“Some people are thinkers, others are doers. Tommy Shannon had the capacity to be both, but his love of doing won out”
FROM the moment he swept into our lives – hair trailing and voice booming – as children in St Joseph’s primary school, he was a larger-than-life constant presence. My generation in Ballinrobe grew up with Monsignor Tommy Shannon as our parish priest; ‘til the moment he slipped away in Namibia, that’s what he still was.
To a child, he was a compelling figure. Even if you wanted to ignore him, you couldn’t. Once he entered the classroom, he filled it and transported you to a magical place where stories abounded and Delaney’s Donkey was the national anthem. When he left the sunshine went with him and the day became dull again.
He involved us in masses and services, none of which was ever ordinary.
Fr Shannon never believed in settling for the mundane when something outlandishly theatrical was possible.
That, I believe, is where some people misunderstood him. His penchant for grand-scale everything appeared to be born out of ego. It is reasonable that people may have thought it at times, but I don’t believe it was the case.
Tommy Shannon was blessed with gifts, gifts he cherished. When I interviewed him last year, to mark his silver jubilee, he told me that the toughest thing about Maynooth was the way it tried to reduce people to ‘a common denominator’. “Initiative or talent was suppressed for fear it might give you notions…and the safest thing to be was just an ordinary guy.”
Tommy was one of the lucky few – and he knew it.
His obvious musical talent was spotted by a priest there Fr Cathal O’Callaghan, who took him under his wing and gave him voice production classes twice a week for four years. Much of what he did in his life thereafter was about repaying the faith shown in him by using his talents for the good of the communities he served. His unapologetic use of his special gift was often misconstrued as arrogance; really it was a form of praise.
The other key thing about Tommy Shannon was best summed up by Archbishop Neary in his tribute to him on Mid-West Radio the day after his death when he said: “Tommy enjoyed being a priest.” It was his reason for living. From the moment he developed a special bond with an elderly priest in Glenamaddy, at the age of eight, the priesthood was his destiny.
And, as he told me last year, he never regretted it. It takes a pretty single-minded man to go through 51 years without a doubt about his vocation.
There is no doubt that he sought affirmation; don’t we all. But there was an innocence about the way he did it. I recall early this year being out for a walk on a Sunday morning when I met a funeral cortege. I stopped walking, intending to wait in respectful silence ‘til it had passed. Monsignor Tommy was driving his car behind the hearse and, as he passed, he hollered: “Did you get my lovely Christmas card, Denise?”
What could you do but smile!
I have other memories too, including a special one of a wedding at which he made the bride’s day by compensating for the poor communication skills of her father, the best man and the groom, none of whom thought to say how beautiful she looked or how happy they were to have her in their lives. He said it all for them, not just with eloquence but with thoughtful anecdotes from the ceremony and from her life. He knew more about all of us than we ever gave him credit for, but he only drew on that information if occasion or circumstance demanded.
Some people are thinkers, others are doers. Tommy Shannon had the capacity to be both, but his love of doing won out. He delighted in completing projects and fulfilling needs. It was another gift and he maximised it.
Tommy Shannon wasn’t your average priest. There was nothing average about him. If you didn’t like it, it was too bad; his pursuit of – usually dramatic – excellence wasn’t for diluting. If you did like it, then you’ll see the gaping hole I now see in Ballinrobe.
- Denise Horan, Editor Mayo News
Denise is a native of Ballinrobe. We are grateful to her and the Mayo News for their permission to reproduce this tribute to Mgr Tommy Shannon, our Patron, who passed away in 2008. He took the leading role in our production of Mikado The Godfather in 1991.