Monday, February 27, 2012

A Saint and A Sinner: The lives of two brothers

Oscar Wilde once wrote, "the truth is rarely pure and never simple". It is with this in mind that I come to the story of my paternal grandfather John Geraghty and his brother, the Very Reverend Michael Canon Geraghty.

In a prime location near the front gate of the Prospect cemetery at Glasnevin, in the St. Laurence section, an area reserved for 'the great and the good' of the Roman Catholic clergy, lies the grave of the Very Rev. Michael Canon Geraghty. About ten miles away in the Geraghty Family plot at Deansgrange Cemetery, interred with their parents, is his brother John Geraghty. Not so many miles separate the grave sites, but in life these two brothers lived worlds apart.

Left photograph: Tombstone of the Very Rev. Michael Canon Geraghty, Glasnevin Cemetery.
Right photograph: The Geraghty Family Plot, Deansgrange Cemetery.
John Geraghty was born in Dublin Ireland 5 July 1889, the third born child and second born son, of Patrick Geraghty and Margaret Toole. John did not receive an education beyond primary school, and his employment history was at best spotty. The birth registrations of his children note him variously employed as a car driver, a labourer, a store clerk, and an office clerk. My father recalled his father as "the one called on to ferry Mr. Jameson about town" (Mr. Jameson of the famed distillery), since John Geraghty was most often employed as a hansom cab driver for his father, my great-grandfather, Patrick Geraghty. John died 12 September 1954 in Crumlin, Dublin, Ireland.

John's younger brother Michael Geraghty was born into the family home at 112 James Street, Dublin, Ireland, on 3 May 1893. Michael was the fifth born child and fourth born son of the family. Michael attended the local Christian Brothers School on James Street. On 29 September 1911, at the age of 18, Michael entered the seminary at Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, in the First University class. He left Holy Cross College and completed his degree at the seminary of the prestigious St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. At the age of 25 years he was ordained Father Michael Geraghty at Maynooth on 28 April 1918 by Bishop Patrick Morrisroe. Father Geraghty served in eight separate appointments for the church and was 'created a canon', as the church says, in 1969. The Very Reverend Michael Canon Geraghty died  on his 81st birthday, 3 May 1974 in Glasnevin, Dublin, Ireland.

On both of the obituaries of my paternal great-grandparents, Patrick Geraghty and Margaret Toole Geraghty, the only one of their children who is specifically mentioned is Rev. Michael Geraghty, along with one of their grandsons, Rev. D. Geraghty, who was a parish priest. The rest are lumped together under the appellation "sorrowing family". This speaks to the prestige the Geraghtys attached to their connections with the church, particularly to their son and grandson as priests, a personal link to Heaven, if you will.

Although he was no doubt highly respected within the religious community, and likely prized by his parents for raising their religious clout, Michael was not especially well liked by members of his brother John's immediate family, and seemingly with good reason. In her letters, my father's late sister, my Aunt Kathleen notes the way in which their uncle Michael would completely avoid her when she was visiting her spinster aunts in her grandparents' home.

Of her father's family and her uncle, Kathleen writes,

“It was indeed a family divided. Not only could we marvel at their wealth, but the Geraghtys always made plain that we were an embarrassment to them, and what is more, that somehow we were morally “tainted” because we were poor. They were all cold fishes, but the worst of them was the priest Michael. I remember going to my aunts on St. Stephen’s Day for tea. Quite a few people were there, and I must have been aged about 14 or 15 at the time. At no point during my visit, which lasted several hours, did my uncle make any attempt to speak one word to me. At one point I caught him just staring at me as he sat in an armchair in a corner, puffing on his pipe. Presumably he was making sure to keep the moral ‘contamination’ at bay! 

My aunts used to make all his vestments and priest-ridden as they were, they thought the sun shone out of his backside. He used to visit them sometimes on Sunday afternoons, and on one or two (or maybe more - who knows?) occasions, my visits coincided with his. I knew he was in the house, but he stayed upstairs in one of the bedrooms (perhaps the one my aunts had turned into a sewing room for the holy man’s vestments). He stayed there until I left the house. This was an adult who, as a priest, claimed to be special!!”

It is clear to me, from a number of letters written by my Aunt Kathleen, that by shunning her this so called 'holy' man inflicted emotional wounds upon his young niece, which were understandably still alive and festering in her adult mind.

My own father was also hurt by his uncle's peculiar personality, yet seemingly he once held his uncle in high regard. Just before he emigrated from Ireland, my father and mother went to see his uncle Michael in order to seek his blessing and say goodbye to him. They went to Our Lady of Dolours church in Glasnevin where his uncle was then serving as parish priest. Despite the fact that they had made an appointment, when they arrived at the church, the Rev. Father Michael refused to see them, claiming he was too busy. My father never forgot, nor forgave that slight.

Clearly the children of John Geraghty felt the sting of their uncle Michael 'Canon' Geraghty's judgement upon them, judgement which stood despite the fact that these children had nothing to do with the way in which their father behaved. As an alcoholic and a gambler John Geraghty would have been viewed as morally dissolute, an alcohol soaked black sheep, if you will. Perhaps the eminent Canon Geraghty worried that the connection to such a person as his brother might taint him in some way; however, one can easily imagine that a priest might have some compassion for the innocent children of his own brother, if not for the brother himself.

Of her father Kathleen writes,

“My father had a gambling problem, a source of many of our woes, but I never saw any evidence of that. I see my father as a man too weak to bear the responsibility of raising children and providing for their needs. My father seems to have been used as a general dogsbody in the running of the family business, while the other children were allowed to have a good education and take up good careers.”

In another letter Kathleen recalls the state her father was in following the death of her mother.  She writes,

“He took my mother’s death very badly; as a weak man he depended on my mother a great deal, so her sudden death was a devastating blow.  My father was ailing from that time and eventually had a stroke.  The hospital sent him home still very ill and bed-ridden. None of his brothers or sisters helped; instead, as my father was so ill they got the bright idea that my sister Mary [aged 14] and me [aged 12] should take turns sitting up all night with him in case he needed anything.”

With their elder brothers having emigrated from Ireland or away working, the two girls were left alone, principally responsible for the care of their father until he died. The eminent priest never appeared, neither to offer prayers for his brother's recovery, nor to deliver last rites. That task was left to a local priest.

Previously, I have written about my belief that we should remember our ancestors were just like us in that they were complex human beings, neither all saint nor all sinner. Such a belief makes me a proponent of the theory that there are two sides to every story, and I certainly recognize that with this story I do not have fully both sides. I attempted to learn more about my granduncle by writing to the Catholic Church for whom he served as canon, but the details I received were about him as an employee, not him as a person.

When I think about my grandfather, the details of his life leave me with far more questions than answers.  Why was he unable to bear life as it was? Why was he denied the same kind of education which was provided for his brothers and sisters?  Why is he the only child whose name appears with those of his parents on the large tombstone which stands over the family plot? Was that inscription meant as some sort of posthumous recompense for the way in which he was treated in life?

Finally, this post is entitled 'A Saint and A Sinner: The lives of two brothers', so, when we consider the lives of these men, perhaps we might ask ourselves which one was which? Most likely the answer lies somewhere in between.



  1. How sad all the way around for your grandfather and his wife and children; his brother; and their parents. Don't you wonder what went wrong?

    This post reminds me how often I wish I could meet and talk with my ancestors and find out about their personalities and lives.

    I like your grandfather's gravestone quite a lot.

  2. I confess I have something of a knee-jerk reaction to this story. There are so many echoes of an Irish Catholicism which placed priests and nuns above the laity who in truth had a much greater burden to bear. Were they weak if they bowed under the strain..I don't know. But from where I stand, Michael failed in his responsibilities as a clergyman, a human being and relative when he ignored his family. It would be so easy to be vitriolic so I can understand how his niece felt. I have similar stories in my family (no religious orders) where half the children were relatively privileged while the others suffered. Makes me quite cross I can tell you even though I descend from the privileged ones. Is it a multi-national experience or is it something peculiar to the Irish -I can't decide.

  3. What an incredibly moving post.

  4. Fascinating and sad. So much to think about here. Of course, it reminds me of Angela's Ashes. A lot of books come out of Irish family history! I think this will resonant with many people.

  5. Well told, thought provoking.

    I have a family where there are a number of children and the mother died. When the father remarried, there was, of course, a second family. It is striking, the first family children had a hard way of it, some buried as paupers, the second family children were well educated and did very well in life in the $$ area. Yet, they allowed their half siblings to be buried as paupers while they had huge expensive mausoleums. This was in Virginia from the time of our Civil War till the late 1930's.

    Can't wait to have conversations with these ancestors, to learn the "REST" of the story!

  6. Hello Nancy, Pauleen, Margel, Marian, and Carol,

    Thank you to each one of you for your thoughtful comments. As always they are much appreciated.


    As you say, I too wonder what happened to make life the way it was for their family. I like to believe that somewhere out there is more of the story. Like you Nancy with your own ancestors, I would dearly love to sit down with this group and perhaps get some answers. It is very unsatisfying to be left with so many questions.


    I find myself of two minds about this story. I agree with you that Reverend Geraghty completely failed his family; however, I received my pre-university education at a Catholic all girls school run by nuns, so I can easily imagine the religious prejudices ‘trained’ into him which unfortunately made him imagine he was above the fray.

    Still, it seems to me that in his fervor to serve an institution Father Geraghty forgot the most basic of religious teachings from Matthew 25:40, "whatever you do unto the least of my brothers, you do unto me".


    It is funny you should mention ‘Angela’s Ashes’ because that book had a very polarizing effect in my family. My Aunt Kathleen (mentioned above) went on to put herself through university, moved to England, and was working in the British Home Office for the Prime Minister when the book was published. She absolutely hated it, because so many of her colleagues thought it was an accurate depiction of the way her life must have been, and she told me many times that it was not. She was particularly offended by the image of McCourt’s family gathering bits of coal in the street. My dad, on the other hand, thought parts of the book were hilarious, which I found kind of odd, but there you have it. Limerick, the setting for the book, was always a town of great struggle. When I read the book I thought McCourt must have spent a lot of his life being very grateful for having even survived.


    It is stunning to discover how many of us have similar stories. My mother’s Kettle family members were also wealthy, but they had a ‘share the wealth’ mentality, and would not see the less fortunate suffer. I think in many ways this is a microcosm of our society.

    Cheers to each one of you,


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Cheers, Jennifer

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