The following article is about the life of an extraordinary man. He was one of a small number of men who worked first as a Garda, but then resigned to join the priesthood and work as a Missionary Priest in South Africa. This is the story of his extraordinary life.
In the small village of Béal na Bláth, near Crookstown in West Cork, Michael Collins met his death on 22nd August, 1922. Six years later a boy was born on the Lernihan family farm, close to the Collins Ambush site. He was one of twelve children and christened William Lernihan.
William attended the local national school in Béal na Bláth. which he described as similar to that in Alice Taylor’s book “To School Through the Fields”. He later attended secondary school at the Cork North Monastery. By the summer of 1947, William Lernihan was 19 year old and seeking a career path.
The Garda Síochána attracted him at the time. His application to join the force was successful, and as a result William Lernihan joined the November 1947 Class of recruit Gardaí at Garda HQ Dublin. Upon completing his Garda Training in the Phoenix Park Depot, Garda William Lernihan (09985) was posted to Headford in Co. Kerry. One year later, the 20 year old Garda was assigned to Beaufort Garda Station, a few miles west of Killarney. It was here in this picturesque landscape of mid-Kerry that he developed a passionate love for Kerry’s people, mountains and lakes. In later years these would draw him back to visit the Kingdom of Kerry.
While working in the Kingdom of Kerry, he received a calling to serve the Kingdom of God as a Missionary Priest. He may have been influenced by letters from his two sisters, who were already leading religious lives. One sister was a Franciscan nun, based in the USA ; the other was a Dominican nun, based in South Africa. Subsequently, William resigned from An Garda Síochána and on the 8th January, 1951 set sail for a seminary in City of Pretoria, in South Africa. Six years later, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, William Lernihan was ordained to the Priesthood. Fr. Lernihan, became a fluent speaker of the Xhosa language and spent his life working with a black community in the Parish of Uitenhage. He tended not only to their spiritual needs, but he also supported them in their struggle for justice.
As a result of Fr. Lernihan’s missionary work in South Africa, the community near Béal na Bláth were proud to claim him as one of their own. Likewise members of An Garda Síochána portrayed pride in their link with such a generous missionary. On the Feast of Corpus Christi 1983, the November 1947 Class of Gardaí held a class reunion at Knock Basilica. Here, Fr. Lernihan concelebrated Mass during the annual Garda Pilgrimage to Knock.
At the age of 65, Fr. William Lernihan, became ill. He died on the 18th December, 1993. Thousands of mourners turned out to show their love for this Irish Missionary Priest, as he was laid to rest in the South African city of Port Elizabeth.
Ar Dheis Dé go raibh a anam.