Father Martin: Gargantuan and genteel

    Fr Lar, left, and his brother Fr Martin Ryan

    By Jimmy Rhatigan

    ONE OF life’s great privileges was to be a friend of Father Martin Ryan of Wildfield, Muckalee and the Philippines.

    The octogenarian who passed away peacefully packed more into an active vocation than an entire parish would perhaps accomplish in a lifetime.

    He was gargantuan among men, genteel, gregarious too, great company, spoke in dulcet tones and never raised his voice.

    Yet, in a contradiction of sorts, he had the heart of a lion and the courage of a cougar, was a kind and caring soul whose love for his native place was rivalled only by his devotion to his adopted Philippines.

    I was lucky to be a friend of Martin’s from my days as a young journalist. We became buddies who exchanged regular letters and sporadic telephone calls across the world.

    As a Columban Father, his missionary work was in Mindanao, a place that to most of us was simply an outback of sorts on the other side of the globe.

    To Martin and his fellow Columban and brother, Fr Lar, it became a home from home, an adopted community where they were comfortable and comforting, even though a journey home was their Heaven on Earth.

    The tragic death of Lar in a motor bike accident took its toll on Martin. But Martin knew that Lar would have wanted him to continue his missionary work in a country where his empathy lay with the poor, the downtrodden and the ill.

    Locals took to Fr Martin and Lar as long lost brothers. In turn, the Muckalee boys opened their hearts to a proud people they respected and knew needed help and encouragement.

    Fr Martin achieved many great things in his busy life. He was a devoted Catholic, perhaps an even stronger Christian.

    He was a Father in religion who, I always believed would have made a wonderful dad in civvy street. He admired people of all ages and practised a policy of love thy neighbour.

    He spoke openly of his weakness for alcohol and was engaged in a few battles before finally winning the war.

    He penned a wonderful book called Muckalee To Mindanao And Back, a missionary round trip that lasted for 54 years.

    That was when I really got into the heart and mind of one of the most sincere souls I have encountered over half a century.

    Over a six-month plus period we met almost every day and while I never literally travelled the road from Muckalee to Mindanao, along with Martin, I journeyed from Kilkenny City to Muckalee as he cobbled together his literary masterpiece that would pay for a rehab centre for alcoholics in the Philippines.

    Martin spent hours, days, weeks and months writing his memories, great stuff, riveting reading, honesty, integrity, tales of trials, tribulations and great joy, an insight into a man mountain, indeed an extended Ryan, Morrissey family, proverbially, the salt of the earth.

    We spent time editing, re-writing, preparing a manuscript for utterly professional printers, Conmore Press, Jenkinstown, neighbours’ children as Martin often reminded.

    Martin was as excited as a young boy waiting for the visit of Santa Claus as book launch day in Muckalee Hall approached.

    His enthusiasm was infectious. He had no airs or graces. Other people were always top of his list.  We would meet after a fleeting visit to Muckalee to comfort the sick, visit the old or lonely and courtesy calls to his extended family.

    His car could almost drive itself around the hinterlands of Muckalee and Coon. Sometimes it had to as Martin was so busy chatting he would forget about the wheel.

    We had been told that texts were exchanged when Martin’s car was spotted. He was not regarded as a top class driver but a ‘safety alert’ was sounded.

    In reality the people of the area were as safe as gold in Fort Knox for Martin always motored in a low gear as plans for his week’s work meandered through his ever active mind, say Mass for the nuns, call to the printers, visit my brother, call a parish meeting to firm up launch arrangements.

    Driving was a mere peripheral.

    But in his missionary work, Martin never lacked drive. There was never a dull moment but there were dangerous escapades.

    He often walked through contrary waters, home to all kinds of threatening fish life, as he brought Holy Communion to the sick in remote areas.

    It was akin to walking a tightrope over a shark-infested river. Most people writing a book would perhaps have highlighted any such experiences.

    Not Martin, it was all in a day’s work, after all the people to whom he was ferrying Communion were far worse off than him, he would remind.

    In the Philippines, Martin was accepted as a member of an extended Mindanao family. He loved the people so the relationship was a two-way street, a story of true romance.

    In North Kilkenny he will always be remembered as the Henry Kissinger, the diplomat who bargained a Peace Process of kinds where the men, women and children of Muckalee and Coon became one happy GAA family as St Martin’s GAA Club, a proud bastion of Gaelic Games that honoured a favourite son by calling the new club after him.

    He loved and appreciated the latter.

    But what really mattered to him was that the sporting warriors of his native place would now be united in any pitch battles and until his final days he was to continue to follow the fortunes of all club sides from tots to thirty somethings.

    In some respects Fr Martin was an enigma. He was one of those great people that you could not find fault with.

    Yet he could be forceful in a very gentle way.

    For instance he wrote regularly to the Pope of Rome suggesting ways to make the Church more


    His epistles would be excellently written pieces, courteous and mannerly but with a shrewdly placed gentle pinch to remind the Pontiff of promises made.

    Martin was a man who saw good in everyone. He never used expletives, nor did he try to force religion on any of us whom he knew well were perhaps apathetic, lukewarm Catholics

    Martin’s remains will rest easy at the heart of Muckalee.

    There is no doubt that Heaven is his bed.

    But St Peter will be kept busy.

    Martin will regularly request weekend passes when St Martin’s are in GAA action.

    Old habits die hard.

    True love never dies.