Priest’s legacy proves a helping hand to teachers

Fr. Michael O'Connor, a brother of the late Fr. Thomas O'Connor; Michelle Murphy, principal, Shrone N.S. near Rathmore, and Dan O'Connor, chairman, school board of management, which was unveiled by Sean McMahon, INTO president.Picture: Denis Minihane.

Struggling teachers are being helped out with a €20,000 gift left by a late Irish-American priest whose family got the same kind of help of their later father’s union more than 80 years ago.

The legacy from Kerry-born Fr Thomas O’Connor to the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) was a repayment for the help his mother and siblings received when he was a child.

He died in 2008 after spending most of his long life in the US, but he was 11 months old when his father, also Thomas, died suddenly at Christmas 1930 in his early 30s. His mother Nora was left to care for himself and four other children aged under eight.

Thomas Sr was principal of Shrone National School near Rathmore and the family received a cheque for £50 every year before Christmas from the INTO’s widows’ and orphan’s fund, a significant amount of money at the time.

Four of the five children received a second-level education, and the assistance was clearly never forgotten by Thomas, who went on to be ordained to the priesthood in 1955 in the US.

He died there in June 2008 but was buried in the graveyard of the Church of Our Lady in Shrone, where many of his family were at a recent ceremony to unveil a plaque in his honour.

The INTO was represented by its president, Sean McMahon, officers of the union’s local branch and district, and its benevolent fund committee members.

The fund has seen a significant increase in demand in recent years, having been first established in the 1870s not long after the union’s foundation. It started out informally, so appeals would go around a local district or region if a teacher had fallen on hard times, and money would be raised to help them out.

From its description as a widows’ and orphan’s fund in the 1930s, its purpose has changed slightly, and today the benevolent funds offers assistance to two categories of beneficiary. The first are teachers whose spouse dies, or the spouses of teachers who die before retirement, and a death grant of €2,000 is paid in such cases.

Last year, €110,000 was paid in death grants, but INTO deputy general secretary Noel Ward said the overall fund has seen payouts increase in the last couple of years. Between 2010 and 2012, typical total payments were €175,000, but without any noteworthy change in death grants, the fund paid out €200,000 in 2013.

“In the current year, we will spend more as it has increased to around the €230,000 mark,” said Mr Ward. The increase is down to more applications for hardship grants, which are paid out for exceptional cases of hardship arising from illness or old age of members themselves or family members. The number of beneficiaries is nearer to 30 this year, compared to a typical 20 to 23 in more recent years.

In this context, Mr Ward said the gift of €20,000 from Fr O’Connor’s legacy has been a timely boost to the fund this year.

“We became aware of it in 2013, and we had to provide legal documents before the money came through. It’s very welcome because the fund is under a bit of pressure,” he said.

It is mainly sustained through a proportion of money raised from subscriptions of the union’s 35,000 members, and the benefits committee decides on how supports are administered.

“If someone is out sick long-term on reduced pay, or if they have to take a career break to care for a seriously ill family member, they are the kind of circumstances where we help out,” said Mr Ward.

“We had a young teacher this year who lives with his mother, both of them are relatively young and she is dying of cancer. He took carer’s leave to look after her, but he couldn’t live on just the social welfare payment he can get,” he said.

In such situations, the benevolent fund can offer a member a couple of hundred euro a month. In other instances, a one-off payment might be made to elderly ex-members or their spouses. This is particularly relevant for the widows or widowers of teachers who had worked before 1968, when there was no dependents’ pension fund.

Fr O’Connor was a racing success in America

By Niall Murray

Fr Thomas O’Connor’s success in America went beyond his spiritual duties, having also earned a reputationin the world of harness racing.

It was some of his successes on the tracks there that helped him to be able to leave a generous gift to help teachers and their families, like his own family was once helped.

According to research by Dan V O’Connor, a successor of Thomas’s father as principal of Shrone NS and now chairman of its board or management, Fr Thomas was introduced to the sport of harness racing by a friend.

“He was friendly with someone who had a big farm and kept horses,” says Dan. “Fr Tom was offered a chance to take part and had success with a few horses,” he said. “One or two did really well. One was called Caramore — from the Irish ‘cara mór’, meaning big friend — and Shronebeg was named after his homeplace.”

According to a harness racing website notice when Fr Thomas died in June 2008, Caramore was one of 80 horses he owned and bred. Between 1980 and 1988, Caramore alone earned more than $1.1m in prizes, with 55 wins from 199 starts, including the 1981 New Jersey Classic mile race. The horse left his own legacy. A racing series with a $25,000 prize fund is named after him.

Dan says that Thomas O’Connor Sr did not go to school until he was quite old, but then later went to teacher training college in Waterford and came back to Shrone in his early 20s, when it was an all-boys school. He married a local woman from Shrone, Nora O’Connor.

“I think he got pneumonia at the end of 1930 and died a couple of days before Christmas,” says Dan. “They had a small farm and there were five children.”

He says the O’Connor home was a well-known ‘rambling house’ in the 1950s, where people would meet for music, dancing, singing, and storytelling.

Fr Thomas went to the local school where his father had earlier taught, and onward to various colleges in Ireland. This included a Christian Brothers education centre in Tralee, attendance in the seminary at All Hallows College in Dublin and also time studying philosophy at Mount Melleray.

He was ordained in 1955 in the United States because he was going to work in the New Jersey diocese. There, he served as chaplain in various colleges and hospitals, finishing his service in the Freehold Township where he moved in 1988.

As well as harness racing, he is said to have been active also in handball, hurling, Gaelic football and golf.

His brother Michael — also a priest — played briefly for the Kerry football team, playing in the Munster championship around 1950. He lives locally, having marked 60 years in the priesthood in 2011, most of that time served in Liverpool and the Isle of Man.

Their surviving sister Eileen Maguire O’Connor worked in the civil service and did a degree in UCD, spent some time teaching, and then became a barrister.

“She remembered as a young child that a cheque from the INTO used to come for £50 around Christmas every year, which was a lot of money 80 years ago,” said Dan.


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