Gallagher, Michael Paul (1939–2015), Jesuit theologian, writer and lecturer, was born 26 August 1939 at 15 Hatch Street, Dublin, the only child of Andrew Gallagher and his wife Christine (née O’Brien), both doctors. He grew up in Collooney, Co. Sligo, and attended Camphill National School. As a boarder at Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, Gallagher excelled academically, especially in drama and debating. He studied English and French at University College Dublin (UCD) (1957–60) and graduated BA. While studying at the University of Caen in Normandy (1960–61), on a French government scholarship, Gallagher was exposed for the first time both to agnostics and to catholics fully engaged with their faith. There he embraced the distinct atmosphere of French catholicism, revelled in conversations with atheists and secularists, and read the Bible for the first time. His time in France inspired his religious vocation and sparked his interest in making sense of faith, which remained central to his theology; he later recalled ‘in France I found a different vision of faith, as a way of living fully within the complexity of the world’ (Into extra time, 15). He returned to Ireland and joined the Jesuits in October 1961, and commenced his novitiate at St Mary’s, Emo Court, Co. Laois, living there until 1963.
He won a National University of Ireland (NUI) travelling scholarship and took a Bachelor of Letters (B.Litt.) at Oxford University. Gallagher lived at Campion Hall from 1963 to 1965, specialised in Renaissance literature and wrote a thesis on the anglican metaphysical poet George Herbert (1593–1633). He studied theology at Heythrop College between 1965 and 1967, then located at Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. In 1967 he returned to Ireland and commenced lecturing in English at UCD. As a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA, for the 1968–9 academic year he first encountered postmodern thought. In 1969 Gallagher commenced further theological training at the recently founded Milltown Park Jesuit Institute in Dublin, where he lived while teaching at UCD. He was ordained in June 1972 and took his final vows in February 1978. Gallagher travelled in Europe and Canada in the late 1970s, undertaking research for the Ph.D. in theology he completed at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) in 1979. His thesis, titled ‘Approaches to unbelief: a comparative study of various developments in contemporary pastoral theology, including some account of presentations of the religious question in modern literature’, informed much of his later writing. During the 1970s he resided at a small Jesuit house in Monkstown, Co. Dublin, where he was for a time rector. In 1987 he served as a consultor (advisor) to the Irish Jesuit provincial.
In 1972 Gallagher commenced full-time lecturing at UCD. There he observed growing student disillusionment with what many saw as the remote and authoritarian nature of Irish catholicism. In an influential article published in The Furrow in 1974, Gallagher posited the ‘possible slow death of Irish Catholicism’ (‘Atheism Irish style’, 184) and observed the weakening foundations of the Irish church. He suggested widespread weekly mass attendance obscured the underlying impoverishment of personal belief. To combat weak and tenuous observance by many practising catholics, and the growing disengagement of younger people, Gallagher urged the church to deploy pastoral creativity to enthuse the laity and engender new forms of faith. Interviewed in 1991, Gallagher asserted ‘I expected a more drastic collapse. Yet, a more sinister collapse actually happened’ (‘The culture of atheism’, 312).
Gallagher wrote about his significant religious experiences. He encountered the ‘charismatic renewal’ in Dublin, inspired by American evangelical Christians, which refined how he construed his own relationship with God and other believers. In 1976, a month-long retreat in India for his tertianship brought him into contact with eastern spirituality. In 1987 Gallagher visited Venezuela and then lived for a time in a remote Jesuit mission in rural Paraguay. There his encounter with a living embodiment of liberation theology, participating in Bible study classes led by impoverished semi-literate peasant women, was transformational and renewed his vocation. Despite wishing to remain permanently, his provincial selected Gallagher to shepherd four Jesuit students in a council flat in the Ballymun towers. He lived there for three years (1987–90), commuting across Dublin on his motorbike, or by bus, to teach in UCD.
Gallagher revelled in the human contact and varied stimulation provided by university teaching, and often staged dramatic readings and performances with his classes. J. H. Newman (qv) was a frequent touchstone in his writings, especially Newman’s ‘university sermons’. Gallagher’s departure from UCD in 1990 severed the relationship between the Jesuits and the by-then secular university, which had endured in various forms for over a century.
Aside from teaching literature, Gallagher was deeply interested in the theatre and drama and during the 1970s contributed incisive film criticism to The Furrow. He was an early champion of Brian Moore (qv), with whom he corresponded (1977–80), advising Moore on catholic theology. Gallagher was a skilful writer well versed in literary and cultural studies, sociology and postmodernism. His first book, Help my unbelief (1983), was perhaps his most successful; it was reprinted three times that year. It outlined his religious journey and discussed how catholicism might reach the disinterested. Free to believe (1987) addressed catholics struggling with their faith, a theme he later returned to in What are they saying about unbelief? (1995).
In 1990 he was appointed research officer at the Vatican Secretariat for Dialogue with Non-Believers (sometimes referred to as the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers), which was later absorbed into the Pontifical Council for Culture. During his time with the Council, Gallagher engaged with a variety of religious and secular groups, managed outreach to over fifty English speaking countries and organised symposia on culture and religion. He visited Shia Muslim theologians in Iran, and orthodox Christians in Ethiopia. He published Struggles of faith (1991) (collecting some of his earlier writings), What can bring us happiness (1992) and Can I be a Christian on my own? (1992). In Rome Gallagher was rector at Bellarmino, a Jesuit residence linked to the Gregorian University. From 1995 he taught theology part-time at the Gregorian, returning to Ireland for the remainder of the year to write, teach theology, counsel Jesuit students and lead religious retreats.
By this time Gallagher had a significant public profile, making frequent appearances in the Irish press and broadcast media, giving public lectures around the country and speaking at summer schools. Already a frequent contributor, he was guest editor of a volume of the Jesuit journal Studies (vol. 84, 1998) to which many of his former UCD students, friends and colleagues (including Joseph O’Connor, Peter Sheridan, Gerard Stembridge and Frank McGuinness) contributed. Gallagher’s work also appeared in the catholic journals New Blackfriars and Gregorian. Gallagher was also friendly with Dermot Morgan (qv); as one of the celebrants at the comedian’s 1998 funeral, Gallagher proudly recalled having given Morgan his first clerical collar.
Gallagher’s later works sought to engage with those whose catholicism had lapsed. Dive deeper (2001) comprised imagined dialogues between various literary and religious figures. Clashing symbols (2003) discussed developments since Vatican II, the writings of popes Paul IV and John Paul II and engaged with theology from other Christian denominations. Faith maps (2010) discussed ten religious thinkers. Although influential in catholic theology and prominent in Irish and Jesuit circles, critics have noted that Gallagher engaged only with the ‘western’, anglophone church. From 2000–09 Gallagher was professor of fundamental theology at the Gregorian University. In 2005 he was appointed as the university’s dean of theology, a post he held until his retirement, aged seventy-five, in 2014. That summer he volunteered to teach Jesuit students in the Philippines and Vietnam, which Gallagher found hugely rewarding.
In January 2015 a third incidence of cancer required treatment. Gallagher moved to a Jesuit nursing facility in Dublin and, after a short period of palliative care, died on 6 November 2015 in St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin. His funeral took place on 10 November at Milltown Park; soon afterwards a memorial service was held at the Gesù Church, Rome. He was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin.
Into extra time, a collection of Gallagher’s thoughts and musings as death approached in 2015, was posthumously published in 2016. Heythrop College, London, hosted a conference in Gallagher’s memory in November 2016 entitled ‘Dive deeper’; proceedings were collected in Ignaziana, an online magazine published by the Gregorian University’s Ignatian Spirituality Center.
Known for his humorous and warm disposition, Gallagher maintained a wide circle of friends, secular and religious, in Dublin and Rome. He consistently called for renewed religious vitality and pastoral engagement to counter the decline of the catholic church. His work attempts to distinguish various forms of atheism, yet he construed any absence of faith in negative terms. Critics observed that Gallagher failed to recognise the wider institutional and moral failings of the catholic church. His public profile is testament to his skill as a communicator. It also mirrored the high point of clerical influence in secular public discourse in Ireland.