A Tribute to Two Outstanding Teachers

Fr. Placid Murray and William Fearnley: A Tribute to Two Outstanding Teachers

Most of us have memories from our schooldays of teachers who have had a strong impact on our educational development and our outlook on life.

Educationalists even point to the critical importance of the ‘good teacher’ in a student’s overall development, when combined with strong educational resources, a culture of commitment to education and the personal commitment and motivation of the student himself/herself. All these features Glenstal had and still has in abundance.

In recent months, two such ‘good teachers’ sadly passed away: Fr. Placid Murray and William (Bill) Fearnley. In my time in Glenstal (1971-75) , my brothers and myself and fellow pupils had the good fortune to have been taught by both Placid and Bill.

Since their deaths, there has been much said and written about their many qualities and achievements. The intention here is not to repeat these tributes and eulogies, but rather, to give a personal appreciation based on my own memories and those of my family members and friends. In this sense, the accounts will only be partial and limited, but no less valid for that, I hope.

Fr. Placid Murray (1918-2022)

Fr. Placid first entered the monastery as a young man in the late 1930s. To all who attended Glenstal in the post-Second World War era, Placid was a veritable legend. A man of great dignity, integrity and prayerfulness, anyone who came across him in the classroom was both overwhelmed by his knowledge and scholarship and struck by the depth and integrity of his character. At times, he appeared to us callow students as somewhat austere, but this probably reflected more the man’s reserve and seriousness than anything purposely intimidating.

Fr. Placid’s main school subject was German. My brother, Karl, was fortunate to have been a student of his in his two final years at school, 1975 and 1976. As well as my brother, that particular class included such top students as : James Smyth, Declan Fagan and Conor Joyce who all excelled across a range of subjects in their time. Karl recalls the look of almost impish delight on Placid’s face as he delved regularly into the German dictionary, Duden, searching for some word reference. This excitement with the subject was clearly evident and was transmitted to the students around him. To dispel any notion that he was some fusty, out of touch monk, Placid was ahead of his time in the classroom in many ways. He was very keen on using technology to transmit his points through the use of cassette tapes in class – interestingly, an innovation not always used by other more ‘worldly’ teachers.

Even to those not exposed to his teaching of German, Placid gained a reputation for excellence such were the good reviews that filtered out of his class. In my mind’s eye, I can see Placid perched upon a swivel chair atop a podium in a BBC studio as a contestant in Mastermind. His specialist subject might have been some aspect of the life and works of John Henry Newman or some abstruse aspect of the German language.
Much has been related already in the eulogies for Fr. Placid about his committed Newman scholarship and other intellectual and liturgical achievements, so these will not be repeated here. Students of that era were aware, in a vague and general way of Placid’s notable skills and achievements. These helped convey an aura of both mystery and respect for the man.

Very few people have ever led as long a life and few have led such an eventful and rewarding one. He was born in 1918, the year of the armistice after the Great War and of the General Election which had such momentous and long-term effects on Irish politics . He was 104 when he died and was said to have been the longest-ordained Catholic priest in the world.

One recollection cited in the eulogy for Placid given by Abbot Brendan at his funeral is worth mentioning. Some weeks before his death, Abbot Brendan and others visited him in his nursing home to celebrate his 104th birthday. The Abbot asked Placid what it was like being 104 to which he replied: ‘ You don’t experience as much peer pressure’ – subtly, yet wittily and incisively put as ever by Placid, right up to the very last. Interestingly, one of the German phrases which Placid was renowned among his students for saying was : ‘Bis zum bitteren Ende’ – or ‘right to the bitter end’. Although obviously physically frail, Placid himself remained mentally alert right up to the very end.

To many, Fr. Placid left a great legacy of knowledge, wisdom and humanity – one of the truly great teachers from whose teaching and example so many Glenstal students benefited.

William (Bill) Fearnley (1937 – 2022)

Again, this appreciation is not meant to be all-encompassing or definitive. Many more people would have known Bill longer and better than myself. My appreciation is very much a personal account of my recollections and to that extent, only partial and limited.

On first meeting Bill Fearnley over 50 years ago in his and my early years at Glenstal, what struck me was his quintessential Englishness. Quiet, polite, modest, undemonstrative, as straight as a dye – those classic ‘English’ characteristics helped him stand out among a majority group of voluble, florid and mercurial Celts. The 1970s were his early years settling into life in Ireland from a life theretofore lived in England. He also retained a strong interest for Italy and things Italian and even taught Italian for a period in the school.

Not long after arriving at Glenstal, Bill met Esther in the strangest yet also most fortuitous of circumstances. They met when Esther’s car collided with Bill’s, a situation that might have had negative consequences, but which resulted in their developing a relationship and ultimately getting married and settling in Murroe. Marrying an Irish lady was a further step in cementing what was to be a long standing relationship with Ireland. While settling and integrating fully in Ireland, many who met him over the years were to remark how an innate Englishness still remained.

In fact, it was through his teaching of the school subject of English that I first encountered Bill. It was to prove a fruitful association both in the short term and the long term. On first arriving at the school in 1971, I noted that the book that everyone was talking about and reading was J. R. Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. This was largely as a result of Bill’s own efforts at encouraging an appreciation of it among the students. Copies of the hefty tome could be seen positioned on the desks and bookshelves of pupils throughout the school. It was long before the release of the film and the huge surge in publicity and interest in the book in recent decades. Mega-blockbusters rarely existed in that pre-multimedia era.

Bill’s support for ‘Lord of the Rings’, however, almost certainly had deeper connections. Although reticent and modest, Bill was not averse to revealing aspects of his life pre-Glenstal, notably and interestingly, his Oxford days. As he himself recounted, it was at Oxford where Bill came across Tolkein, a professor there at the time. He recounted the tale of how as an undergraduate at Magdalen College, he commenced studying history where his tutor was the renowned historian, A.J. P. Taylor. Taylor was later to become renowned for being able to deliver long lectures live to camera on the BBC on his pet subject of the origins of the first and second world wars (unassisted by notes or autocue). Bill was fortunate to have studied in such a high quality learning environment.

One evening as a young undergraduate, Bill attended an open lecture delivered by Tolkein on the subject of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ and the associated genre. He was so bowled over that he approached Taylor to seek permission to transfer to the study of English. Thus, Bill became a student of English, graduating from the University a few years later. History’s loss was English’s gain as many generations of Glenstal students will attest. He had many interesting tales too of some of the more colourful dons at the University during his time there.

Bill inspired in me a great interest in English, so much so that after achieving an Honours in the subject in my fifth year under Bill’s tutelage, I proceeded in my sixth year to take an ‘A’ level in the subject, again under Bill. We were a small grouping of five: Geoffrey Keating, David Orr, Paul Smyth, Vincent Barton and myself. Much to the surprise of us all, we all achieved an ‘A’ grade in the exam – a clear testament to Bill’s influence as a teacher. Bill was certainly proud of us. He was always scrupulous in attending to the exigencies of the Leaving Cert and ‘A’ Level curricula, while at the same time, being prepared to go ‘off piste’ and to inspire a broader interest in the subject among us. I recall, in particular, his teaching us Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, drawing on his Oxford-generated knowledge of early and middle English. He even enlightened us to the fact that the pilgrimages to Canterbury in medieval times were popular getaways for people, combining as they did, both religious devotion and revelry in the same breath. They were the package holidays to Blackpool, Ibiza and Lanzarote of their era.

Bill was of a strong cerebral orientation with little interest in the school’s sports curriculum. He knew where his strengths lay and made best use of them. His extra-curricular interests included chess which became and remains popular in the school. The length of time spent in Ireland, setting down his roots for well over 50 years, demonstrates how much Bill became attached to the country, yet retaining a strong Englishness. His Catholic faith was important to him. Notably, he was a convert to Catholicism and often used to talk about John Henry Newman and the Oxford Movement which attracted so many converts at Oxford in the 19th century. In 1973, Bill organised a school trip which took in his beloved Oxford as well as a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon. One of our group was ejected from the august surroundings of the cathedral at Oxford’s Christchurch College for eating an ice cream – a fair enough penalty, we eventually agreed, compared with the range of medieval tortures that might once have been exacted upon him! Despite that incident, the trip went without a hitch.

The wise have always pointed to how much more unites the people of Ireland and Britain than divides them. All we have to do is to look around us to see how much each country has influenced the other and continues to do so. Bill settled seamlessly into Ireland helped by his equable and mild temperament. We, his former students, owe him a great deal for his inspiration as a teacher, never patronising or dismissive and treating us as the adults we hoped to become.

Paul McElhinney
Wexford, 2023

Paul McElhinney attended Glenstal between 1971 and 1975. He graduated from TCD in Economics and Politics and with a Master of Business Studies from the University of Limerick. He is now a full time writer having previously worked as a civil servant, an oil and gas industry executive and a college lecturer. He lives in Wexford and is the author of ‘The Lion of the RAF’, a biography of Air Marshal Sir George Beamish.