This story featured in the August 30, 2016 edition.
LOOKING around the office, you can’t help but feel that the posters over Fr. Ailbe O’Murchú desk are at odds with his vocation. “Everyone is entitled to my opinion”, reads one, while another illustrates the office’s ‘complaints department’, which consists of the figure one hanging from the pin of a grenade. “Take your number”, it unsympathetically reads.
Given he has spent him life in the priesthood, it goes without saying they are merely there for humour. While they depict a heartless attitude, Fr. Ailbe has selflessly devoted his life to helping others the Franciscan way and wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The life of Francis was always there before me”, he says when asked why he loves what he does. “His love and care of people, being prepared to spend your energies and give your time; the fact that you can do something for somebody and help them on the road of life counts for a lot.”
Throughout our conversation, the first line of any response from the former St. Declan’s pupil is usually a self-deprecating jibe at himself, before eventually giving an introspective and insightful reply.
After being asked for his typical day, the 67-year-old smiles and says: “A typical day is when you get up, organise your day and within an hour you reorganise your organisation! Simple things like me meeting you now when I should be in looking at the accounts! You never know what’s going to occur; a phone call, somebody calling in looking for a priest, providing counselling, confession takes place in the church six days a week. People who come into the city to shop often come in to clean the slate.”
Born in 1949 with eight brothers and no sisters (he jokes that the family couldn’t have afforded one anyway), life was difficult and he remembers very few perks to be had in life during his childhood. His father, a mechanical inspector with CIE, spent the first two years of his life in Ardkeen with a bout of TB that wiped out 10 to 12 of his family members.
“Life was tough. I was born five years after the war so there was quite a bad recession on throughout the early fifties. I remember the coal boats like the Great Western used to come into the Quays throughout the week and the lorries from the gasworks used to go down to collect it. When they were going over the humpback bridge a lot of coal would fall out of the back and of course we were all there ready to grab whatever coal we could. We would bring it home and that night we could light a fire.”
Occasionally, he would gather together four pence to go to the Colosseum but for the most part, they played football on the roads; taking advantage of an era where you might only be interrupted by one car passing each day.
Still wearing nappies, he started in St. Declan’s in 1952 at the age of two and jokes that he never understood why nobody wanted to sit next to him. Little did he know, he would spend most of his life in the classroom. After training in Galway, Rome and Maynooth, he spent 28 years teaching English and History in the Franciscan College Gormanston, Louth. If he had his way, he would still be teaching and says retiring was like a bereavement.
An Irish Athletics calendar stretches across one of the four walls in the room, a nod toward his passion for running.
Fr. Ailbe, who remains vice-president of the Irish Schools’ Athletic Association Committee, says: “I’ve been running all of my life from everybody and everything! I have 33 marathons under my belt; I never won any of them but sure every time I finished them I was a winner! Three hours and fifteen minutes is my best time. I always liked it. There was a time when I couldn’t run but after I was ordained things had eased off in the church a bit and I could. It gives you your own space and personal time away from people, phones and appointments. If you have difficulties it gives you a chance to sort things out in your own mind on the road and find a solution by the end of your run. It’s very relaxing and therapeutic.”
While his path turned out to be the perfect one, there was initially resistance. It wasn’t until after the Leaving Cert that he decided to give the priesthood a try and he says his family had a bet that he would not last beyond six weeks!
“I had fought it tooth and nail; I even had a few girlfriends! When I was a teenager working in the Tower Hotel under Brendan Pettit one girl’s family went back to live in Staten Island in New York. We wrote for three years and I had my brothers primed to watch the postman because if my mother saw the letters I was dead! In the last one I wrote to her I told her I was joining the Friars and we stopped communicating but 50 years later I went searching for her and found her in Staten Island last summer. We spent the evening together and it was like the 50 years never happened.”
While he may not teach anymore, he cherishes his role as the Guardian of the Friary in the city he grew up in. As a man who spent most of his career working with adolescents, he feels that the church will remain strong in Waterford and beyond.
“It’s normal for young people to drift away and you will find that they often drift back again. What I find is that it often takes a significant moment in someone’s life to make them stop and think, especially when there’s a void within themselves which is not being filled by anything even though they’re searching for something to give them a sense of peace, joy, wellbeing and belonging. When people are young they rarely look at the church as something important. People are always giving out that young people aren’t going to church but look, that’s not the end of the world. They find God in other ways and will always come back to the institution.”
In conversation with Ronan Morrissey