BY JOHN FITZGERALD
The last Christian Brother to teach in Ireland is celebrated in a new book by a Kilkenny man.
Mark Townsend, a past pupil of Coláiste Éamann Rís in Callan (now a co-ed school) recounts the extraordinary life and work of Brother Damien Brennan, a gifted educator and the man who helped launch Kilkenny hurling on its Millennial blaze of glory.
When he wasn’t guiding pupils on the path to achievement, Damien could be found on a hurling pitch, applying the same motivational skills that notched up an impressive string of Leaving Cert success stories to take Kilkenny hurling to new and unprecedented heights.
His death in 2019 sent shock waves through Callan, the rest of the county and beyond. Throughout his teaching career in Callan the man described by many as a “living saint” had earned the respect and gratitude of pupils and parents alike, and his loss was felt deeply in GAA circles.
In his enthralling book Brother Damien Brennan-the Silent man behind the Kilkenny success story, Mark Townsend, tells the story of this remarkable man. Mark devoted three years of research and writing to the project, which consists mainly of interviews with people who knew Brother Damien.
Damien was born into a staunch GAA family in County Laois. While attending Carlow CBS he had something of a revelation when he became acquainted with the life and religious mission of Edmund Rice. He joined the Christian Brothers in 1978, and went on to teach at a number of schools around Ireland before taking up a teaching post at Callan CBS in 1990.
His time in Callan spanned two decades. He was promoted to Deputy Principal in recognition of his abilities and later became Principal at Coláiste Éamann Rís.
Mark Townsend had Brother Damien as a teacher from 1997 to 2001. The kindly Brother greatly facilitated Mark’s progress though second level education. At a time when religious orders generally were the focus of negative media attention Damien exemplified the true original ethos of his own Order and the high spiritual standards set by its founder, Edmund Rice
He was devoted to his religious vocation, but equally to his roles as an educator and as a trainer of aspiring hurlers in a county feted as the home of hurling.
Even outside normal school hours, pupils struggling with the often unfathomable exam subjects would call to Damien at Westcourt, or wherever he could be found, for his guidance.
He never turned anyone away, offering priceless tips and insights on how to tackle the great Leaving Cert obstacle course. He went out of his way to ensure that everyone in the school got maximum help and support. He was renowned as the teacher who put pupils first, seeing education as a sacred duty and not merely as a handy or lucrative career option. He had the distinction of being the last Christian Brother to teach in Ireland.
Just as he never sought recognition for his educational work, he shunned the limelight as he guided young hurlers through their paces.
From the day he set foot in Callan he was coaching and training, energizing the local hurling scene in a balancing act with his teaching that would have left a lesser man in a state of near exhaustion or bewilderment.
His exceptional managerial and motivational skills quickly came to the attention of the GAA top brass and he was appointed as manager of the minor county hurling team.
He might not have changed water into wind like the good Lord back in his day, but Damien certainly worked a few miracles on the hurling field. Pundits confabbed endlessly on radio and TV about the fortunes of Kilkenny hurling, marveling at the breathtaking feats of the men in black and amber, but throughout all the glory days the man who was front and centre of those winning scores eschewed publicity or even a clap on the back.
In the book itself and at the launch at the Edmund Rice Centre in Westcourt, past and present hurlers, including household names, lined up to applaud the unique contribution to sport of a man who achieved so much within a lamentably short lifespan.
While the book deals at length with Damien’s legendary status as the hidden force behind Kilkenny hurling triumphs, there is a wealth of additional material to intrigue readers unfamiliar with the GAA scene.
One of the most moving vignettes in the book is provided by renowned former hurler Canice Hickey who knew Damien well from his sporting days. Canice recalls that in June 2019, when the Leaving Cert class in Callan was settling in for what could be the most pivotal exam of their lives, Damien turned up as always on this weighty occasion to offer last minute encouragement.
Though severely unwell from a form of brain cancer (he’d been seen balancing from table to table in the assembly hall), he was there for the lads, bravely concealing his illness as he relayed his customary words of guidance and advice. The lads were under pressure, battling exam nerves and psyching up for the marathon test-or ordeal- not knowing that their teacher faced a far greater challenge.
When the Final Whistle sounded for him, Damien left the field as he had done so many times after coaching and mentoring, and leading teams to glory. He said goodbye to a world he had enriched by his presence in it.
He’ll never be forgotten in Callan, or by those he taught or trained…this man whose goal-and ultimate achievement- in life was to follow in the footsteps of Edmund Rice.
Brother Damien Brennan-The silent man behind the Kilkenny success story is available at all City bookshops