Kathleen Kilbane: The Story Behind the book of the ‘Little Saint’ of Achill Island

By Allan Worthy

Have you ever met a saint? They are to be found in unusual places. Christian Brother Anselm Conway believed he met one in a TB sanatorium in 1940’s Ireland. Brother Anselm’s vocation of teaching had brought him into contact with thousands of diverse characters, but it was upon his evening visits to St Teresa’s Sanatorium. Ballinrobe, Co Mayo that he met the person whose final days he was to record. He saw in Kathleen Kilbane a person of remarkable sanctity.

Kathleen Kilbane was born to Irish emigrant parents who had left Achill Island in Co Mayo to settle in Perth, Scotland in the 1920’s. Upon her mother’s death in 1937, Kathleen was placed in an Orphanage in Lanark, Scotland. Later she came briefly to live with her grandmother on Achill Island but was all too quickly diagnosed with suffering with tuberculosis. It was the same illness that took the life of her mother. Kathleen spent the last fifteen months of her life in St Teresa’s sanatorium passing from this world at the age of 14 in 1947.

Brother Conway’s remarkable account records Kathleen’s love for God and for others, regardless of her own personal suffering. Brother Conway wrote many handwritten copies of this account and when one of these came into the possession of Fr Brian McKevitt OP, he decided to publish the account under the title of ‘No More Tears in My Eyes’.

The book has touched the hearts of many around the world. We decided the time had come to produce a book, that would for the first time trace Kathleen’s life from the cradle to the grave. To include contemporary accounts of how Kathleen continues to influence people’s lives today and also to provide background information on Kathleen’s first biographer Brother Anselm Conway.

When we embarked on research for the book we were uncertain as to how much success we would have uncovering Kathleen’s hidden Life. The first discovery was made by locating a copy of her birth certificate. It revealed that Kathleen was a year older than she thought and also that her birthday was not on the one she celebrated, but it fell on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This was remarkable as Kathleen had a deep lifelong devotion to the Mother of God, witnessed by many. The fact that Kathleen, who prayed endless rosaries, had died on Oct the 7th which is the Feast of the Holy Rosary had already alerted us to Kathleen’s Marian connection. We then began the process of following in Kathleen’s footsteps.

During the process of researching Kathleen’s early years in Scotland we had help from many people including parish priests and archivists. Kathleen’s baptism certificate and photos of both the church and original font that Kathleen was baptised in were obtained from St John’s church, Perth. The Daughters of Charity, who were the religious order who looked after Kathleen in their orphanage in Lanark, provided records and period photos of Kathleen’s time spent there. Also St Mary’s church, in which Kathleen was confirmed, provided both photos and invaluable information. Our attention then turned to Ireland.    

Attempts to connect with people on Achill, who might be able to help with our research, had not proved too successful. So as I flew into Knock International Airport I knew the research process would be a matter of ploughing virgin soil. But a happy set of ‘coincidences’ led to meeting the right people. This led to locating the house that Kathleen had lived in, obtaining period and contemporary photographs of her time on Achill and hearing memories of those who loved her. The journey then continued to Ballinrobe to uncover Kathleen’s final days.

The original Sanatorium is a grand edifice called ‘Creagh House’. It was built in 1875 and had come into use as a sanatorium in 1928. A small block building was later added to house more patients. It was to this sanatorium that Kathleen was sent in July 1946. Of Kathleen’s many saintly attributes recorded by Brother Conway were her love for God, her devotion to the Blessed Mother, her acceptance of the will of God, her self-sacrificing nature, her reverence of the Holy Mass, her devotion to prayer and her joyful disposition.

Brother Conway records how a friend of Kathleen was relieved of a long standing problem with severe headaches that disappeared forever after Kathleen prayed for her. Also he records how a rose bush, that witnesses said had never bloomed before, brought forth a beautiful white bloom on the day of Kathleen’s death. It is appropriate that Kathleen’s mortal remains lie in the beautifully picturesque Kildownet graveyard on Achill Island. The beauty of her spirit that shone forth on earth deserves only the most beautiful place of repose. Kathleen’s legacy is an inspiring faith that encourages many today.

During Kathleen’s brief time on earth she lived a hidden life and like St Therese of Lisieux, on whose feast day Kathleen was baptized, Kathleen’s life is becoming increasingly well known after her death. The book Kathleen Kilbane: The ‘Little Saint’ of Achill Island is another step in that process.

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