As Irish Jesuits grow fewer,we tend to look back at our great men. In the last two hundred years, none has been greater than Fr Tom Finlay. He was described by the historian Lecky, no friend of the Church, as the most universally respected man in Ireland. Sir Horace Plunkett, his collaborator for more than forty years, called him the kindest and most loyal of friends. Together they spearheaded the cooperative movement.
Tom Finlay reached out to all Irish people, and many English too, from Munster to Ulster; more than reached out, he was welcomed. He was a friend they learned to trust, whether they farmed as Catholics in Kerry or Orangemen in Antrim. This was partly because of his own friendship and alliance with a great Irish Protestant, Sir Horace Plunkett. It owed something to Tom’s manifest integrity and uprightness. Good Presbyterians – Tom’s father had been one such before his marriage – had high expectations of those with whom they worked, and Tom did not disappoint them. It was said that in forty-seven years he never missed a lecture, broke an engagement or was late for a meeting.
It has been a chronic hazard for social reformers to ache for a different starting point for their journey. The milleniarist is tempted to wish away original sin, to feel that the population which confronts him is already compromised, and he has to make a clean start with pre-lapsarians who can create a new society from scratch. Finlay was not a milleniarist. He did not itch with impatience and resentment of human frailty. Like St Ignatius, he worked with people where they were, as they were. He never fudged his own role, always explicitly a Catholic priest and a Jesuit, happy to be rooted in his country and his culture, and with a high regard for those Irish people of other cultures with whom he worked.
Born in Co. Roscommon he had the bonus of a broad education, in France, Germany, Rome and Wales. This professor of economics, born in 1848, the same year as the Communist Manifesto, knew his Marx. He wrote with measured kindliness about Marx’s system of universal cooperation, promoted and controlled by state authority. He saw it as a utopian ideal, that testified to the philanthropic ambitions of its authors, but reflected poorly upon their good sense. It was out of touch with human nature, and the selfishness and idleness inherent in it. The system which he advocated took account of self-interest, enabling workers, by means of cooperation, to become capitalists – to be owners of the wealth which assists labour, as well as furnishing the labour itself.
He had an eye to supply economics, focussing not so much on the spending of wealth that others had created, as on the creation of wealth by the people for the people. He was not a purveyor of envy or begrudgery, but of cooperation in the most challenging sense: poor people pooling their money and other resources. He was a Sinn Feiner before his time. Before the title had been hijacked by militarists with a programme of blame and grievance, he could illustrate from his own efforts the truth of Ní neart go cur le chéile.
His range of activities was remarkable. As Rector of Belvedere he put up the building which now bears his name. At the same time as running the school he produced headline copy-books which were adopted by national schools throughout the country. As well as his teaching in Jesuit schools and professing philosophy and political economy in UCD, Finlay was a commissioner for intermediate education and was active in establishing and administering a system of technical education at the start of the 20th century. He was a prolific writer and translated articles from German on philosophy, and Stoeckl’s History of Philosophy. He founded and edited the ‘Lyceum’ magazine (1889-1894) and the ‘New Ireland Review’ (1894-1911) which was succeeded by ‘Studies’ in 1912. He was a member of the senate of the National University of Ireland, of the governing body of UCD, and was chairman of the trustees of the National Library of Ireland from 1909-1938.
Tom did not aim to be remembered as great. He did not want fame or biographies. As a precaution against the hype of hagiographers, he systematically burned all his personal papers. The production, despite that conflagration, of a splendid life by Fr Todd Morrissey is a tribute to his well-honed craft as a biographer. The large, intelligent, generous, contented face on the book's cover is that of a Jesuit in consolation, at home in his own skin, using his prodigious talents for others. His ego was firmly in its box. In each phase of his extraordinary life he handed on to others the initiatives he had sparked. This was one of our great men, as radical as Ché Guevara but a hundred times more effective.