Northern Ireland

Fr John Sullivan: Portora Royal School celebrates ex-pupil's honour from Pope

A portrait of Fr John Sullivan Image copyright Jesuits in Ireland
Image caption Former Enniskillen schoolboy Fr John Sullivan was raised as a Protestant by his wealthy Dublin family but later converted to Catholicism

A Northern Ireland school is sharing in the celebrations after Pope Francis approved the beatification of one of its former pupils, Fr John Sullivan.

Born in Dublin in 1861 to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, Fr Sullivan was educated at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh.

Raised as a Protestant, he later became a Catholic and then a Jesuit priest.

He has been beatified - often a step towards sainthood - in recognition of his work with the sick and the dying.

'Great ironies'

However, Fr Sullivan's efforts to help the poorest and most vulnerable in society could not have been further from his own privileged upbringing in Victorian Ireland.

He was the son of Sir Edward Sullivan, a wealthy Dublin barrister who later rose to become a Member of Parliament, Attorney General for Ireland and eventually Lord Chancellor of Ireland - then the highest legal office on the island.

Sir Edward sent his sons to his own alma mater - Portora Royal School, Enniskillen - which counts the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde and Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett among its most famous past pupils.

Image caption Portora Royal School traces its origins back to the 17th Century when King James I decreed there should be a free school in each county "for the education of youth in learning and religion"

Portora is a non-denominational school but it is governed by the Fermanagh Protestant Board of Education.

The fact that a Royal school has produced a beatified Jesuit priest who could be on the way to becoming an Irish Catholic saint is "one of the great ironies of Portora," according to its current headmaster, Neil Morton.

'Joint ownership'

He told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme that the beatification reflected "the importance of this school to Ireland and beyond, because Fr John is one of a long line of very, very distinguished Irishmen".

"His own particular life and trajectory is amazing because he spent the first 35 years of his life as a member of an affluent [Anglo-Irish] Ascendancy family, and then at the age of 35 converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism, and within a few years, joined the Jesuits.

Image caption Portora's headmaster, Neil Morton. said his school was looking forward to the possibility that Fr Sullivan could be made a saint

"From living the good life, shall we say - renowned for his dress sense and so forth - he became a very familiar figure of poverty around County Kildare as he administered to the parish, and of course, allied himself to Clongowes Wood."

Clongowes Wood College - a Jesuit-run catholic boarding school in County Kildare - is one of the top schools in the Republic of Ireland which has produced several leading Irish politicians, businessmen and international rugby players.

Fr Sullivan joined the Jesuit Order in September 1900 and took up a teaching post at the college.

"We, at Portora, have a very close relationship with Clongowes based upon our joint ownership of Fr John," Mr Morton said.

"His influence is still felt in Kildare very, very strongly and of course he's revered in Clongowes Wood and rightly so."

He added that because Fr Sullivan "split his life so evenly" between his father's Church of Ireland heritage and his mother's Catholic tradition, both communities were celebrating the beatification announcement.

Staff and pupils from Portora attended a service in Dublin's Christchurch Cathedral last year to celebrate the life of Fr Sullivan.

The service was addressed by both the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin and the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson, who "happens to be an old Portoran", Mr Morton points out.

Fr Sullivan, who died in 1933, was one of 39 clerics who were granted papal approval for beatification on Wednesday.

"He was venerable in November - he's now blessed and the next step is saint so we're looking forward to that," Mr Morton said.

Related Topics

More on this story