A personal tribute to Brother Charles Purcell

BROTHER Charles Purcell died on Saturday, May 9, in Castletown, Co Laois.

Br Charles officially taught me French for the first three years of my secondary school education in St Patrick’s High School, Downpatrick. He also taught me a lot about life. 

He was a gentle, humble and holy man, a person of the people, a champion of the underdog, a man of honesty, integrity and fairness. I cannot remember him ever raising his voice in class. And he had a passion for hurling that was infectious.

He gathered up all the old discarded hurls at pitches around the county . He repaired them and they ended up in the tea chests that he kept in Seamus Cope’s shed. You didn’t have to bring a hurl to school every day. Br Charles supplied them. And at lunch time half the boys in the school headed to the top pitch for a puck about.

Then there was the First and Second Year League — my first hurling medal. I still recall his encouraging words as he handed the medal over to “Monsieur McAleenan, the Liatroim Fontenoy”.

If you were lucky enough to have Br Charles the period before lunch, you got out a few minutes early to prepare for the most important part of the school day and you couldn’t do it on an empty stomach: “Un ventre vide n’a pas d’oreilles”.

I never knew his surname until after I left the Red High. I knew he was from one of the Munster hurling counties. I knew that he had honed his sublime hurling skills there and we all marvelled at how he could pick up a sliotar on the inside of his black shoe and then it behind him to fire at pace through his legs right bang on target — while wearing a full length cassock.

Br Charles Purcell was raised in Kilteely in Limerick. He was born 94 years ago, one of 13 children to farming stock. Three sisters became nuns and he and a brother, Michael, joined the Christian Brothers. He easily identified with boys from similar rural backgrounds. But then again, no one could fall out with one of the most affable teachers ever.

He arrived in De La Salle House in Downpatrick from Dublin in 1959, just as football became the rage all over the county. Quietly he began his hurling revolution, lining out initially with Kilclief Beann Dearg before joining the newly formed club in Downpatrick. He was a stalwart in the development of hurling at County Board level with another son of Munster, Jerry Sheehan.

Although he was 33 years older than me, I proudly played against him in a Down Division 3 league game during his final year in the Celtic strip of RGU, his pale legs accentuated by the white shorts and socks which contrasted with the all black cassock he wore during his day job.

He left briefly during my Lower Sixth year in 1976 and we all showed our appreciation with a small gift that brought a tear to his eye. Within six months he had returned and we like to think it was because he missed us. In truth he missed his adopted home of Downpatrick, its people and, particularly, his hurling friends in Down.

He saw my younger brother through most of his teenage hurling years before retiring to Waterford in 1986. But he always made a point of returning for class reunions – he was always top of all class invitation lists.

Such was his impact on his adopted community that when the Red High opened their new school in 2013, they named the GAA pitches in his honour. He attended and threw in the sliotar for the first game played there.

Br Charles taught French and Latin with passion and enthusiasm, but above all he was a Gael.

A Bhráthair uasail, repose en paix, requiescat in pace. 

Bíodh seanchófra lán camán agus sliotar os do chomhar agus tú ag siúl fríd gheaftaí na bhflaitheas.

Sincere condolences to his brother, sisters and family circle, as well as his confreres in religion and his many friends.

Séamas McAleenan