Br Joseph McNally
To many of us, he is ‘Brother Joe’
Brother John Joseph McNally (b. 1923, Ballintubber, Ireland – d. 27 August 2002, County Mayo, Ireland), is a De La Salle Christian Brother who had dedicated 37 years of his life to teaching in Singapore and Malaysia.
He was our school’s director / principal from 1975 to 1982. His legacy to us and to Singapore are in the areas of Education, The Arts and in the Inter-Religious relationships in our country.
He is also renowned as a sculptor and artist and was also the founder and President Emeritus of the La Salle-SIA College of the Arts.
His first encounter with St. Patrick’s School
As a young brother out of Ireland his first interactions with St. Patrick’s, at the request of Brother Alban, was to restore the hands of ‘Our Lady of Katong’, a pre-war statue which was discarded by the Japanese during WWII. This statue upon restoration – the hands being one of Brother McNally’s first art works, was placed in a position of honour, in front of the portico (of the ‘old’ school building). Our Lady of Katong is now placed in a grotto next to the current school canteen.
In 1973, Brother Joseph joined St. Patrick’s as a teacher and became its principal in 1975. He implemented many radical changes during his stint at St. Patrick’s, such as the setting up of a Student’s Council and also a student’s Parliament where elected students were allowed to make changes to the school rules, in keeping with the mission and motto of the school. He also contributed greatly in many areas to the school’s development with the building up of the school’s facilities such as a sports complex and a hostel.
In addition, Brother Joseph formed The Patrician Society, where parents, teachers and old boys could come together for school discussions and programmes.
He also permitted the teaching of religions other than the Christian faith, such as Buddhism and Hinduism.
In 1977 he initiated the teaching of the arts using his studio – the garage of the Brothers Quarters as de-facto arts centre; when the arts was not an educational priority. He remained Principal for eight years before retiring from this position in 1983.
Br Joseph’s ancestors were Welshmen who had migrated to West Ireland along with the Normans in 1190. His surname, McNally, can be interpreted either as “son of Nally”, after the first McNally ancestor, Nally Baret, who settled down in Ballintubber; or “son of the Ulster man” meaning “son of the poet”.
Born in Ballintubber (Gaelic name meaning “fountain or well of St Patrick”), Ireland, in 1923, Brother Joseph grew up on a farm on the West Coast, in the County Mayo. This farming community, with its roots in ancient history and a harsh glacial-stripped landscape, would shape Brother Joseph’s artistic vision in adulthood. Although he was a sickly child, Brother Joseph was well-sheltered and cared for by his family. His first attempt at art was a caricature drawing of a village resident, which was received with appreciative laughter.
The Start of His Vocation
At the age of 14, he left his hometown to join the La Salle Brothers, the path of a religious educator rather than that of the priesthood. Teaching first at De La Salle College, Mallow, Ireland then moving to St. Joseph’s Institution, in Singapore, Brother Joseph continued to teach at St. John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur, before returning to Ireland to pursue further studies at the Irish National College of Art, Dublin.
Upon graduating, he taught at St. Paul’s Institution in Seremban, Malaysia (1955), moving on to teach at St. Xavier’s Institution in Penang in 1957. He was appointed as a staff member of St. Joseph’s Training College in 1958 and eventually become the Principal of St. John’s Institution in 1963. He also took up Malaysian citizenship in 1965.
His Vocation As An Artist
Subsequently, he stayed on to head the St. Patrick’s Arts Centre in 1984, that later expanded to became the existing La Salle-SIA College of the Arts, focusing on developing and nurturing creativity in the visual and performing arts. He became a Singapore citizen in 1985. He retired as President Emeritus in 1997 but remained active in both the education and art circles.
Some of his students eventually became well-known principals, including Rudy Mosbergen (Raffles Junior College), Eugene Wijeysingha (Temasek Junior College and RI) and Bernard Fong (Hwa Chong Junior College).
Brother Joseph was also a highly regarded sculptor, having created over 200 works (sculptures and paintings) in his lifetime, using a diverse range of materials such as wood, bronze, glass and metal. His sculptures are an ingenious blend of both the East and the West, centring on the themes of humanity and nature and are strongly influenced by Celtic mythology incorporating the human figure, symbol and cultural values from Southeast Asia. Many of his sculptures were created out of thousand-year-old oaks from peat bogs that were shipped to Singapore recovered during his bi-annual vacations in Ireland.
Brother Joseph died at the age of 79 as a result of a heart attack, while visiting his hometown on 27 August 2002.