Professor of literature at Glasgow University. An appreciation

PROFESSOR Patrick Reilly, who has died aged 86, was a distinguished member of the academic profession in Scotland and served as professor of literature at Glasgow University with much distinction. He is fondly remembered by generations of students who benefited from his knowledge and enlightened teaching. He loved imparting his knowledge and his love of literature.

Dr Richard Cronin, a colleague of many years, told The Herald, “Pat had an extraordinary lucidity, an ability to communicate even the most complex ideas in a way that made them luminous. It was why his lectures were so popular among all students, the less able just as much as the brightest.” One former pupil has written, “Pat was a wonderful person and a wonderful educator.”

Mr Reilly was a devout Catholic who gave generously of his time to the Catholic church in Scotland. He was involved in various high-profile events – noticeably regarding Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code which he lambasted publicly.

Patrick Reilly was born in Anderston in Glasgow and was the second youngest of 10 children. His father died when he was 11 but he had a happy, if challenging, childhood. He attended St Mungo’s Academy (leaving at 15) but remained proud of his origins in Anderston. For many years said he came from USA: Used to Stay in Anderston. In 1964 the family moved to Bishopbriggs.

Mr Reilly went up to Glasgow University aged 25. He was the first in his family to go to university and graduated in 1960 with a first in English literature.

He was awarded a scholarship to study further at Pembroke College, Oxford where he wrote his masters on Jonathan Swift. After his national service he joined the English literature department of Glasgow University which he was to head and ultimately held the post of Emeritus professor of English.

Colleagues remember him with unfailing warmth and affection. One has written, “I recall Pat, as everybody does, as an excellent colleague: meticulous in professional matters, courteous, kind, generous in appreciation and in support of students and fellow-academics alike.”

Another said: “Pat was a man of complete integrity … and always terrific company.” Another summed him up as, “my overwhelming impression of Pat was of the thorough decency of the man.”

Mr Reilly also became well-known outside the university when he appeared on television discussing subjects such as Scottish independence, the miners’ strike and the poll tax. He wrote widely and was a regular contributor to Flourish, the monthly newspaper for the Archdiocese of Glasgow.

Mr Reilly published several books and was an authority on the life and writings of Swift. His much admired biography, The Brave Disorder, was an incisive insight into Swift’s character and opinions, cannily drawing comparisons with contemporary social problems.

Professor Donald Mackenzie was a colleague of Mr Reilly’s at the university. He remembers a seminar on Swift which Mr Reilly concluded (“with much rhetorical brio”) by considering Swift’s Christianity.

Mr Mackenzie told The Herald that Mr Reilly ended his talk, “I think he was a Christian – he was a pretty queer kind of Christian – but we’re all pretty queer Christians”. Mr Mackenzie added, “That said a lot, by implication, about Pat’s – deeply Christian – sense of human complexity.”

In 2006 Mr Reilly questioned Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code which he described on a DVD as monumental nonsense. Mr Reilly argued: “Brown’s story is baseless historically. It is monumentally inexcusable nonsense and he completely flouts the facts.” Also that year Mr Reilly organised a lengthy discussion on the book at Glasgow University.

His strong Catholic faith sustained him throughout his life. He actively supported his own church (latterly St Catherine Laboure Church), various Catholic societies both in Glasgow and at the university – especially the Glasgow University Catholic Association – and founded in 1993 The Cardinal Newman Society which is dedicated to promoting and defending Catholic education. He was made a Knight of Pope St Gregory the Great in 2008.

One of his grandchildren answered the phone in his grandfather’s house. The call was from the late Cardinal Thomas Winning. The young man asked the caller to identify himself and then said to his grandad, “it’s the guy who is in charge of the priests, but not actually the Pope’. Both the cardinal and Mr Reilly roared with laughter.

Another major interest was a life-long passion for Celtic – an interest he passed on to his sons and grandchildren. He was devoted to his family. For 50 years he taught an extra mural class in Giffnock.

Mr Reilly married Rose Fitzpatrick in 1957. She survives him along with six sons, three daughters, seven grandsons, six granddaughters and three great-grandchildren.