Saturday, December 30, 2023

The Kerry man at the head of the Vatican library

In July 1940, a Garda called John O’Donnell – native of Burtonport, County Donegal, and stationed in Kanturk – drowned on a Friday evening in Ballybunion in attempting to save two local women who came into difficulty offshore. 

The 35-year-old had been holidaying in the seaside village with his wife, now a widow and single parent to three children, The Kerryman reported from his inquest.

Leonard Boyle was only 16 when his half-brother died. Like Garda O’Donnell, he was born in Donegal, but his adoptive parents, the O’Donnells of Gallowsfield, reared him in Tralee.

His was a life bookended by very different tragedies. A 1999 obituary in the UK Independent read that Leonard Boyle – or Fr Leonard Boyle OP, as he’d long been by then – served as Prefect of the Vatican Library until 1997, until he was instructed to sign a contract allowing for the reproduction of Vatican manuscripts “and to digitise them so that they could be made available as CDs or on the world-wide web, in exchange for an exclusive licence."

“But it soon became clear that this was ultra vires, and doubts were cast on the ability of the Californian firm [with whom the deal was made] to deliver what it had undertaken.”

Writer Nicolas Barker added that Fr Boyle became a scapegoat and was forced to retire from his post. It was, however, “…clear that Boyle’s integrity was above suspicion”.

“The last few years of his life were sad but shouldn’t be the be all and end all,” Fr John Harris OP, Prior Provincial of the Irish Province of the Dominicans, tells The Kerryman. On November 12 and 13 last, Fr Harris was central to a celebration of Fr Boyle’s life, 100 years on from the birth of a man who never forgot his roots, and remained to his death – at heart – a Kerry man. Fr Harris celebrated Mass and preached the Homily in the Basilica of San Clemente, the Irish Dominican base in Rome.

“That was on Sunday evening,” Fr Harris says. “Then, on Monday morning, we had a conference in San Clemente itself, focussing on Fr Leonard’s life and his work in palaeography [the study of pre-modern handwriting]. In the afternoon, the rest of the conference took place in the Vatican library itself, where he had been the librarian.

“There were a number of talks on his role, how he made the Vatican library much more open to scholars, male and female, laypeople and clergy. He opened the facility up to the world because he was, himself, a wonderful scholar, and appreciated scholarship.”

Another 1999 obit – penned by Vivian Boland OP this time, and published by The Kerryman – made Fr Boyle’s learnedness and globetrotting clear to readers. He was ordained in 1949, six years after entering the Dominican Order, and he became a gold-medal scholarship student at Oxford, where he wrote a doctoral thesis on his study of early texts on pastoral care.

He moved to San Clemente in the late 1950s and crafter a definitive, written guide to its Basilica, a book translated into multiple languages and whose copies had sold by the hundreds of thousands ever before Fr Boyle’s death. He lectured in medieval studies at the Dominican University in Rome, and in the 1960s he moved to Toronto, Canada, where he taught courses in palaeography and diplomatics at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies.

He became Prefect of the Vatican Library in 1984, and set about computerising the library’s stock.

Over the course of the next 13 years, Fr Boyle received the freedom of Tralee, and Fr Harris says that while Fr Boyle criss-crossed between Europe and North America, his heart never strayed far from the Kingdom.

“He looked forward to his annual visits home to Kerry, he loved going back, doing the garden in Tralee,” he says. “It was a total break from what he was doing during the rest of the year. He was born in Donegal but reared in Kerry, and he always loved the welcome he got there, it was very special to him. Again, he was a man who never forgot his roots.”

He’s equally clear on how best to remember Fr Boyle: as a scholar; a fine priest, who treated the ordinary person as he would a king; and someone Kerry can be proud of.

“I had lived with Fr Leonard when I was a young priest in San Clemente and, to me, it [to celebrate Mass on the centenary of his birth] was a moment of humility, to recognise such a scholar but, also, as I knew him, a very fine priest,” he says. “Every Sunday he came to San Clemente, even when he was the librarian, to celebrate Mass and hear Confessions, to meet the local people. He never lost the connection with the local people around him.

“There was never a hint that there was anything wrong in what he did at all [the events which ended his time as Prefect at the Vatican Library]. It put a deep shadow over the last years of his life, but he had an integrity; he knew himself, and he knew he had done nothing wrong, so there was a certain courage there, drawn from the truth.

“If you’re talking about Kerry men who have made an impact on the international stage, he was the highest-ranking Vatican official with a Kerry background. He was a noted scholar in his field. He has written the text books of Latin palaeography. He has left an impact in his whole area of scholarship, and this fits in with Kerry’s own background and intellectual prowess.

“He was always very proud of the Monasteries of Kerry and intellectual tradition, and he was a great example of that Christian Catholic intellectual scholarship that had its roots way back in ancient Irish Church.

“He shared, very freely, his deep knowledge...He was kind and generous, particularly to younger scholars and younger intellectual librarians who were beginning. He made contact with all the libraries of the world, so I think that was his greatness, not just in opening up the Vatican library but in opening up the whole area of scholarship.

“I like to think that was inspired by his Dominican background, to preach the Gospel in whatever way he could.”