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Michael O’Neill (44-47)

Requiem Mass was celebrated by Bishop Vincent Malone on 2nd July 2014

at St Anne’s RC Church, Overbury Street, Liverpool.

Michael, who has died from a stroke at the age of 85, was born in Liverpool in 1929, his parents having emigrated from County Laois in 1928. Michael, his sister, Nan, and his brother, John (?), attended SFX Elementary School in the Thirties and, when the war broke out, they returned to Ireland. They all returned to Liverpool in 1943 and Michael took up a Junior City Scholarship at SFX College.

He prospered at SFX , a popular and well-liked pupil, albeit with a strange version of an Irish accent with scouse overtones. Sixth Form followed with A levels in French, History and English. A fervent and assiduous student of Irish history, he had a detailed knowledge of the island’s troubled past and an extensive library on the subject, to which he had frequent recourse. It was an enthusiasm that he passed on to a number of his nephews and nieces. Serious and good-humoured Michael always saw the good in people – except when the matter for discussion was the role of the English in Ireland.

In the Sixth Form Michael was a keen and competent footballer, as you would expect from a life-long Evertonian; he played regularly at left-half for the First Eleven. Built like a small tank he was formidable in the tackle, often leaving his mark in both a literal and a metaphorical sense; he would stop most opposing forwards in their tracks - you might get past Michael once, but not twice. A wide forehead and strong neck muscles meant Michael could head a ball further than most of us could kick it. He was a valued member of the team that won the Secondary School Shield in 1947 at Goodison Park. – beating Quarry Bank 4-2.

In 1947 Michael decided to train for the priest-hood. Since he had not studied Latin at A Level, he had to do two years at Campion House in Hounslow/Osterley - a Jesuit ‘pre-seminary' house of studies - a place to help young men, between 18 and 40 who had a late vocation to learn Latin and to further their education, helping them progress in their training for the priesthood.

In 1949 he transferred to the seminary at Upholland and was ordained in 1955. He served as a curate at St Patrick’s in Wigan, at St Michael’s in Liverpool and at St Bernard’s in Liverpool.

Michael was good company, unpretentious, ready to raise a laugh even at his own expense. Frequently praised for his practical sermons and his addresses to the Catholic Evidence Guild. Proud to be regarded as Irish among his many English friends.

In 1969 Michael left the priesthood, availing himself of a liberal decision of Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) which permitted bishops to grant laicization to priests who wanted to leave the sacerdotal state; this position was drastically reversed by John Paul II in 1980 and cemented in the 1983 Canon Law that only the pope can in exceptional circumstances grant laicization.

Michael worked as a civil servant in Manchester from 1970 onwards at first at the Department for Employment’s Employment Information Centre at Boulton House, then at the Occupational Guidance Unit where he was promoted to Higher Executive Officer and became Unit Manager and finally for the Department of Employment Staff Welfare Service in Sunley Tower, but continued with pastoral and missionary work amongst the poor and dispossessed in the area.

His Civil Service career reflected his immense compassion and desire to help others. At the Occupational Guidance Unit, Michael’s role was to listen actively, diagnose the range of occupational possibilities open to each client and map out the steps they could take to become fulfilled at work. To this work he brought wisdom, insight, patience and optimism and his advice set hundreds of clients onto the right path. He was also utterly non-judgmental of the idiosyncrasies and individual differences of the people who walked through his door – and with three interviews per day, five days a week, there were plenty to consider.

At tea and lunch breaks, he would also discuss profound matters with a gentle and forgiving philosophy: Ireland, British politics, social and economic justice and injustice. Even his passionate thoughts were expressed temperately and his counter-positions prefixed by a disarmingly Irish ‘Ah-well-you-know-now….and followed by what even the most atheistic debater would recognize as the deep thinking of a man of faith balanced by powerful reason.

Whether at work or socially Michael acted out what he believed. He wore his faith lightly and in an exemplary way. Palpably good, with the ability to be a droll raconteur, he was happily devoid of any sort of ‘holier than thou’ edge and made welcome company.

At Staff Welfare he widened and deepened his contribution to departmental colleagues who found themselves and their families in deep trouble or distress. It was typical of the man that on one tragic occasion he sought to spare the parents of a murdered close colleague from the trauma of having to identify her body by offering to do so himself if the authorities would allow. When he was refused permission he was distraught about his inability to protect them. In that circumstance, mindful of the welfare of others he set no value on his own shock and trauma.

It was this richness and generous depth of character that drew to him friends of all ages, backgrounds and views. With Rose he became an ‘honorary member’ of other families, for many years celebrating Boxing Day at the home of one such. Here he invariably contributed the decisive competitive advantage to the (Mans’ team) during annual game of ’Give Us a Clue’. In these surreal circumstances his silent but (fortunately) tasteful gesticulations would succeed in translating titles as complex and high risk as Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass and TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Kop-style banter followed from his octogenarian female opponents – invariably cheer-led by Rose – but countered in solidarity by his brother thespians. If he was a good guest, he was also a great host, on many occasions providing splendid dinners then regarding the post-prandial naps taken involuntarily by guests spark-out on his settee as a sincere compliment.

In the same way he and Rose opened their home at Otranto Avenue for days to bail-out friends ‘let down’ by builders and left with their three year old without heat, water or a kitchen in blizzard conditions.

And it was as ‘honorary family member’ that Michael was the person to turn to for marking rites of passage whether reading the lesson at the funeral of a departed ‘Give Us a Clue’ team member or reciting a poem during a wedding celebration or attending a naming party and a baptism.

Generous to a fault, he was always on hand to help those less fortunate than himself. He married Rose in 1969 and spent many happy years in the bosom of a large extended family: husband, brother, uncle and granddad.

He will long be remembered with love and affection by all who crossed his path.

Pat Heery