Nash, Robert (1902–89), Jesuit priest and apologist, was born 23 April 1902 at Cork, third and only surviving child of Robert Nash (d. Southampton, 21 November 1901) and his wife Delia (née Kearney). He was brought up in Limerick by his mother and maternal uncle Joseph Kearney, a shop worker, and was educated at St Mary's convent school, St Munchin's day school, and Mount St Alphonsus College, Limerick, a minor seminary for the Redemptorist order. Nash was heavily influenced by his mother's fervent catholicism, which had been reinforced by her unhappy childhood and adult bereavement. He subsequently thought she was over-protective but that she did not exert any undue influence on his choice of vocation; he made the priesthood his life's ambition. After the Redemptorists decided that his health was too weak for the religious life, Nash approached the Jesuit order and entered the Jesuit novitiate at Tullabeg, near Tullamore, on 1 September 1919.
Nash took his vows as a Jesuit in 1921. After three years in the Jesuit training house at Milltown Park, Dublin, he was sent on the Australian mission, 1925–8, then returned to Milltown Park for four years’ theological study. He was ordained to the priesthood on 31 July 1931. He subsequently spent ten months’ tertianship at St Beuno's College in north Wales. His superiors retained him in Ireland out of consideration for his mother, who died in 1949. He soon became well known as a preacher and leader of retreats.
Nash's first article on spiritual matters appeared during his scholasticate, when his superior asked him to write up his trial sermon; he eventually published at least twenty-eight books, one of which (Is life worth while? (1949)) sold 100,000 copies, and more than 300 pamphlets. He had the gift of expressing himself in simple and direct language. Nash's world view was uncompromising: he preached a popularised version of Ignatian spirituality, with its emphasis on total commitment. Every moment was seen as participating in the fateful choice between heaven and hell; his compulsive writing reflected fear of wasting time. Even the mildest worldly pleasures came under suspicion as distractions from eternity or occasions of sin. This view lay behind his most notorious pamphlet, The devil at dances, which appeared during the clerically inspired campaign against unsupervised dance venues in the 1930s. Its opening description of a young woman at a dance hall, who notices that the attractive stranger with whom she is dancing has cloven hooves, was read literally by naive readers, producing widespread fear and scrupulosity. One of Nash's books was an annotated edition of St Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual exercises, which formed the basis for his extensive activities as a retreat master; his guides to prayer, such as The priest at his prie-dieu (1949), drew on Ignatian techniques of visualisation and were widely used in the formation of seminarians.
From 1951 to 1985 Nash wrote a weekly column on religious matters for the Sunday Press, the first of its kind in an Irish newspaper; in 1954–85 he also published daily ‘Phone calls’ (brief sixty-word reflections) in the Evening Press. During lengthy visits to Australia in 1956–7 and America in 1964 he provided the editor with a year's columns in advance – an indication of his professionalism, his fluency, and the extent to which he saw himself as preaching a timeless and unchanging message independent of day-to-day events. He calculated that he had written more than a million words for his column; in its latter years he was often accused of manipulating readers through fear of hellfire, but this discounts his utter conviction of the reality of the danger and his own duty to warn against it. He asked much of his readers, but no more than he demanded of himself; his life was so focused on its central objective that all other pursuits seemed trivial to him.
Nash's greatest popularity occurred during the 1950s, when readers could see themselves as part of a triumphant worldwide church battling uncompromisingly for the faith delivered to the saints. He was ill at ease with many developments after the second Vatican council; he acknowledged that the new relaxed approach was helpful in winning souls who might previously have been antagonised, but feared that excessive toleration of heterodoxies within the church and downplaying formal ritual might blind people to their spiritual needs. He never appeared on television: ‘the typewriter was the instrument I knew best so I stuck with it’ (Irish Times, 22 Aug. 1989). In 1980 Nash was a founder member of the third world aid group Action from Ireland (AfrI).
Nash retained a faithful, ageing readership until he ceased to write his column in 1985, declaring that it was time to say ‘What I have written I have written.’ He intended My last book (1983), a combination of autobiographical recollections and advice on prayer, to live up to its title (it concludes with meditations on death and heaven). He was lured back into print by admirers urging that if another book saved one soul it would be worth while; in 1986 he published My last phone call. Nash spent his last years in the Jesuit community at Gardiner Street, Dublin, where he continued to hear confessions until a year before his death. Early in 1989 deteriorating health led to his transfer to Our Lady's Hospice, Harold's Cross, Dublin, where he died 21 August 1989.
The vast contemporary popularity of Nash's writings, whose structured and fervent certainties contrast with the colloquial soothings of later Irish religious columnists, says much about the enthusiasms and restrictions of late Tridentine Irish Catholicism. Nash lived to see the aspirations he embodied condemned, ridiculed, or forgotten by a generation with less restrictive lives, new horizons, and different aspirations; he himself was virtually forgotten within a few years of his death.