Former provincial of Oblates and reformatory manager
He was also a former resident manager of St Conleth's Reformatory School for Boys in Daingean, Co Offaly, and chairman of the Association of Resident Managers of Industrial and Reformatory Schools.
In 1970, the Kennedy committee, established to examine reformatories and industrial schools and chaired by District Justice Eileen Kennedy, recommended that Daingean should be immediately closed down. This was done in 1974.
Boys convicted of (mostly petty) crimes were committed to St Conleth's. It opened in 1870 "to correct the evil habits acquired and supply the defects in the upbringing of the boys committed . . . [ and] to train a boy, if possible, to be able to earn his living".
However in 1955, a senior Department of Education official expressed strong reservations about the running of the school. A former Oblate priest and staff member depicted the school at that time as "pre-Dickensian" and a "horrific place". Another priest in the early 1960s, referred to the frequent use of "severe punishment".
Fr McGonagle in 1968 told visiting members of the Kennedy committee, "openly and without embarrassment", how boys were beaten on the buttocks with a leather strap. Asked why he allowed boys to be stripped naked for punishment, he replied, "in a matter of fact way", that he considered punishment to be more humiliating when it was administered in that fashion.
The Department of Justice representative on the committee signed the final Kennedy report only on condition that the Daingean punishments ceased. The published report contained no reference to the practice. Peter Berry, secretary of the Department of Justice, deemed that such disclosure would have caused "a grave public scandal".
Born in Buncrana, Co Donegal, in 1920, he was one of seven children of Denis McGonagle and his wife Kate Doherty. Educated locally and at St Columb's College, he left school at 16 to work on the family farm.
Six years later he entered Mount Melleray college, resumed his education and completed the Leaving Certificate. He joined the Oblates in September 1944 and was ordained priest in June 1950. He spent the next 14 years giving parish missions in Britain and Ireland.
Appointed to St Conleth's in 1964, in a memorandum on Daingean a year later he recommended "complete obliteration and start right from the foundations again".
He increased the number of teachers, introduced art and literature classes and secured national school status for the reformatory. He arranged for some of the boys to attend the Christian Brothers school in Tullamore. In addition he fostered social and sporting links between the boys and local people, and sought to extend the psychological and psychiatric services.
Yet overall conditions remained grim. Writing in 1966 of the Daingean boys, Michael Viney in this newspaper stated: "Theirs is a world of overriding shabbiness and decrepitude". On a positive note he said Fr McGonagle was a man "of integrity and concern".
He returned to mission work in 1972, but four years later was appointed to manage Scoil Árd Mhuire, a new Oblate-run special school in Lusk, Co Dublin. It was a vast improvement on Daingean. Sr Stanislaus Kennedy came to know him at this time, and this week paid tribute to his "great humanity" and "commitment to change". He remained in charge until his election as Oblate provincial in 1982, a position he held until 1988.
In 1984 he decided to withdraw the Oblates from childcare at Lusk, following the State's failure to accede to a request for extra staff.
For 50 years Fr McGonagle was director of the annual Oblate pilgrimage to Lourdes. In 1988 he became a member of the parish team in Inchicore, with a special ministry to the Travelling community.
The issue of child abuse in residential institutions cast a shadow over his final years. "I never thought it could be there in the undergrowth," he wrote. "Maybe it should have been on my mind, but any conference I attended - and I attended many - this thing never surfaced as a problem and God knows, everything was discussed."
He is survived by his brother Hugh, a Columban missionary in Chile, nieces and nephews.
Fr William McGonagle: born August 30th, 1920; died April 7th, 2007© 2007 The Irish Times