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In Conversation With: Fr Michael Wall

Fr Michael Wall speaking at a microphone

As both a lecturer and as Chaplain to the College since 2000, Fr Michael Wall has spent almost a quarter of a century in a unique position, occupying a sacred space between the College’s staff and students. On one hand, a lecturer within the Department of Theology & Religious Studies, but on the other a trusted face that students could approach; be that in need for counseling or support in their academic or personal lives, or for as nonchalant a need as a cup of tea and a chat between lectures. Now, aged 70, Mick (as he is more fondly referred to) is preparing to retire from the College and in the latest of our In Conversation With series, he looks back over decades of service to MIC and to Limerick. 

Born to James and Eileen in Dromcollogher in West Limerick, Mick is the eldest of 10 children. Educated first in St Joseph’s local primary school in Dromcollogher, and then St Munchin’s College in Corbally, Mick found himself with three possible paths to pursue after his Leaving Certificate. He recalls: “The big thing in those days was to get four C’s in the Leaving Cert, because getting four honours made you eligible to get the County Council scholarship. I got that, and I found myself with three options: The Priesthood, Teaching or Veterinary. They talk about this famous ‘Call to teaching’ at MIC, and I got it, but eventually I chose to go to Maynooth. There, I undertook a degree in Maths and Philosophy and afterwards a degree in Theology.”

Mick is both the nephew and grand-nephew of priests, with his grand-uncle, Fr James Wall, coincidentally serving as Chaplain at MIC before Mick was born. However, Mick insists it wasn’t family history that encouraged him to join the priesthood. He says: “It was more practical than that, really. In a sense, when you’re making these decisions, you see where it takes you and you decide your next step from there. When I went to Maynooth I enjoyed it and stayed with it but there was no blinding flash of inspiration, or anything like that.”

Despite not having an epiphanic moment calling him to the priesthood, Mick’s relationship with his faith hints at a pre-destined calling. He says: “I am very spiritual, and I have a great sense of not being in charge and that there are powers that determine your existence. Even now, before I go to a doctor or something of that nature I will say a few prayers. Science does its job but sometimes it needs a helping hand!

He continues: “I suppose I would see my faith as part of the fabric of my existence. There’s a television ad on at the minute for the English Navy where they say, ‘Born in X, made in the Navy’ and it’s similar to that. It is part of my constitution. I often ask students to look at their world view and what gives their world coherence. What makes them optimistic or pessimistic or what are the drivers behind that. For some it is sport, for some it’s family, for others it’s faith; but it’s important that people know what glue holds their existence together.”

Ordained as a priest in 1979, Mick returned to Limerick where he began working as a vocational teacher at the School of Commerce on Mulgrave Street. He began delivering part-time Theology lectures at MIC, particularly on the Diploma in Catholic Education, which was delivered by UCC at the time. He was then sent to Dublin for a year in 1985, based in the City Quay Parish on the South Docks and taught in the Mater Dei.

In 1986, he made his permanent return to Limerick as the Diocesan Advisor for Religion in second level schools, traveling the Diocese to advise and assist religion teachers. During this time, he co-authored a number of nationally distributed workbooks aimed at students who found the religious textbooks difficult. While continuing his part-time lecturing with MIC and UCC, Mick was appointed Assistant Diocesan Sectary in 1986 and then Diocesan Secretary in 1992. 

In 2000, Mick was appointed as full-time Chaplain at MIC. Having walked the halls for the better part of two decades already at this point it was familiar territory for Mick, but there were some changes to get used to, as he recalls: “Coming in wasn’t that much different in one sense because I had been doing the lectures anyways. The Chaplaincy part was different though and that was a bit of a culture shock. It took time to get into it and to be known by the students. One of the things I always did was wear the black shirt because it helps with recognition in the corridor.”

“Looking at the overall student body here over the 24 years, we’re lucky that students are very nice generally. They have changed over that time, and would have been more religious from a practice perspective than they are now, but I think students can be quite spiritual when there’s issues; such as when someone is sick or a death or in an instance where it’s not clear what the future might hold. But I do think they primarily see me as a religious figure.”

As Chaplain of the College, Mick is ever-present at official College events; be it offering blessings at College ceremonies, saying daily mass in the College chapel, leading staff retreats, and in the summer of 2018 even marrying two staff members, Rachael Finucane and Dermot Comerford, in the College chapel! 

But away from the more ceremonial and happier occasions, Mick’s role also sees him become the centre-point for grief and trauma on the unfortunate occasions when tragedy hits the College community. “There have been tragedies down through the years,” Mick recalls. “All you can do in those situations is be with people; to be there and listen. Sometimes you will be journeying with a student for quite a while as they deal with something difficult. I’d usually be supportive for a while but then one does need to disconnect and let them process their emotions themselves in time. Importantly, you have to be very practical. You can’t be too spiritual and not make sense. You just have to meet the people and be on the level they need you to be at.

“I’d also always make a big effort to go to funerals and to show support on behalf of the College. I’ve heard it back from past students years later, how much they appreciated someone from the College being there, and it wouldn’t always be just me from the College either, it could be the President or other staff members. I remember meeting a student in the corridor a few years ago and she told me they’d been talking about me at home recently and she thanked me for going to her mother’s funeral. I couldn’t remember being at a funeral of that name recently - until she told me that her mother had died when she was two years old. It turns out her sister was a student at the College when this girl standing in front of me was only two, and I had gone to the funeral. The family hadn’t forgotten it and the support they felt from the College. That meant something.”

The tragic events throughout his career come too easily to mind for Mick, and his office is dotted with photos of students or graduates whose lives had been tragically cut short. 

But it’s the happier days of celebration that come to mind for Mick first, as he lists the memories he has of 24 years of continued full-time service to the College, in addition to nearly two-decades of part-time work before that. The top of the list? Graduation, naturally! He explains: “You can see the students that you’ve seen for the last few years, now having blossomed, and they’re going and that’s quite important. I’ve taught thousands of students in the College at this stage and Graduation is where you see all of their learning coming together. 

Mick is very grateful for the support that he received from college staff during his years at MIC, saying “the staff have been wonderful and made my time here a very happy one”.

Outside of MIC, Mick has been an active member of Limerick Climbing Club for decades, a hobby which has seen him scale “pretty much every mountain in Ireland and the UK”. In fact, in 1990 Mick scaled the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro – spurring a typically hilarious story involving an indirect (but cheaper) connecting flight through Soviet Russia followed by a bus tour through Moshi, Tanzania without a guide, let alone an English-speaking local who could advise them! 

But it won’t be to the hills Mick turns to when he retires from the College, as he jokes the body isn’t as able for 10,000 feet as it used to be. So, what will the future hold for Mick? He leans, without mentioning it, on his belief of a guiding power with an unusually brief response: “Basically, I’ll see what happens!” 

We’d like to take this opportunity to wish Mick, on behalf of the College community, the very best in his retirement and thank him for his service to the College.