Find your parish Donate

Msgr Caoimhín O’Neill, former President of Carlow College, St Patricks, RIP

Msgr. Caoimhín Ó Néill RIP

It is with great regret I announce the death of Msgr. Caoimhín who died today. He was a native of Trumera, Mountrath, Co. Laois. He was ordained in Mountrath on 15 June 1969. He taught in the Parish School in Edenderry from 1969-1972 while also ministering as CC in the parish. In 1972 he was appointed to Carlow College, St. Patrick’s where he held many roles and served as President from 1994-2015. There will be plenty of opportunity later to honour his many achievements in the College, achievements that were recognised by being granted the Freedom of Carlow in 2006 and being named Carlow Person of the Year in 2009. He was appointed Monsignor by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Many priests in Kildare & Leighlin and far beyond these Irish shores will be forever indebted to his guidance and support during their formation days. In 2015 he retired to Abbeyleix where he had an opportunity to pursue his great love of art and culture. He will be remembered as an accomplished artist, a scholarly poet, a raconteur but most of all as a faithful priest who served Kildare & Leighlin for 54 years. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.


Date of Birth: 14 October 1944
Date of Ordination: 15 June 1969


1969 – 1972: CC Edenderry

1972 – 2015: Various roles in Carlow College, St Patricks where he was appointed President in 1994 and remained until retirement in 2015

May he rest in peace.

Funeral arrangements

Reception of remains at the Church of the Holy Rosary, Abbeyleix at 7pm Friday evening.
Requiem Mass 11am Saturday (July 1st), burial afterwards in St Fintans Cemetery, Mountrath.

Aifreann na Marbh. Caoimhín O Néill, Sagart. Abbeyleix. 1 ú Iúil 2023.

Homily preached by Conn Ó Maoldhomhnaigh, Presdient, Carlow College. St. Patrick’s.

Shortly before Easter, I came across the homily[1] that Caoimhín preached in Rathoe, Co. Carlow in June 1994, on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of Fr. PJ Brophy, his friend and former colleague on the staff of Carlow College.  I emailed it to Kevin, noting, “chomh úr inniu is a bhí sé i 1994, as fresh now as it was in 1994.”  I added the words of Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much ado About Nothing that I think are apt for Caoimhín: “to be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by nature ”.[2]   In acknowledging the homily, he wrote, “Ba dheas uait é a chur chugam agus mé ag tabhairt aghaidh ar an Aigéan go gcaithfimid go léir a chros. Tá ailse orm  agus níl na tuartha go maith/I am readying myself to cross that Ocean we all have to cross. I have cancer and it is not looking good ”.  It was distressing news, and yet he wrote about hope and ended his email as we do in a time of need and crisis, “Abair paidir ar mo shon, Say a prayer for me”. As a believer in “the communion of saints”,  I sensed that Fr PJ had prompted me to send the article to Caoimhín  in his hour of need as a way of PJ consoling a friend, and establishing from his place in glory, his dexterity as pontifex.

With his gift for composition, Caoimhín, in his time crafted some beautiful prayers.  I recall the multilingual prayer he wrote for the Dedication of the Bicentenary Sleaty Cross in the grounds of Carlow College, part of which goes as follows:

Go mbeannaítear duit a Rí do síneadh ar an gcrois.

A blessing from this Cross in the name of our saints, Fiacc the Fair of Sleaty, Lazerian of Leighlin, Comhgán of Killeshin and the Céilí Dé of Díseart Diarmada.

O Rock! Fresh hewn for them, for us. Memorial!

Crucem tuam adoramus, Domine et sanctam resurrectionem tuam laudamus et glorificamus.[3]

Almost twenty years of Caoimhín’s life was devoted to the training of candidates for the priesthood, when he guided many of us on the journey from, “passivity, docility and structured receptivity to co-responsibility, creativity and leadership”.[4]  In 1988, with colleagues on the staff of Carlow College, he pioneered the Transition Year for Deacons in order to help deacons in their last year of formation, “to effect the transition from seminary to diocese”.[5]  He wrote an article for the January 1989 edition of the Furrow magazine detailing the pedagogical and ecclesiological rationale that subtended the Transition Year Programme. Like all things Caoimhín, the article was stylish, informative, insightful, complex, provocative, stimulating, forceful, well researched, beautifully stated, relevant, garnished with a soupçon of hyperbole; but above all, prophetic; prophetic about Church, about society, about priesthood, about ministry.

In part, the article was aimed at the Bishops of other dioceses in the hope of attracting their support by sending students on the course. Perhaps the Bishops were put off by the line in the article, “emphasis is placed on physical exercise and ecological outings keep the students in touch with the physical environment.”[6]  As one of those who participated in the Saturday morning euphemistically styled, ‘ecological outing’; it was some experience! Some present here today, gallant survivors will know what I am talking about.

Those unlucky not to have participated need only call to mind the rigorous demands for entry into Na Fianna to have some idea of the tests of endurance undertaken on the ecological outing.  Warriors in training with  Na Fianna were required amongst other things to bound over the branches of trees that were the same height as their heads from the ground, and stoop under branches as low as their knees without leaving a trembling branch behind them.  Following this, while running at full speed, they had to remove a thorn from their feet without slowing their pace.

I always had the sense that Caoimhín’s ecological outings were inspired by Na Fianna as we trekked our way around Rossmore and Killeshin, utilising items such as a discarded tractor tyre or a fearsome looking boulder for physical and trust exercises. Caoimhín diverted us with stories from Irish mythology, with the etymology of words for the flora and fauna that we encountered, while discoursing on the panoramic views.  He eulogised every Irish saint that we happened to bump into along the way.

The participants in the Deacon’s course spent about four months in supervised placements in the Diocese. Caoimhín had a gift for matching students’ needs with the parishes they ended up in on placement.  I recall in own case his saying to me, “Conn, you  need a rendezvous with modernity and I am looking for a parish where you will experience that”.  Obviously, my troglodyte tendencies of the rustic variety were part of the criteria for the intended rendezvous point.  Newbridge was the chosen locus and I spent four very happy months there with Larry Newman as Parish Priest and Jimmy Doyle, pastor par excellence as my mentor and supervisor.

I would have to say that the Deacon’s Course, as it became known colloquially, was one of the best years of my life.  It was a brilliant year, and the brainchild of a very creative man.  Speaking personally, I can say that if I had not encountered Caoimhín as a seminarian, along with the staff who embodied the Carlow way of seminary formation, I know that I could still be floundering in a world of passivity, docility and structured receptivity with the implications of all that for my ministry; Caoimhín who, in my time was the face of the formation programme at Carlow and his colleagues on the staff liberated me and pointed me in the direction of co-responsibility, creativity and leadership. And for that, I am eternally grateful to him and to them. 

The Gospel chosen for today’s funeral Mass  is taken from the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel, “In principio erat Verbum/in the beginning was the Word”[7],  Jesus the Word, “was made flesh and lived amonsgst us”.[8] The Prologue sketches the vast timeline of God’s action from the eons before creation down to the coming of Jesus in human flesh”.[9]  It is the Gospel for Mass on Christmas Day.  In the Bible’s first account of creation, “God did not so much make things, as say things into life”.[10] Whether it was his vision that brought to fruition – VISUAL – the George Bernard Shaw Theatre and Exhibition Centre on the grounds of Carlow College, or the opening up of Carlow College to new cohorts of students, or his collaborating with others to move, from aspiration to reality, the idea of  a Carlow Arts Festival, ÉIGSE Carlow,  or his support for all things Gaeilge, including Gaelscoil Eoghain Uí Thuairsc agus Gaelcholaiste Cheatharlach; Caoimhín the polyglot, the wordsmith, the glossarist spoke a lot of things into life.   

 “The Word became Flesh, he lived among us and we saw his glory”.[11]   Oscar Romero, the El Salvadorean martyr wrote,  “God saves in history.  Each person’s life, each one’s history is the meeting place God comes to”.  That was true for Caoimhín and it is true for each one of us. From Trumera to Knockbeg, Maynooth, Edenderry, Carlow College and Abbeyleix since 2015, Caoimhín lived the span of life God laid out for him. 

Jesus, the Word who became flesh, endured the Crucifixion and rose triumphantly from the dead, “the Word of God confers resurrection for the glory of God the Father. God confers immortality on what is mortal, and bestows incorruptibility on what is corruptible, because his power is made perfect in weakness.”[12]  Karl Rahner writing about Jesus’ Resurrection wrote: “His Resurrection is like the first eruption of a volcano which shows that God’s fire burns in the innermost depths of the earth, and that everything shall be brought to a holy glow in his light.”[13] 

An author who wrote about cancer said: “cancer can change your body, and it can surely take your body away, but it can’t  have your spirit”.[14] Those who accompanied Caoimhín in his suffering with cancer, could see that while his body changed, his spirit endured. When I was with him and family members and Fr. Paddy on Wednesday morning, and even though he was weak and slowly ebbing away, he began one of his sentences with the words, “I am not convinced”!  I had often heard those words over the years.  It was the nearest one came to experiencing an “ex cathedra” pronouncement!  As a rule, it meant that his hearer or hearers would have to become convinced of the thing that he was convinced of.  I don’t play golf, but I was permitted to caddy and carry the Presidential Golf Bag! One of the discoveries I made on our peregrinations was that golf must the only sport where a minus result is a plus; to be under beats being over.  At various times in Killerig when I was questioned as to his score for a particular hole, I would be greeted with, “I am not convinced by that score. You say it was a birdie, but I’m convinced it was an eagle!  Ornithology was obviously not my strong suit!

On Wednesday morning, however, he spoke about things that he was convinced about: that he had a good journey in life, that his family members were very good to him, that he regarded himself as blessed to have Fr Paddy here as PP, that he had impressed upon Paddy that there were more varieties of cheese than Galtee and Calvita, that he had good friends throughout his life and that he met lovely people in Abbeyleix who made his life here very easy and very happy. 

Our prayer is that Caoimhín is now being enveloped in what Rahner called that “holy glow”, as he melts deeper and deeper into the God who loved him, who called him and Whom he loved and served during his earthly life.

Go rabhaimid go léir aontaithe lena chéile i ríocht na bhFlaitheas –

San áit ina bhfuil

Beatha gan bhás,

Sláinte gan ghalar,

Saoirse gan daoirse,

Sonas gan donas,

Agus an uilemhaitheas i measc na naomh ar feadh na síoraíochta.[15]

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory!

Beannacht Dé lena anam!

[1] Published in Carlovian, 1997.

[2] William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act 3, Sc 3.

[3] Caoimhín Ó Néill. Prayer for Dedication of Bicentennary Cross in the grounds of Carlow College by Cahal B. Cardinal Daly. October 1993. Printed in Bicentenary Edition of the Carlovian.

[4] Caoimhín Ó Néill, Transition Year at Carlow. The Furrow, 1989.

[5] Caoimhín Ó Néill, op.cit., The Furrow, 1989.

[6]  Caoimhín Ó Néill, op.cit., 1989.

[7] Jn 1:1.

[8] Jn 1: 14.

[9] Silvester O’Flynn. Come and See – Lectio Divina with John’s Gospel. p. 11.

[10] O’Flynn. op.cit. p.12.

[11] Jn 1:14.

[12] Irenaeus. Adversus Haereses. Bk 5,2,2-3.

[13] Rahner, Easter, in The Eternal Year. p.224.1964.

[14] Lynda Wolters, Voices of Cancer: What We Really Want, What We Really Need.

[15] Trí Bíor-Ghaoithe an Bháis, 338.

Msgr Caoimhín’s Month’s Mind Mass will take place in the Church of the Most Holy Rosary, Abbeyleix on Friday, 28th July at 7.30p.m.