Father Aedan McGrath, who died on December 25th 2000 aged 94, had been a Columban priest for 71 years and was imprisoned by the Chinese for nearly three years in 1951. He was born on January 22nd, 1906, in Drumcondra and had one sister and four brothers. His father, William, a King's Counsel and County Court judge, was shot dead, reputedly by the Black and Tans, outside his home in 1920. His mother, Gertrude, was born in Downpatrick and came to Dublin when her father, Stephen Fitzpatrick, took up a post as professor at St Patrick's Training College, Drumcondra. He joined the Columban Fathers and was ordained in 1929. Six months later he was sent to Hanyang in China.
When he asked for another priest to assist him he was sent a copy of the handbook of the Legion of Mary. "I called in six men with no particular qualifications. I did not think it would work, I intended to give the book back to the bishop when it failed. To my utter amazement, those men were able to do many things that I could not do." Following a visit to Dublin in 1946, he returned and was instructed to start the Legion all over China. "Within half-an-hour, the first praesidium was formed in what was probably the most sophisticated university in China at the time in Shanghai. "From Shanghai, I went to central China, Hankow, and did the same. Then up to Beijing. Within two years we had 2,000 magnificent groups. "The work was not lost on Mao Zedong. He sent out people to search and find how the church was still alive . . . He called the Legion public enemy number one." Father McGrath, whose work in China has been told in Enemies Without Guns, by James Myers, was arrested by the Chinese in September 1951 and remained in jail for two years and eight months. He was expelled in April 1954. "I was put in a tiny cell, like a dog box. It was solitary confinement for three years. There was no table, chair or bed. I could lie on the floor. I was never allowed to close my eyes, talk or sneeze." Aedan McGrath attributed his survival to his Columban formation, which had taught him how to meditate. On his release he returned to Dublin and a huge reception in the National Stadium attended by President Sean T. O Ceallaigh, Eamon de Valera, John A. Costello, and the Legion founder, Frank Duff.
Small in stature, Aedan McGrath possessed extraordinary vitality.
He died on Christmas Day 2000. This is his story.