What's Your Story? - On the Edge...

This time forty years ago I was on the edge of making a life-changing decision. Though life has always been kind to me, it had kicked me up the backside in the previous year or two and made me more reflective than usual. I liked what I was doing in the family business and outside of it but I did not want to spend the rest of my life doing it. I began again to think of priesthood.

I had been taught by priests in secondary school in Newry and having several aunts who were priests’ housekeepers, the figure of the priest was familiar to me. The priests who crossed my path were benign if inter-personally distant figures in my life. Career choices were limited at the time and most people followed family patterns of training and vocational choice. During my time in secondary school, I explored the idea of priestly vocation briefly but then I set it aside.

At twenty-two years old, I was now thinking about life and revisiting my original intentions. When I got around to doing something about it, I chatted to my aunt who was the local parish priest’s housekeeper and asked her to make an appointment for me. The recently arrived parish priest was called Fr Savage. ‘A terrible name for a parish priest’ was the verdict of the bar-stool philosophers in Murtagh’s Bar.

Tomás Ó Sabhaois was how he chose to be known. He was a kindly man who had a charismatic style spirituality and he was an avid fior-Ghael. His sister was a local primary teacher who had taught us Irish before school opening hours in a country school. With the appointment organised, I took to figuring what I might say to him when we met.

Part of my daily routine in those days was foddering cattle in two different farms and I took the opportunity of the tranquillity of the countryside to compose and to practice what I might say. I spoke to the trees and the hedges and eventually settled on my spiel.

The time arrived and I went to the Parochial House for my interview. My aunt brought me in and showed me upstairs to the priest’s sitting room. He was relaxing and watching a television programme called Trom agus Éadrom. This was a ‘heavy and light’ production that ran from 1975 to 1985 and was compered by the genial Liam Ó Murchú.

The parish priest asked me if I minded waiting until the programme ended and I assented. He then turned to me when it was over and asked me, in Irish, if I spoke Irish. ‘An bhfuill aon Gaeilge agat’? His sister had given me both a solid grounding in the language and a love for it and I had attended the Donegal Gaeltacht over several summers in the early 1970s. I had then taken it to ‘O’ Level standard at secondary school and begun studies to ‘A’ level in it.
My mind however was not in gear for thinking ‘as Gaeilge’ and I stumbled through my self-deprecatory reply to his question, ‘beaganín’ ‘a little bit’. ‘Beaganín’ was enough for him and he continued to speak to me in Irish, making the usual small talk that oils such formalities and introductions. I was finding the going ‘trom’ or heavy, resurrecting my school-book Irish from the recesses of my memory.

Eventually, he switched back to ‘eatrom’ and we continued in English. ‘So what did you want to see me about?’ he asked. I then drew a blank. The spiel that I had repeated to the bushes so many times and which I had polished and practised simply deserted me. I could think neither in English or in Irish for a few moments. I composed myself however, and stumbled through some sort of unrehearsed explanation.

Some weeks later, I was in Armagh to meet another avid Gaeilegeoir, Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich who was to interview me for acceptance to the diocese as a trainee priest. He asked me my name and address and immediately lit up when he heard that I was from ‘Cross’. He remembered my late granduncle, Luke Murtagh, the founding father, sitting outside the family pub in North Street. I had attended primary school in Anamar, his home townland. Interview over immediately. I found myself, some months later, in September 1980, heading for that mysterious place so associated with Irish Priesthood, Maynooth.




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