John O’Meara 1915-2003

John O’Meara died on 12 Feb 2003 following a minor operation. His remains were cremated, after Requiem Mass on the 14th at the chapel of University College, Dublin celebrated by Fr Bruce Bradley SJ, a former pupil of John. Representatives of Irish universities and of the Royal Irish Academy joined his family and former colleagues to say their farewell to him. SPES was represented by its president. Death came suddenly to John at the end, but he had prepared himself well, and had even planned his Requiem, choosing the readings of the Mass: Romans 11:33-36, I Cor13, Psalm 23, and the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount.

John O’Meara was born at Eyrecourt in the county of Galway on 18 February 1915. His secondary schooling was divided between Rockwell College, managed by the Holy Ghost Congregation, and the minor seminary of his native diocese. He excelled in Greek and Latin (the major subjects on the syllabus), and had been through all the Odes of Horace four times before he left school. He entered the Society of Jesus, which gave him a first class education (B.A. 1938, and M.A. 1939, from University College, Dublin–philosophy he studied within the Society), before putting him to teach Latin, Greek and German at the Jesuit college of Clongowes Wood (1939-42). His superiors decided that he should study at Oxford University, which he did in wartime (1942-45). His D.Phil. thesis was entitled ‘Prolegomena to the Contra Academicos of Augustine’. He eventually, not without some trauma—described with sensitivity in his autobiography–decided that the life of a Jesuit priest was not for him, and returned to Dublin to a post as assistant in classics at UCD. In 1947 he married Odile de Barthès de Montfort, the private secretary to the French ambassador in Dublin. Three children were born to them. Odile now mourns her husband after more than half a century of exceptionally united married life. John was appointed to the chair of Latin in 1948 and remained in post until his retirement in 1984. He had notable success as a lecturer, a role in which all his qualities, of learning and research, of enthusiasm and conviction, of confident delivery, elegant appearance and charm, combined to attract his auditoire. He raised the standard of work done in his department, lectured before classes of up to nine hundred in First Arts, looked after the careers of his most promising students, and embarked early upon what was to become a long series of scholarly publications winning international recognition. He was elected quite early to membership of the Royal Irish Academy (exactly fifty years ago). He served on the council of the Academy on several occasions and was twice elected Vice-President. He received the Croix de la Légion d’Honneur of the French government

His own university knew the benefit of his membership, not only through his teaching and research but also through his contribution to policy debate within it. He was not afraid to adopt unpopular or minority views on matters where the good of the institution appeared to him to be at stake, and he clashed with the president of UCD on more than one issue. He opposed the proposal to move the College to a new campus which was then outside of the city. He thought Latin should no longer be a required subject for an arts degree. He was openly critical of the Government’s policy regarding the revival of the Irish language, and he favoured a partial merger of the two Dublin universities, UCD and Trinity College—a thoroughly controversial proposal. He was not himself surprised when his bid for election to the presidency of UCD failed (1964), but he did on the other hand have the satisfaction of serving his college and university as an elected governor of UCD and a member of the Senate of the National University of Ireland

If his love of St Augustine and his admiration for the writer, thinker and saint accompanied John O’Meara through the first half of his scholarly life and were to remain undimmed to the end, it was the intellectual and spiritual companionship of Eriugena that was to mark the remainder of his life. Through research and translation he made a notable personal contribution to the study of the Irish thinker, and he succeeded at the same time in creating the institutional framework for the vast expansion of scholarly interest in him which recent decades have witnessed. John regarded the foundation of SPES (1970) as one of his greatest achievements, and may prove to be his most lasting monument, apart of course from his own writings. He took great pride in SPES and in the achievements of its members.

The last academic conference that he attended was the tenth colloquium of the society, held in Ireland in August 2000, at Maynooth and Dublin. On that occasion he found especial pleasure both in the company of the seniores and in the contemplation of the new, young faces which manifested themselves there in some numbers, as new members. The latter in their turn looked in awe upon the founder of the society. His adoption of the cause of Eriugena could be regarded (though John himself would never have said this) as an expression of his own national pride—a feeling which was quite free from insularity, and which was given scholarly embodiment in the most rigorously professional way. The same national sentiment expressed itself in his edition (1949) and translation (1951) of Geraldus Cambrensis’ Topographia Hibernie, and likewise in articles such as ‘The Love Poetry of Yeats and Catullus’ (1967), ‘The Confessions of St Patrick and the Confessions of St Augustine’ (1956, 1976), ‘Jean Scot Erigène et son milieu irlandais en France’ (1980), and his English translation of the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis. Members of the Society who had the privilege of knowing John will remember him as a gifted scholar, a genial conversationalist, an encourging presence, and an inspirer of others.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Books, monographs and translations by John O’Meara

St Augustine. Against the Academics. Translation with introduction and commentary. Ancient Christian Writers XII. Maryland: Newman Press, 1950.

Giraldus Cambrensis: Topography of Ireland. Translation with introduction and notes. Dundalgan Press (Ireland), 1951. (Reissued in Penguin, London, 1982).

Virgil. Aeneid IX, edition. Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1952.

The Young Augustine: The Growth of St Augustine’s Mind up to his Conversion. London: Longman, 1954. (U.S. edition, 1964; paperback, London, 1980; French version 1958; Swiss edition, Fribourg, 1988).

Origen, On Prayer and Exhortation to Martyrdom. Translation with introduction and commentary. London:Longman, 1955.

Porphyry’s ‘Philosophy from Oracles’ in St Augustine. Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1959.

Ordeal at Lourdes: The New Discoveries, with Odile de Montfort, London, 1959.

Charter of Christendom: The Significance of St Augustine’s City of God. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

Eriugena. Mercier Press, for the Cultural Relations Committee of Ireland, 1969.

(Ed., with Ludwig Bieler: The Mind of Eriugena. Papers of a Colloquium: Dublin, 14-18 July 1970. Dublin: Irish University Press, 1973.

(Ed.), An Augustine Reader, New York, 1973.

Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis. Translation of The Voyage of St Brendan, Dublin: Dolmen, 1976.

The Creation of Man in St Augustine’s De Genesi ad Litteram, Villanova, Philadelphia, 1982. (The St Augustine Lecture, Villanova University).

Johannes Scottus Eriugena, Periphyseon III. Scriptores Latini Hiberniae XI. (Completion of edition by I.P. Sheldon-Williams and L. Bieler).

Eriugena, Periphyseon (The Division of Nature). Revision of translation of I.P. Sheldon-Williams, Montréal-Paris, 1988.

Eriugena, Oxford, 1988.

Autobiography: The Singing Masters, Lilliput Press, Dublin, 1990, 115pp. (The title is taken from the poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, by W.B. Yeats).

Volume of essays in honour: From Augustine to Eriugena: Essays on Neoplatonism and Christianity in Honor of John O’Meara, ed. F.X. Martin and J.A. Richmond. The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1991, xx+190pp. A biographical sketch is printed on pp. ix-xii. The complete list of his publications up to 1998, including book reviews, appears on pp.xiii-xx.

James McEvoy