Tom
Langan or Paddy Prendergast would arrive unexpectedly on the Mayo scene!
The incongruity of his presence struck me at the time. The professor of
theology in Trinity College, a scholar with a worldwide reputation in
biblical studies, cemented by the publication of a series of ground-breaking
books, was standing in the rain in Crossmolina cheering on an unexciting
Mayo team. I remember thinking at the time that while circumstances might
have conspired to take Freyne out of Mayo, nothing could possibly take Mayo
out of Freyne.
Mayo was part of Seán’s DNA and he used any excuse to come west, to refill
the batteries from the deep well of Mayoness, to re-live again and again
that extraordinary sense of Mayo as home. He was a man who knew who he was
because he knew exactly where he came from. And it’s so fitting that he
would rest in Mayo soil, in Kilkelly, in the soil of a county he loved, home
to his beloved Mayo.
What a pity that we never made him Mayoman of the Year! It’s an accolade he
deserved and would have received with great pride. All the academic
distinctions he had achieved on his many journeys from Ballyhaunis to
Galilee, from Maynooth to Trinity and on to Harvard, would, I believe, for
him pale in significance in comparison with such an honour from his own.
May he rest in peace.

3 Responses

  1. LP

    Thank you for this. There is a similarly beautiful tribute on Canon Patrick Comerford’s web page (www.patrickcomerford.com) for 08 August.

  2. Wilfrid Harrington, O.P.

    A moving tribute to a fine scholar and true Christian. I count it a privilege to have known Sean Freyne as colleague and friend. Our association reached back to his post-graduate days in Maynooth.
    He carried lightly his richly deserved international standing as New Testament scholar — Sean had an abiding sense of humour. His untimely passing leaves us the poorer because he was prolific up to the end — with promise of more. Now he is with the Lord whom, through his writings, he had made better known.

  3. Joe O'Leary

    I remember Sean’s second trip to Japan when he graciously spoke to my undergrad class on St Luke’s Gospel. I asked which was the greatest of the Gospels as literature and he replied, inevitably, “Mark”. On an excursion to leafy Kamakura with three students he chatted to them illuminatingly about the parables and much else. He had so much to say; and he wore his age so lightly — it’s hard to believe that the conversation has now stopped —