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Father Martin Joe Kearns

Martin Joe Kearns was born in 1919 in Carraneany, Williamstown. Co. Galway, the youngest of a family of 6 and named after his father.   He had 4 older brothers and a sister, Mary Ellen who was my mother.   Sadly for the family their father died of pneumonia in 1920.   His mother’s family, the Whytes, rallied round to help.   His grandmother Mary visited them by pony and trap and his uncle Martin Whyte moved in to live with them for a couple of years to do the farm work until the older boys grew stronger.

 

All the children went to school to Polredmond which had excellent teachers who prepared their pupils to go out into the world because for most their formal education ended on leaving primary school.   Martin Joe got a scholarship to continue his education at secondary school in Tuam.   The year 1935 was another sorrowful one for the Kearns brothers and sister as their mother Mary (nee Whyte) died from cancer.   In time, they had to get on with their lives. 

 

 During his teenage years Martin Joe decided he wanted to become a priest.   His 3 oldest brothers were by then working in trades and another brother worked their small mixed farm.   When he was ready to go to college the family decided to pay for his education at All Hallows College.   They felt if he was ordained a diocesan priest he could choose a safe place in the world to serve. 

 

Their cousin, Fr. Oliver Whyte, and a neighbour, Fr. Luke Reilly had joined the Columban Missionaries and were sent to China.   They were persecuted; Fr. Luke was imprisoned for 2 years on false charges.  On his release he spent a year in hospital in Colorado Springs to recover his health.   Fr. Oliver was transferred to the Philippines and other places.   After surviving the hardships on the missions in the Far East, Oliver and Luke served the Columbans in other ministries in the West.

 

The academic training for a priest took seven years of which three years were given over to physics, mental philosophy, languages, English literature; four years were devoted to sacred scripture, history, liturgy, cannon law, sacred eloquence and the science of theology.   All Hallows College trained priests for England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, South America, South Africa, India, Canada, Australia, West Indies, New Zealand and the United States.   Martin Joe chose to go to the Archdiocese of Hobart in Tasmania.

 

He became Fr. Martin when he was ordained a priest on June 20th, 1948.   My mother, her brothers, Whyte and Connell first cousins, who were as close as siblings, attended the ceremony in Dublin.   As they drove home that evening they were greeted by crowds and bonfires at the villages and crossroads from Williamstown to Carraneany.   The next day, June 21st, 1948, he said his first Mass at St Teresa’s Church, Williamstown.    Mom was first to receive Holy Communion, I was second and it was my First Holy Communion.   He was my godfather too.

 

That afternoon the whole village of Carraneany partied.   The houses were close together and everyone dropped in for sandwiches, drinks, cakes and then talked on the street or across their garden walls.  There were people from Glenamaddy, Ballinlough and the villages around dropping by.   At that time I had one sister and three brothers including our 6-month old baby.   The next week we had a party for him at our house so that our neighbours could celebrate his ordination.   After a couple of months the parties became tearful occasions when everyone said goodbye to him before he sailed off to Tasmania and we didn’t know when we would see him again.  

 

I don’t remember hearing why he chose to go to Tasmania, the other side of the world.   Kathleen Connell, his first cousin was living in Queensland, Australia, having immigrated from Ballinlough.   I think his grandfather and granduncles Whytes immigrated from Curraghwest to Australia in the early 1800s along with other men from their village.   My mother missed him terribly.   She was 4 years old when he was born and she minded him from the beginning.   She wrote to him often and I had to write a few lines in the letters too.

 

After WW Two ended a plan was devised to populate Australia with a million immigrants from the United Kingdom.   Among the enticements was a ticket that could be bought for £10.   The establishment of the Assisted Passage Scheme Australia became an attractive option for Irish immigrants 1947-1971.   Northern Irish, as British subjects, paid £10 to migrate to Australia where they were given Hostel accommodation on arrival, access to public housing and voting rights after 6 months.   Irish citizen’s fare was a negotiated rate of £30. 

 

Some troop ships were refitted as single-class migrant ships such as the Fairsea to bring the people to Australia without regard for passenger comfort.   The Orient Lines purpose-built passenger vessels, SS Orcades and RMS Orion were put into service on the England to Australia route in 1947.   These were more comfortable for passengers and had a swimming pool and hospital on board.   Their home port was Tilbury on the River Thames. 

 

I don’t have Fr. Martin’s actual itinerary but this describes an immigrant’s journey to Australia in 1948.  The journey from London to Australia took 30 to 40 days.   Their route took them via Gibraltar, Palma, Toulon, Naples, Port Said, Suez Canal, Aden, Colombo, Fremantle, Adelaide and Sydney to Brisbane.  (If the Suez Canal was closed or the ship was very big the alternative route was:  London, Lisbon, Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to Fremantle and the other Australian ports.)

 

There were stopovers to restock with fuel, fresh food, water and to load and unload passengers as well.   There were adventures to be had for passengers who got off at Port Said, Egypt such as camel rides or tours to the Pyramids.  If they got off at Colombo, Sri Lanka they could see a snake charmer, smell curries or taste fresh coconut milk for the very first time.   Crossing the Equator was celebrated by rituals honouring King Neptune.

 

Fr. Martin, after he disembarked on mainland Australia had to travel to Hobart, Tasmania.   St. Mary’s Cathedral, Hobart had St. Patrick as its Patron Saint (still has).   Irish Christian Brothers arrived in Tasmania in 1908 at the invitation of Archbishop Delaney.   They built St. Virgil’s College, Hobart in 1911, St. Patrick’s College in Launceston in 1919 and other schools.   The Sisters of Charity, Carmelites, Sisters of St. Joseph, Benedictine Monks and other religious orders were there too.

 

I expect he had familiarized himself with Tasmania when he decided to go there.   The Dutch colonised the island in 1642 and named it Van Diemen’s Land.   A century later, 1788, British settlers arrived accompanied by convicts as labourers.   Later, they set up penal colonies.   By 1856 the social experiment of convict transportation was abolished and in an effort to escape its horrendous reputation the island was renamed Tasmania.

 

When the Europeans arrived the native Aborigines were estimated to number about 4,000 and were hunter gatherers who had developed a sustainable seasonal culture of hunting, fishing and gathering.   Many of them were murdered, imprisoned, forced out of areas settled by whites or succumbed to European diseases.   The 1947 census of Tasmania revealed a population of about 260,000 excluding full-blooded and half-cast Aborigines who were thought to be extinct.   The birthplaces stated in 1947 for the population were:  Australia, N.Z., British Isles and all other European countries.

 

There was mining of natural resources such as copper, zinc, tin, iron, gold.   Agriculture produced food; salmon, beef, chicken, pork, dairy and lamb farming, various fruits and vegetables.   Wheat and barley were grown to feed stock, oil poppies were grown for pharmaceutical products.   Plant and animal life included temperate rainforests, eucalypt forests, some of the oldest trees in the world, birds; honeyeaters, jays, plovers, magpies, cockatoos, parrots, rosella, mammals; wallabies, possums, marsupials, native cats, quoll, Tasmanian devil, wombats, platypus, echidnas.

 

By all accounts Fr. Martin made a good and happy life for himself.   He was personable and light-hearted and his letters home talked about all the people with Irish connections that he met.   When anyone he knew was coming to Ireland he sent them to visit us.   He worked and lived in various parishes; Hobart, Launceston, Deloraine,  Darby, Franklin, Railton, Westbury, St. Mary’s and often travelled over 90 miles to say Mass in three parishes on a Sunday.   He told us some people may only have Mass once a month.   At the time that was unimaginable for us.

 

His first visit home was in 1958, ten years after he immigrated.   Mom was delighted to have him home, her brothers in England and America came home too.   He seemed different from the priests we were used to and really were afraid of.   He wore a cream coloured linen jacket and light grey shirt in warm weather and often said Mass at the kitchen table.

 

I had left home by then to work in Dublin; my youngest sister was one year old.   He visited people all over the country including cousins in Bangor, Co. Down.   I saw him when he came to Dublin and when I was visiting home.   The boys had fun with the boomerang, didgeridoo and rain stick he brought them.

 

His holiday lasted a year with some time spent in America with his brother John and family in New Jersey.   They connected with relatives on their father’s side in Pittsburgh and New York as well as relatives and friends who had immigrated from around home.   When air travel became commonplace his routing sometimes took him from Australia to America and then to Ireland, at other times he did the opposite.   On some flights he stopped off at places such as The Holy Land and Rome.   He had two sad journeys home for the funerals of two of his brothers.

 

He had given 38 years of service and love to the church and people of Tasmania when he retired in 1986.   The next year he came home and bought a small bungalow in Roscommon Town.   He enjoyed helping in the parish, saying Mass for the Nuns, presiding at ceremonies when invited and playing golf.   Mom was on her own then, Dad had died and the family having left home were getting on with their lives.   Fr. Martin and herself enjoyed visiting people far and near.   They travelled together to Chicago for my 50th Birthday.   Their brother John came from New Jersey to Chicago and we had a good time.   He said Mass at the parish church some days and at home other days.   Frances, a friend dropped in one day as he was about to start Mass and she decided to join us.   I knew her background was Lutheran but she received Holy Communion, to my great surprise.   I didn’t say anything to anyone but I was in turmoil.   The next time I met Sister June I told her.   She said, “don’t worry about it, God will sort it out”.   Their visit ended and our lives went back to ordinary.

 

Thinking about the happiness he derived from visiting people and the laughter and good cheer he brought them I’d say that had to be an important charism or gift that was in his nature.

 

That was to be the last time I saw Uncle Martin.   A few months later at the beginning of 1991 he died of a heart attack.   He is buried beside two of his brothers in Kildaree graveyard.

 

Some time the previous year he asked Philip and Teresa, my brother and sister, to be executors of the new will he was making benefiting local charities.   After he died the Archbishop of Hobart sent a copy of the will he made in 1948 leaving everything to that archdiocese.   The new will was not legally valid so when his house and car were sold all the proceeds were sent to Hobart.

 

Among his papers I found a letter from a Jim Fahey who was a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier Church in South Hobart the last parish where Fr. Martin served as Parish Priest.   Jim enclosed a copy of the tribute he gave for Fr. Martin when he retired.   It seems the parish was in an unsatisfactory state when he was assigned there.   He had to establish contact and rapport with the parishioners, nurture them in their spiritual needs and carry out major renovations to the Church, Church Hall and School.   He got parishioners involved in 8 ministries and activities and the parish was in robust good health when he retired after only 4 ½ years with them.   The parishioners showed their gratitude for his friendship, kindness and dedicated stewardship as their Parish Priest.

 

The Angelus Magazine of the Elphin Diocese where Fr. Martin was a correspondent wrote an obituary.  “Fr. Martin Kearns was the spiritual leader for several parish activities and endeared himself to everyone who knew him, as the priest with the great sense of humour, always smiling and happy.”

Notes:  

The 2016 census of Tasmania showed a population of 510,000.   Those with Irish ancestry 8.2%, Aborigines 4.6%, Catholics 15.6%.

Fr. Luke Reilly wrote a memoir: The Laughter and the Weeping, An Old China Hand Remembers.

 

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