Irish priest and Kenyan missionary who so loved ‘Oh Danny Boy’ now in heavenly liturgy

Father Sean Kealy
Father Sean P. Kealy of the Holy Ghost Fathers congregation was a noted missionary and educationist in Kenya for 14 years.

Father Sean P. Kealy of the Holy Ghost Fathers congregation, also known as the Spiritans, was a noted missionary and educationist in Kenya for 14 years.

Professor Kealy, Sean to his many friends, served first as a lecturer at St Thomas Aquinas Seminary, Nairobi, and later at Kenyatta University.

Posted to Kenya in 1970, he taught Sacred Scripture and trained seminarians in liturgical music. This was during a critical time after Vatican Council II as the Catholic Church transited from use of Latin in its worship and adapted to local languages.

Sean Kealy read classics in Ireland for his university studies. Besides a mastery of Shakespeare, he was a scholar who earned degrees in Scripture and Theology from the Biblical Institute and the Gregorian University, both in Rome. He loved classical and liturgical music in which he was a maestro, being adept at the pianoforte.

Sean used these skills generously as he trained seminarians. Gifted in networking before the term was in vogue, he widened the horizons of his students by introducing them to professionals in various fields.

In this regard, he invited the renowned American scholar John L. McKenzie, author of Dictionary of the Bible, to give public lectures on Holy Scripture. Later, he brought over his friend Lucien Deiss, the celebrated French liturgical pioneer, to conduct music workshops in several colleges in Kenya. Fr Deiss was the author of famous liturgical hymns including Keep in Mind.

Probably Sean’s greatest contribution was the encouragement he gave to budding musicians to create works rooted in and inspired by local traditional tunes. In this regard Sean loved and promoted the Taita Mass, based on an indigenous melody.

It was this encouragement that produced innovators such as Mike Maganzo who recently wrote music in tribute to Servant of God Maurice Cardinal Otunga. Others are Mr Sammy Kariuki and the late Fr George Wambugu, author of the Kikuyu Mass, Mitha Mugikuyu. “Fr Kealy inspired early composers to produce liturgical music using indigenous matter and form,” says Fr John Kiongo, a leading liturgical music innovator in the Archdiocese of Nairobi.

A lover of the theatre, Sean collaborated with Fr Cormac O’Brolchain, the well-known musician and former principal of St Mary’s School, Nairobi, in outdoor production of the opera Mikado in 1971. Additionally, Fr Kealy trained the choir of St Thomas Aquinas Seminary for a choral role in the play Adrian VI performed at the Kenya National Theatre. After serving in the seminary, Prof Sean joined Kenyatta University College to teach in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies from 1975 to 1983.

Bishop Zablon Nthamburi of the Methodist Church was chair of that department during Sean’s tenure. “Dr Kealy was one of the founders of the department. An excellent lecturer, he was also an accomplished biblical scholar who published in professional journals. I reviewed several of his books”, recalled Prof Nthamburi.

Sean Kealy wrote 15 books including Jesus and Politics and The Apocalypse of John.

Besides writing for professional journals, Fr Kealy crafted a popular bible column in the TARGET newspaper edited by Rev John Henry Okullu, later Bishop of the Anglican Church. Additionally, Sean wrote a regular scripture column in the Catholic Mirror, a publication of the Holy Ghost Fathers, edited by Fr Frank Comerford. After serving in Kenya, the veteran missionary returned to Ireland where he was appointed President of Blackrock College, the famous institution in Dublin that has produced many leaders in political, business, religious and cultural life. Bob Geldof, the rock star activist and philanthropist, is an alumnus of the respected institution.

Having completed his tenure at the college, Fr Kealy served as a professor and head of the Department of Theology at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, USA. In 2014, he retired to Ireland.

Sean loved the Irish lyric ‘Oh Danny Boy’ which he sang occasionally. He died peacefully last month in Ireland, the land of his birth, after a short illness. Aged 81, Fr Sean Kealy has returned to his maker to participate in the heavenly liturgy.

This article was originally published on the Daily Nation website and is republished here with permission.