Young Pat

John Fitzsimons

Biography of Patrick Keegan

Chapter 1 – Young Patrick

The date was October 13th, 1964. More than two thousand bishops had filled the benches on either side of the nave of St Peter’s in Rome. Mass was over, and they were now waiting for the 100th General Congregation of the Second Vatican Council to begin. They were about to conclude their discussion of the first draft of what was to become the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. A murmur of anticipation ran round the Assembly. Archbishop Krol, one of the assistants to the General Secretary, was leading a layman to the microphone. A number of laymen and lay women had taken an active part in the preparatory commissions. Some of them had been present from the beginning of the Council, during the previous General Congregations, as auditores, i.e. non-speaking observers. Hence so far, only bishops (“Fathers of the Council”) had addressed it. There was a good reason for the ripple of comment. Not only was this the first time that a layman had spoken during this Council, it was the first time that a layman had spoken at a General Council since the 4th Century. History was about to be made.

It was wholly fitting that a layman should speak on behalf of his fellow observers. The discussion that had begun in the 95th General Congregation on October 6th had been concerned with the apostolate of the laity – the share of the laity in the mission of the Church. Hitherto, for centuries, the role of the laity had been conceived as: to pray, to obey and to pay. But, in the thirty or so years before this Council, it had been and been seen to be much more active. In fact it was already happening, and this at different levels of the Church and of society. As Patrick Keegan advanced to the microphone he was a symbol of the coming of age of the laity in the Church. More than that, he was a sign of the apostolate in action. For he was present as the President of the International Catholic Workers Movements, and indeed he spoke for all the lay members of the Church.

He began by saying in the name of the lay observers1:

We are very conscious of our responsibility at this historic moment to try, however inadequately, to voice the sentiments of the faithful laity throughout the world.

And then continued2:

We have welcomed most warmly the chapter of the document on the Church dealing with the laity, giving us a new vision of our active participation in the whole mission of the Church. We have welcomed also the Constitution on the Liturgy which has vitalized our share in the public worship of the Church.

We offer the assurance of our loyal cooperation in fulfilling the noble aim of the document on Christian unity. And now we have been following with the greatest attention your debate on the lay apostolate.

This schema marks for us a point of fulfilment in the historical development of the lay apostolate. We sincerely hope that it marks the beginning of a whole new stage of development

His concluding words were:

His Eminence Cardinal Cento, to whom our thanks, as to all the members of his commission, are due, told us in his introduction to this debate that there is, by wish of her Divine Founder, a distinction within the Church between the hierarchy and the laity, put this distinction implies no distance. This debate in the Council has done much to bind us together inseparably in the single mission of the Church.

The path which led the speaker from the Lancashire town of Hindley to the microphone in the 16th General Council had begun nearly thirty years earlier when, as a young man, he had answered an appeal, made by an apostolic priest, to sell a monthly paper called The Catholic Worker. The priest, Father Gerard Rimmer, had come to make this appeal in the men’s club in the parish of St Benedict, Hindley.

This parish, one of the oldest in the archdiocese of Liverpool, was founded in 1650 by, and for over three hundred years was in the charge of, Benedictine monks3. In November 1950, Abbot Butler of Downside presided at the three hundredth anniversary of the coming of the Benedictine fathers to the Hindley district. Thus, when Pat Keegan’s parents came to Hindley in the early years of the century, their traditional Irish Catholicism blended into a distinctive centuries old Lancashire faith that dated back to penal times. This, in turn, was infused with the special contribution of the Benedictines: the love and practice of liturgical worship. But perhaps the predominant element was the deeply rooted faith in the Church which imbued the daily life of the family in a completely unselfconscious-like kind of way.

Patrick Keegan was born on February 11, 1916, the eldest of three children. His father, one of eight children, was born in Ireland in county Mayo, and from there had first come to England to work in the potato fields of Lincolnshire before settling in Hindley to work as a blast furnaceman in the Wigan Coal and Iron Works. His mother’s parents had already come, also from Mayo, to Hindley before she was born. She had grown up in Hindley, and before her marriage had worked as a weaver in a local cotton mill. By the time that Pat had begun to go to school the household was completed by a brother and sister, and an unmarried aunt who worked in the cotton mill as a ring spinner.

St Benedict’s School dated from 1861, which itself had been the replacement of a school begun in converted stable buildings some seventy years earlier. Pat was to spend the next nine years of his life, apart a period of illness when he went to stay for twelve months with an aunt in Mayo, in this school. While he was still a schoolboy the Wigan Coal and Iron Works closed down and his father, after 1926, went to work in the mines, at first part time and then eventually full time.

Hindley was completely dependent on the textile and mining industries, and was almost entirely working class. All shared the same degree of insecurity and the same level of deprivation. The only people who were considered to be, and considered themselves to be, above this were shopkeepers, the butcher, the baker, the grocer, and those who worked in local government offices. The only respect in which the Keegan family was slightly better off than many of the others was because of their aunt – there were two-wage-earners in the household. As Pat expressed it: “We were quite well off. We always had shoes.” Shoes or not, their home life was happy, and this in large measure was due to the mother’s skill in romanticizing the dull and making an adventure of the fight against deprivation. For instance, “when she came with us children to pick coal, she turned the whole business into a picnic.”

The Catholics in the town had a sense of community that was almost tribal. They had the solidarity of a minority against the power of nonconformity, and were proud and self-respecting. The Church was central to their lives, as expressed in the simple family religious practices of the home, and the Benedictine spirituality of school and church. One of the main elements of this latter came from a sober but lightsome liturgy. Excesses were not appreciated. At the time when the church was consecrated by Archbishop Downey in 1929 Pat was an altar server. The elaborate kissing of hands, crozier staff, cruets and the rest made him comment to a fellow server “I’ve never done so much kissing in all my life.” The Church was involved in leisure activities too. Pat, with his school friends, joined the Catholic Boys’ Brigade which was run by a group of miners in the parish. From that they graduated at the age of 16 to the Junior section of the Catholic Young Men’s Society.

Leaving school at 14, the first and most immediate task was to find a job, any job. Pat wanted to go into the cotton mill, but not finding any vacancy first went to work in a garage. He was paid the princely sum of eight shillings a week. Fortunately, after a short time in this dead-end job, he found a place in a mill, working as a little piecer and being paid fourteen shillings a week. There he worked on a spinning mule, with the prospect of becoming a side piecer, and then – perhaps – being able to join the aristocracy of the spinners. The little piecer, who worked in his bare feet, was the dogsbody and was at the mercy of the whims of the boss of the mule, the spinner. Of him Pat said:

I trained with an old spinner who was very religious and extremely kind, though a martinet. I don’t think I was a very good piecer of bobbins, but he was very patient, and the word went round as soon as the overlooker was on his way through. At one period I used to get my brush fast, and this caused a breakdown …. and wiping down was a tricky performance that I was always nervous of.

But he added that by the time he was involved in YCW meetings and was still working at the cotton mill the “old spinner” helped him with hints on public speaking.

It was at this point that Pat’s social education began. His boss was an officer of the Spinners Union, and on many occasions other officers and members came to consult him. The little piecer was always around, ears wide open. It was thus that he was introduced to the world and the activities of the trade unions. But this aroused in him no sense of class consciousness – he was quite content to accept passively the status quo: “I felt I was just one of a great mass of people who were going through a bad time.” Yet occasionally something would strike him, cause him unease and ready to question that same status quo. One instance was when a side piecer was talking to him about the girls he was going out with. Pat asked him if they were going to get married. The reply was terse and final: “Twenty nine bob a week! How can you get married on that?” It struck Pat at the time and memory of it has stayed with him for fifty years. He remained an employee of the Combined Egyptian Cotton Mills in Atherton for seven years and eventually became a side piecer, although there were periods when the sills only worked part time.

During this period he did a great deal of reading, although he did not read widely; for the most part his staple diet was popular novels from the library. But the parish club was the chief focus and attraction, especially after 1934 when he and his ex-school mates became full members. The club had a bowling green, billiard tables (he was keen both on snooker and billiards) and a hall for dances. One further feature was the Sunday evening talk or lecture. This was meant to widen the horizon of the members, and at the sane tine was a nod in the direction of providing a little intellectual balance. Outside speakers were invited, or in some cases invited themselves. One such was an assistant priest from the parish of St Joseph in Wigan, Father Gerard Rimmer.

Wigan was an important market town with a long history. (It was a known to the occupying Roman legion as Coccium.) In recent history its importance dates from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, as it is in the centre of the South West Lancashire coalfields, surrounded by smaller satellite communities like Atherton. Orrell, Ince, Newtown, Piatt Bridge, Femberton and Hindley. Some of these were on the western periphery of the area of Lancashire cotton mills.

Father Rimmer, appointed to St Joseph’s after his ordination in 1934, soon showed his concern with the social question. both social charity and social justice. For the former he played his part in establishing the House of Hospitality in Wigan. The Inspiration for this came originally from Hew York where Dorothy Day, founder-editor of the American Catholic Worker4, had opened the House in 1934. (Within two years there were thirty three other such Houses spread across the USA) In the U.S. the paper and these Houses were closely associated. And so in Wigan Father Rimmer was equally interested in the paper and began to publicise the paper, looking for individuals of good will who would help to sell it. He had also organised a Catholic Social Guild study group with between twenty and thirty members, using a CSG textbook.

Hindley, only a few miles from Wigan, was the missionary territory to which he now turned his attention. A momentous choice, because this was to change the whole direction of Pat Keegan’s life. Father Rimmer spoke at a Sunday evening meeting of St Benedict’s Club, and appealed for volunteers to sell the paper. Pat, impressed by the earnestness, enthusiasm and conviction of the priest, volunteered to be a seller, and with his mates went round Hindley selling from door to door. Father Rimmer then invited him to join the Study Group in Wigan where his pride was boosted because he, a rather brash twenty, was accepted as an equal by the older men. One of them gave him a copy of the CSG pamphlet The Church and the Worker by Virginia Crawford, a history of the social movements in the Church since the late nineteenth century onwards. This was a further revelation, and made him avid to learn more.

The way was open because Father Rimmer had got together a group of younger men about Pat’s own age, and he Joined up with them. Their first meeting was at the end of January 1937. Father Rimmer had wanted to do this for some time but was undecided what form the group should take. He had met Father Eugene Langdale at the 1936 CSG Summer School who had told him of the Jocist movement for young workers in Belgium and France. He was attracted, discussed it with others who filled him in with details, and so committed himself to starting a (JOC) YCW5 section in St Benedict’s. He began by talking to them about their work, the place, the conditions, whether they liked it or not, and their problems. Then, said Pat:

He asked us how many fellows did we know in the district, where did they work, what did they do, what did we think their attitude to the Church was. Then, unexpectedly, he asked: Do you feel any responsibility towards them? I’m afraid that this question was met with a rather blank response because quite frankly we asked ourselves why we should feel any responsibility for them, and anyway from a religious point of view that is the priest’s job. I think that was the general reaction of all of us.

But enlightenment was to follow when they began to discuss passages from the Gospels: first “fishers of men” and then “the harvest is great but the labourers few”.

And he spoke of a document called Rerum Novarum – which sounded to us like the name of a racehorse. But the action decided upon from that meeting was that we should make a list of the fellows we knew with a view to having personal contact with them regularly. At another meeting the question came up about sanitary conditions at work and my job was to write off to the Health Inspector. This was rather a tough assignment as this was the first letter I had ever written, and after all a Health Inspector was an important local official. However when I got a reply to the letter I was quite thrilled and I think it gave us all confidence, particularly myself.

Before long Pat had gathered together a small group of lads in Hindley, and “this new group grew and we had a wonderful bunch of friends.” The movement began to take more and more of his spare time:

I used to leave home about seven in the morning and we started work at a quarter to eight; and in the evenings after finishing at half-past five and cycling home, I used to go to Wigan because more and more the YCW was absorbing my time.

In this same year of 1937 quite a number of YCW sections had begun up and down the country, and it was felt that it was time to establish themselves as a national movement. Accordingly the first National Congress was held in Wigan in December. During the Congress a national committee was set up with Harry Tolfree (London) as chairman, Pat Keegan (Hindley) as secretary and Gerry Sherry (Liverpool) as treasurer. The first meeting of this committee was held in Wigan on Sunday, January 30th 1938 and a Constitution for the national movement was drawn up, discussed and adopted.

The national office was set up in the Wigan House of Hospitality, and Pat worked out of there to extend the movement in the surrounding areas, even as far as Preston. When he was working part time he would spend the best part of the day at the House of Hospitality with the Walshs, Bob who was now the editor of the Catholic Worker and his wife, Molly. He has always said that his debt to them is immeasurable, to Bob for his intellectual food and to Molly for the food on the table that he was always welcome to share. In his little office he could sit and plan Enquiries and even a duplicated news sheet.

Also, still in 1938, the first international links were forged.

Father Rimmer collected the money to take a small group, about seven or eight to the headquarters of the JOC in Brussels to meet Canon Cardijn, the founder of the movement. They were all duly impressed by the enormous Centrale near the Midi Station, where they stayed. One morning they were taken to the house of Canon Cardijn where they assisted at his Mass and then had breakfast with him. They were overwhelmed by the bacon and eggs that were set before them. The Canon believed that every Englishman had to have his bacon and eggs to start the day properly. He talked to them of how much he expected from them: the English YCW was to be the key to the English-speaking world. He told them how important it was to get out some form of regular bulletin with news of the sections, so that they would not feel isolated. They came away proud and encouraged, and with a sense of destiny.

Soon they were involved in preparation for the next National Congress which was to be held in London in September. Pat. who was now working only three days a week at the mill, kept up the extension work in Lancashire. The second National Congress marked a further step forward because it was attended by Cardinal Hinsley of Westminster who spoke words of encouragement and blessing to the members. This was most important because not all the members of the hierarchy of England and Wales were filled with enthusiasm for the YCW. Unfortunately, Pat was not able to be there to appreciate the Cardinal’s support; overwork had laid him low and he was suffering from a bad attack of conjunctivitis.

In the Thirties there were three new initiatives in English Catholicism in the field of social concern. Since the post-First War years this had been almost exclusively filled by the Catholic Social Guild based in Oxford, and by the Catholic Workers College, also established in the same university city. In the mid-Thirties there appeared on the English scene The Catholic Worker, the House of Hospitality movement and the Young Christian Workers. Chronologically The Catholic Worker came first, followed closely by the Houses of Hospitality. In this they followed the pattern of their model in Hew York. Almost contemporaneous with this came experiments to found groups based on the methods of the J.O.C. in Belgium. Articles on the J.O.C. had appeared in the Christian Democrat, the monthly organ of the Catholic Social Guild, and a number of priests had been impressed by the possibilities of this form of lay apostolate. There had been several such groups in the Bristol area, and the leader who emerged was Harry Tolfree. At the first National Congress of the YCW, in December 1937, where Pat Keegan was elected national secretary, Harry Tolfree was elected national chairman. He had already moved to London and had started a House of Hospitality where he lived.

Just as Pat Keegan was working out of the House of Hospitality in Wigan, so Harry Tolfree was working out of the House of Hospitality in London. There was confusion for a time because before the YCW were able to bring out their own publications, the back page of The Catholic Worker was given over to their news6.

By 1939 it became clear that the national office would have to be transferred to London, and that Pat would have to become full time secretary. This meant moving to London where he settled into the House of Hospitality with Harry Tolfree, and this became the national headquarters of the English YCW. Being settled in London meant that Pat was able to make contact with the people in the headquarters of other Catholic movements and through them with a number of patrons and benefactors. An enduring friendship grew between Pat and the head of the Ladies of the Grail, Yvonne Bosch van Drakestein.