Papal Visits and Silent Struggles: Revisiting the Archive of Rev. Desmond Forristal

By Róisín Berry, Archivist, Maynooth University Library

With the recent focus on the Pope Francis visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families 2018, I was reminded of a collection that I had catalogued not long after I started working in Maynooth University Library. The papers of scholar, author, playwright and TV producer Rev. Desmond Forristal (1930-2012) were donated to Maynooth University Library in 2001. The archive includes correspondence, essays, lectures, scripts, research notes, reviews and photographs. Whilst going through the documentation, I discovered that Forristal was involved in the preparations for the visit to Ireland of Pope John Paul II in 1979, and in particular the selection of music and the organisation of a choir for the event. As I became more engrossed in the archive, it soon became clear that Forristal’s musical interests were part of a much broader passion for the arts that prevailed throughout his life.

Portrait of the Forristal Family c. 1940s
Photograph of the Forristal Family, c. 1940s

Forristal was born in Dublin on 25 September, 1930. The eldest son of Tony Forristal and Maureen Forristal (née McInerney), he had one younger brother, Ciarán. The family lived on the Finglas Road in Dublin. Forristal was educated at O’Connell School and Belvedere College, and went on to study Philosophy at University College Dublin (1948-1951) and then Theology at Holy Cross College, where he was ordained into the priesthood in 1955. Forristal was awarded a Master of Arts Degree in Philosophy from University College Dublin in 1956. He served in several Dublin-based parishes, including Palmerstown, Halston Street, Bray, Iona Road, and Dalkey. In 1969, Forristal was elected to the Dublin Diocesan Council of Priests.

Forristal studied film and television in New York in 1959 and on his return to Ireland he assisted Fr. Joseph Dunn in establishing the Radharc Film Unit. Working as a director and scriptwriter, Forristal’s involvement in Radharc productions over three decades brought him to Europe, America, Africa and the Far East. Radharc, an Irish word meaning ‘view’ or ‘vision’, was a series of films about Ireland written and presented from a religious perspective. It was an active collaboration between Catholic priests and lay staff, addressing issues such as peace and justice at home and abroad. An insight into Forristal’s involvement with Radharc can be gleaned from a selection of documents in the collection, including a certificate from the 1963 Jacob’s Television Awards for the Radharc series, noting its ‘outstanding contribution to Irish television during the year.’

Photograph of Rev Desmond Forristal playing the piano c. 1960s
Photograph of Rev. Desmond Forristal playing the piano, c. 1960s

Forristal’s talents were not restricted to television broadcasting, he was well known and respected in theatrical circles also. Forristal’s first play, The True Story of the Horrid Popish Plot, was performed at the Gate Theatre as part of the 1972 Dublin Theatre Festival. A Hilton Edwards production, the historical drama addresses the execution of Archbishop Oliver Plunkett of Armagh. Many more plays were to follow, including Black Man’s Country (1974), the Seventh Sin (1976), Enquiry at Knock (1979), Captive Audience (1979) and Kolbe (1982). Forristal’s close ties with the Dublin theatre scene, and in particular the Gate Theatre, are reflected in a letter from actor, writer, and director Hilton Edwards to Forristal on the death of his partner and co-founder of the Gate Theatre, Micheál MacLiammóir. He states:

‘You and I worked together – and I hope we will again – but nothing we can do can reach the artistry, if I may use that word in this sense, of the work you have just done. The rightness of the services, both unsurpassable in their simplicity and beauty gave me much comfort, and I know, has given Micheal peace.’ (15 March 1978).

Photograph of Group including Forristal Edwards and MacLiammoir at Gate Theatre 1972
Photograph of a group including Rev. Forristal , Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards on the set of the play The True Story of the Horrid Popish Plot in the Gate Theatre1972

Forristal was also known for his literary work. He wrote several books on historical and religious subjects, including Oliver Plunkett (1975), Maximilian of Auschwitz (1982), The Bridge at Lo Wu (1987), The Man in the Middle (1988), The Second Burial of Bishop Shanahan (1990), and Edel Quinn 1907-1944 (1994). In addition, he contributed articles to a number of journals, and was drama critic for The Furrow, a diocesan magazine, for many years.

Forristal was deeply devoted to the Catholic Church and his vocation as a priest, however, some of the documentation within the archive reveals a private struggle to balance his clerical duties and responsibilities with his passions and pursuits as an artist. This is captured in a file of correspondence between Forristal and the Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev. John Charles McQuaid. The documents record tense exchanges between the two men, particularly in relation to Forristal’s literary work. A letter from the Archbishop written in 1961 refers to one of his articles in The Furrow as ‘offensive’ and instructs him to submit any future written work to Rev. Joseph Carroll. This form of censorship must have come as quite a blow to the writer.

Letter from Rev. Forristal to Archbishop of Dublin Most Rev. John Charles McQuaid 18 May 1961
Letter from Rev. Forristal to Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev. John Charles McQuaid, regarding his work, 18 May 1961


Throughout his life, Forristal always put his role as a priest before all of his other ambitions. His homilies bear testament to this, addressing many of the great issues of the day with passion, eloquence and conviction. These included women priests, death, abortion, divorce, suicide and the Bishop Eamon Casey controversy.

On the subject of death, Forristal observed the following in a homily dated 5 November 1989:

‘Every exit is an entrance somewhere else…That’s what death is. Our friends, our loved ones, leave the stage. We can see them going. We can’t see where they go. We can only sit there and wonder’.

Forristal retired from the church in 2001. He died on 9 September 2012 at the age of 81.

A selection of documents from the Desmond Forristal Archive will be on display outside the Special Collections & Archives reading room in the John Paul II Library for the month of September 2018.

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