Kilkenny People, 08 March 2006
Ray Cleere looks back at the life of a Kilkenny bishop who died 25 years ago this week
The life of a bishop is not confined to the spiritual and moral welfare of his people. He keeps watch on industrial and agricultural developments and the implications they will have for the people of his diocese. He is also interested in the social and economic difficulties of the community. One such man was the late Bishop Peter Birch, bishop of Ossory, who died 25 years ago this week.
Born 95 years ago in Tullowglass, Jenkinstown, Peter Birch came from a farming family and was the eldest of the seven children. He began his education in Clinstown National School in 1916 - jsut weeks after the Easter Rising. At the time his teachers were John O'Shea, who was a member of a well-known family of teachers from Ballyouskill, who came there 120 years ago and Joseph Dowling.
Ten years later, at the beginning of September 1925, Peter Birch entered St Kieran's College, Kilkenny, with whose history he was to be bound up in one way or another over the following 55 years. In 1930 he went to St Patrick's College, Maynooth, and like all Maynooth students at the time, he had little contact with the outside world except at holiday time.
But two major events made a considerable impact – the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 and the 1935 Congress of the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland which took place in Kilkenny and had as its theme "Social Problems in Ireland", an unconscious presaging of Kilkenny's future contribution in that context.
Peter Birch was ordained to the priesthood in 1937 and spent the year after his ordination taking courses for the Higher Diploma in Education, which he received the following year.
The then bishop of Ossory, Dr Patrick Collier, then assigned him to the teaching staff of St Kieran's College, where he took up duty in the summer of 1938 as an English teacher. He wrote a history of St Kieran's College, received an MA in English before earning a doctorate. In 1953 he was appointed to the staff of St Patrick's College, Maynooth, as Professor of Education and Lecturer in Catechetics.
On Sunday morning, September 23, 1962, almost 44 years ago, there was great jubilation in Kilkenny and throughout the diocese of Ossory when Dr Birch was consecrated Titular Bishop of Dibon and Co-Adjutor Bishop of Ossory. He was appointed three months earlier in June by Pope John XXIII. Crowds of people packed St Mary's Cathedral for the ceremony which was presided over by the Apostolic Nuncio Guiseppe Sensi.
Among those present were the Mayor of Kilkenny Patrick Kinchella, members of Kilkenny Corporation and Kilkenny County Council as well as clergy from all the city parishes and from St Kieran's College. Also present were President Eamonn DeValera, former President Sean T. " Ceallaigh; the Taoiseach Sean Lemass.
Many organisations in Kilkenny were represented at the ceremony after which Dr Birch was driven through the gaily decorated city streets and then to St Kieran's College where he hosted a reception.
Bishop of Ossory
Two years later, in 1964, Dr Birch was appointed bishop of Ossory. He succeeded Patrick Collier who died on January 10, that year. As bishop, Dr Birch celebrated his first Mass in St Mary's Cathedral. Within months of his appointment he began the setting up of Ireland's first social services organisation. Since then the Kilkenny Social Services has become the biggest organisation of its kind in the country. There are 16 centres scattered throughout the diocese with a professional staff of 45 and over 900 volunteers.
Bishop Birch was fortunate in the first two social workers which were given to him by the Sisters of Charity. Sister Campion helped to establish the Social Service Centre and also helped in educating and organising the local people. She set up lectures, seminars, discussion groups and invited university and social welfare experts to Kilkenny City to point out local needs and to outline modern thinking. She also brought in workers who had initiated projects in their own areas and had stimulated local community thought. People from other countries were invited to outline their systems. For the first five or six months the Kilkenny Social Services were meeting needs only as they occurred. They had not got the resources for anything more.
Sr Stanislaus Kennedy
Shortly after her arrival, another nun, Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, went to UCD and took a degree in social science. She then went to Manchester for further study and training. She was then in a position to see and assess the services from a professional stand-point and toe-plan and re-style them and make them more scientific and more constructive. Under the direction of Sister Stanislaus the family became the unit to be helped rather than the individual members of it.
Dr Birch, who was bishop for 17 years, devoted much of his early years to helping the itinerants. And the first major effort was a day's retreat for itinerants and the celebration of First Holy Communion and Confirmation in Foulkstown church. The help of Social Services was also directed towards the poor, the old, the lonely and the mentally handicapped.
A man of action, Bishop Birch was also a man of deep spirituality and prayer. And as a monument to his spirituality he left to the diocese a retreat house at Sion Road. The bishop's idea was to provide a place where people could think and pray in a relaxed atmosphere and examine their problems in a prayerful environment. Hence the retreat house is called Peace in Christ and it was the bishop's aim that it would bring interior peace to the people.