Fr Tom Maher, C.S.Sp

Rockwell College Annual 1990, pp 25-28


Fr. Tom Maher, C.S.Sp., was 87 years old on, July 1 and celebrated 60 years in the priesthood on June 29. He can still read without the aid of spectacles and his remarkable eyesight was inherited from his mother, who could still see quite well when she died in 1955 at the age of 90 years. She was a Comerford from Urlingford, an aunt of Fr. Mick Comerford, C.S.Sp. and was principal of the girls' school in the town, when she married Edward Maher, the principal of Lagganstown School, towards the end of the last century. She gave up her job and settled down to married life in the old schoolhouse and teacher's residence in Lagganstown. The new school had heen opened across the road in 1889 and the old one was joined on to the teacher's residence to provide better accommodation. In this house Tom Maher was born on July 1, 1903.. 

Tom's grandfather had been evicted from the Ballytarsna-Ardmayle area and came to live in Knockgraffon. There were four children in the family, three sons and a daughter. Two sons and a daughter emigrated to Philadelphia, so Tom remains the last link in Ireland with the family. Tom's father became a monitor in Knockgraffon National School and went from there to St. Patrick's Training College, Drumcondra to train as a National Teacher. When he qualified he did not return to Knockgraffon, which would have been usual, but began teaching in Lagganstown, where he later became principal. When he married there was no position in the school for his teacher-wife, because the second post was held by a Miss Dunne.

The first born child was a girl in 1900. She was to die at a young age in 1924. A second girl was born in 1902. She joined the convent of the Sacred Heart at Mount Anville in 1923 and was to spend most of her life in Japan.. When she died in 1980, she had spent 46 years in the Far East amd had been home only once, in 1973, on the ocasion of the fiftieth anniversary of her entry into the convent. Tom came next and a third girl was born in 1905, who is still alive and living in Clonmel.


Tom went to school to Miss Dunne and his father at Lagganstown, and went to Rockwell College as a day-boy in 1917. The annual fee was £8 and there were twelve day-boys. Fr. Andy Egan, C.S.Sp was prefect of the day-boys and among Tom's comtemporaries during his years there were Denis Jones. Canon Morrissey of Boherlahan and Fr. Mick Comerford, C.S.Sp. The boarding fee was £32. In 1918 Tom transferred to St. Joseph's, where there were 24 boys. Fr. Patrick Walsh, C.S.Sp was in charge.

The President of the College at the time was Fr. Johnny Byrne, C.S.Sp. During his tenure rugby was abandoned as the main college game and everyone switched over to Gaelic games. Football used to be played up to Christmas and hurling afterwards. The switch coincided with the start of the Munster Schools' championships in which Rockwell were quite successful. The college won the first Munster senior football championship, when they beat St. Colman's, Fermoy in the final at Kilmallock on December 229 1917. They followed up with another victory in the hurling competition, the Harty Cup, by beating Christian College, Cork in the final the following May. Four more victories were to be achieved in the Harty Cup, the last in 1931. After that rugby was restored as the dominant game

As a result of this emphasis on Gaelic games, Tom Maher played no rugby at Rockwell College. He was to learn the game at Blackrock where he went after completing his studies at Rockwell. He spent three years, 1921-24, as a prefect there. He was one of twelve and they litterally ran the place. Three of his coolleagues from these years, J. J. McCarthy, Ambrose Kelly and Eugene Butler, were to become bishops. Tom was one of the last of the non-professed prefects so he got full holidays at Christmas and summer, which he spent at Lagganstown up to 1923. His father retired in that year and the family moved to Golden for a year and then, in 1924, to John Street, Cashel, where they resided in what is today, St. Anne's Nursing Home. After the father's death in 1926 there was a further move, this time to Friar Street. Tom's novitiate was done at Kimmage and he did his philosophy and theology studies in the Castle, Blackrock. He was ordained at All-Hallows in 1930 and finished his studies in 1931.


Fr. Tom Maher's first port of missionary call was Nairobi, which was a town of 30,000 inhabitants in 1931. There were Europeans, Asians and Africans. There were two Catholic churches and two priests, one for Africans and the second for non-Africans. He was appointed to the African church, St. Peter Claver's, as assistant to Fr. Con McNamara, C.S.Sp. from Co. Clare. In 1934 he became Father-in-Charge.

The non-African Church of the Holy Family was run by an Alsatian Holy Ghost priest, Fr. Bougeau. The new Church of the Holy Family is now the Cathedral and a minor basilica. As well there were about 25 outstations with African catechists in charge, to be visited on a regular basis. About three miles from the Church was a school for girls, run by German Sisters of the Precious Blood. Kiswahili was the language and he soon mastered it. Missionary work involved saying Mass, administering the sacraments, teaching catechism, preparing groups for baptism, communion and confirmation, visiting the two hospitals and the prison and supervising the work of the catechists and the primary teachers. Fr. Maher's first baptism was a leper. One of the hospitals was for infectious diseases and there were many lepers there. The first present he received, a chicken, was also from a leper.

This work continued until 1940 when the advent of World War 11 created a need for army chaplains. Fr. Tom was asked by his bishop if he would serve as a chaplain and he agreed. He was due some leave at the time but there was no way of getting home so he accepted the job for a change. He joined the British colonial army and was to stay until 1963. Since 90% of the personel were African his work in the army was similar to that of a missionary. He joined as a Chaplain Fourth Class with the rank of captain. Later he advanced to Third Class and received the rank of major. Because he wasn't a regular there was no pension.

He first saw combat in the northern territory of Kenya and in Ethiopia and Somaliland and it ended with the battle of Gondar in 1942, near the shore of Lake Tana, the sourse of the Blue Nile. After the East Africa campaign he served for short periods in Madagascar, India, Burma, Sri Lanka. In 1949 he was appointed Senior Chaplain at Command Headquarters in Nairobi and held that position until he retired from the army in 1963. As senior Chaplain he visited troops in Uganda, Tanmzania, Zambia, Zimbabee, Malawi, Mauritius and the Secheyelles. After his retirement he returned to his old mission in Nairobi.

He got back to Irelnad for the first time in 1946. Fifteen years abroad had changed things a lot. He had lost contact with home ˆ his father had died in 1926, his sisters had departed and his mother was alone. He spent two months at home. After that he returned home again in 1949 and after that every two years.

He remembers having been well-received by his fellow-officers in the army. In many places he was the only Catholic in the mess and his colleagues did everthing in their power to help him, sometimes even more than they did for their own. One Christmas Eve, 1948 he believes, he came back to the mess for supper about 10 o'clock, having been hearing confessions in camps all day. The officers had started celebrations some hours previously with Black Velvet and caviar. They kept a generous supply of both for Fr. Tom and were disappointed when he took only one glass of Black Velvet, having to move again at 11 o'clock for more confessions and midnight mass. As a chaplain Fr. Tom was paid the same rate as the Anglican Clergy in Kenya, £420 per annum. Later he received the British rate of pay and was getting approximately £1,600 when he retired.

Return to Nairobi

He returned to Nairobi and his missiionary work after his retirement. Kenya got independence in December 1963 and one of the highlights of the festivities was the blessing of the Kenya Regiment colours. Fr. Tom was one of the chaplains at the ceremony and was presented to His Excellency, Jomo Kenyatta. During the War of Independence Fr. Tom used to have an escort when travelling through Mau Mau territory.

Nairobi and Kenya had changed dramatically since the early days and the changes have continued. It is now a city of over one million inhabitants. In 1931 there were three religious communities, the Holy Ghost, the Loreto Sisters and the Sisters of the Precious Blood. Today there are over ninety. In place of three vicariates under the Propagation of the Faith there are now fourteen dioceses, of which ten are African. The present Archbishop of Nairobi is Maurice, Cardinal Otungo. He was a student at the first Holy Ghost High School at Kabaa.


Fr. Tom Maher retired in 1981 and returned to Rockwell but he wasn't content to rest on his laurels of fifity years of missionary work. Since then he has returned to temporary duty on five occasions to Kenya and once to Sierra Leone. His last return from such duty was last January. It's an indication of where his heart rests. Kenya was his home for so long that it's difficult to hold any other place so dear. He has witnessed the dramatic spread of Christianity in the country. As he rests out his days at Rockwell, his memory stretches from that success way back to the days in Lagganstown school, when he played hurling and football in a field with separate sets of posts for goals and points. It's a long time ago but the memory is still fresh.