By John Fitzgerald
Callan has produced many famous people over the centuries, such as Edmund Rice, who founded the Christian Brothers; James Hoban, who designed the White House; and the poet, John Locke.
But it still came as a bolt from the blue and a morale boost to the town to learn that one its own had been numbered among the world’s top one thousand achievers of the 21st century. For that was the honour conferred on Fr. Jim O’Halloran in the summer of 2004.
He is now officially deemed one of the greatest minds on earth, a man to be spoken of in the same breath as people like Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and the Dali Lama.
That’s according to the American Biographical Institute (ABI), which has included the Callan-born missionary priest in a prestigious volume devoted to the lives and work of thinkers and achievers worldwide.
Fr. Jim has served as a tireless champion of the poor, the oppressed and disadvantaged throughout his missionary life. Using his teaching skills, and driven by a passionate belief in justice and human rights, he has transformed the lives of countless thousands of people across the world. His eight brothers and two sisters, other members of the extensive O’Halloran clan, and his many friends in Callan, were ecstatic at the news that the popular, quietly spoken cleric has been accorded such a high honour for his missionary and humanitarian work.
The institute DOUBLY honoured the Callan man. Apart from listing him in the 2004 edition of its Great Minds of the 21st Century, it included his name among an elite list of people to whom the volume itself is dedicated.
Fr. Jim has spent most of the past thirty years working abroad, mostly in Africa and South America. As a teacher, he has educated thousands of people in backward or poverty-stricken parts of the world. His fearless backing of the poor in countries ruled by tyranny sometimes brought him into conflict with the military juntas and oligarchies that sought to crush all dissent and maintain their strangleholds on power.
The tyrants felt threatened by the gift of learning that Fr. Jim and others like him offered to people held down by illiteracy and brutal oppression. Even the act of learning the basic skills to read and write worried the oppressors, but Fr. Jim never abandoned the fellow human beings he had pledged to educate and support.
In addition to battling injustice, poverty, inequality, and illiteracy, he has published fourteen books and dozens of short stories, many of them inspired by his work as a missionary.
His first novel, Remember Jose Inga, was launched in his native Callan in 2003. It tells the David and Goliath tale of downtrodden, exploited people in a South American nation who struggle against a savage dictatorship – echoing Fr. Jim’s own struggle for justice.
The honour bestowed by the American Biographical Institute carries huge prestige and credibility. Since 1967, the ABI has studied and documented the lives of many great men and women throughout the world. The Institute has published over a hundred separate volumes, each of which adhered to the strictest rules and criteria in the selection of notable or outstanding individuals for inclusion in a given publication.
The ABI’s reference works have won critical acclaim for their consistently high quality and unimpeachable accuracy. The volumes find their way into libraries and universities worldwide.
So the honour conferred on Fr. Jim was phenomenal. Coupled with the Institute’s decision to dedicate its 2004 edition of the Great Minds publication to him, his elevation to such an internationally renowned and celebrated elite has accorded recognition to both the man himself and his missionary work.
“I’m gobsmacked by this award,” Fr. Jim remarked when I asked him for his reaction.
He explained: “I only allowed my name to go forward for this award because I was strongly urged to do so by friends and co-workers. They felt it would help their work. I accept it on behalf of those people with whom I have worked down the years.”
In its letter to Fr. Jim, the ABI confirmed both his inclusion in the 2004 edition of Great Minds of the Twentieth Century, and its decision to DEDICATE the edition to him, owing to what it called the “superlative nature” of his achievements.
Sharing in the special dedication with Fr. Jim were other great minds of the past and present: Albert Einstein, Professor Stephen Hawking, Mark Twain, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Dali Lama, Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Teresa, and John F. Kennedy.
Jim O’Halloran was born in Callan in 1932, son of Martin and Jane (née O’Reilly). The family lived at first in Mill Street and then moved to Skeaugh, just outside the town. His education began at St. Brigid’s School, where the nuns taught him. Next he attended the Academy, a national school, and the Christian Brothers school in the town.
Jimmy Walsh of Mill Street was a schoolmate of Jim O’Halloran’s at the Academy. He remembers Jim as an uncommonly bright pupil who flew through even the most difficult subjects.
Jimmy recalled: “First, second and third classes were all in the same room. Jim was one class ahead of me, but I’ll never forget his brilliant mind, always alert, with a world of knowledge at his fingertips. But he loved sport too. He wasn’t always stuck in a book. He hurled like mad in the evenings in the fields around Callan.”
Callan of Jim’s childhood was a town afflicted by hard times. Emigration was rampant. As often as not, the streets were deserted, with just a few elderly people or children about. His mother, Jane O’Reilly Halloran, remarked one day: “If you placed a canon at the end of Bridge Street, and fired a ball up through the town, you’d hit nobody.”
His mother cycled from Callan to the family home at Skeaugh in the early forties with “a half-ton of groceries” on the bike to meet the needs of her husband Martin, herself, and their fourteen children.
As a teenager, Jim felt he had a vocation to be a priest. He was particularly impressed and influenced by the example of the Augustinians in Callan. The Order had been in the locality for five centuries and had won their way into the hearts of Callan folk with their simple dedicated lives and deep spirituality.
But it was to a different religious order that Jim would devote the best years of his life. At the age of fifteen, he left Callan to complete his secondary studies at two different Salesian Colleges, one at Pallaskenry, County Limerick, and the other at Ballinakill, County Laois. He then progressed to higher studies, attending universities at London, Oxford, Maynooth and Philadelphia. In pursuit of his priestly vocation, he entered the novitiate of the Salesian Congregation in Sussex, England.
In 1963, he was ordained a Salesian priest at the Congregation’s HQ in Italy. His first appointment was to Malta as headmaster of a school for deprived young people. He later took up a similar position in Swaziland in Southern Africa, again working with underprivileged school goers. In 1970, he was appointed to the Salesian South American Mission in Ecuador.
There he continued teaching and lectured at the Catholic university in the capital, Quito. But he also worked in deprived areas of the city, where he came face to face with the injustices and inequalities that blighted the lives of many Ecuadorians. Fr. Jim spoke up for people who were exploited and repressed by the country’s military junta, acting as a voice for the poorest of the poor.
From his experience of poverty, economic exploitation, and dictatorship, he became convinced that “basic Christian communities in Latin America, if they networked, could be powerful instruments for development, justice, and peace”. This insight has shaped his life ever since. It is the driving force behind his missionary work with communities worldwide. His work has taken him to universities and other centres of learning across the globe, as well as to remote villages and far-flung mission stations. Fr. Jim strongly believes that the way forward for an embattled Catholic Church is to implement the “community model” of church proposed by the Second Vatican Council.
This proposal envisaged having all members of the Church, whether clerical or lay, participating EQUALLY in its day-to-day functioning.
The Callan man explained his thinking on this issue for me: “I actively encourage, not just Christian communities, but groups of all kinds, whether religious or not, to link up with and support each other. I believe that if people come together at grassroots level, they can really change the world. Reform can be initiated from above – renewal must come from below.”
News of Fr. Jim’s award was warmly welcomed in Callan, a town he has kept in contact with throughout his missionary life. His sisters, Mary and Kathleen, were beside themselves with joy at the honour bestowed on their dedicated brother. Mary Cuddihy ((née O’Halloran), of Prologue, Callan, was thrilled to see him receive a “much deserved clap on the back” for his missionary work. Kathleen, who lives in Shepshed in the English midlands, was elated by the news and said at the time: “I’m delighted to see Jim awarded this honour, which I feel deservedly recognises the many years of commitment to his work, a commitment that has touched the lives of thousands around the world.”
Lifelong friend, Jimmy Walsh, who attended school with him, expressed delight that his old buddy had been recognised “at last” for his unsung heroism and unselfish devotion to helping victims of poverty and cruel regimes.