Fr Brendan O’Donoghue celebrated 65 years of priesthood this year, and though officially retired, he continues to work in the parish of Shannon, Co. Clare. Looking back on his ministry, especially his involvement in the social work of the Church, he recalls the ways the Lord led him on paths he didn’t expect.
“After finishing secondary school in St Flannan’s college, I got the opportunity to be represented to the bishop for interview, with the possibility of being selected for the diocese,” he tells me. “Once I got the ok on that, I went ahead with it – it was as simple as that.”
The only way they could get Mass or the sacraments was to set up a little chapel on the side, that’s what they did”
He felt the pull of the priesthood before that, putting it down in part to the immersive quality of the Catholic culture around him: “T’was I suppose we were surrounded by it, especially in secondary school. So many of the Leaving Cert students every year went on to study for the priesthood. We had ordinations and that all over the country at the time.”
After his ordination in 1956, Fr O’Donoghue spent some time working in Galway, before seizing his chance to head on mission, in this case to the Irish emigrant community in England.
“I spent two terms on the emigrant mission to England,” he begins. “At that time, there were an awful lot of Irish workers and that. One of the places that I worked was a labour camp, because there was no accommodation in the local towns.
“When the building of a power station was set up, they had to provide the accommodation and they did it all over for a couple of hundred men, most of them Irish. The only way they could get Mass or the sacraments was to set up a little chapel on the side, that’s what they did.”
Even before his ordination, Fr O’Donoghue wanted to go on mission – not to England, but to Africa.
“I was on my way to Africa with the Kiltegan fathers, just before ordination. What happened then was the bishop of Galway got onto my own bishop, Bishop Rogers of Killaloe, to ask for his help as he was shorthanded himself. I wound up being a curate in Salthill for a year and half. The African effort died the death, there and then.”
What emerged, however, was what he calls an “accidental” interest in the social work of the Church. He was involved in establishing Clare Social Care (now Clarecare), Ennis Old Folks Club and the Clare Special Schools Project, among others.
“I came back to Ennis and that’s where that [involvement in social work] took off, when I came to Ennis in 1966, back from my second missionary journey, as St Paul would say,” Fr O’Donoghue explains. “It was something accidental to be quite honest. I happened to be on the spot when a lot of things were developing, especially for youth and old age, for the likes of meals and that kind of thing for people.
“These things were beginning to raise their heads in different parts of Ireland. And I didn’t spearhead it, people came to me and asked me if I’d join them. That’s kind of what happened you know.”
Fr O’Donoghue’s ministry spanned both sides of Vatican II and he witnessed first-hand the changes it wrought in the Church.
“The big change of course was the Mass and the sacraments in the language of the people, that was the very big thing,” he says. “One of the things that struck me as – not strange, but inbuilt in the people – that when we started appointing lay ministers of the Eucharist, that we had so many sidesteppers at Mass who wanted to get Communion from the priest and avoided the lay people.”
In 1988, after 22 years in Ennis Parish, Fr O’Donoghue moved to Shannon parish, Co. Clare. He found the move “strange” initially, he says, having spent so long in one place.
“Now I’m 33 years in Shannon and… it’s an extraordinary community,” Fr O’Donoghue continues. “The thing I would say about Shannon is this, if you start anything worthwhile in the Shannon community, it will be well supported by the people. That has happened right through the history of Shannon.
On the Lourdes thing, we had so many repeat pilgrims every year, who loved to come and made that their holiday”
“I remember my first weekend in Shannon, it was the August bank holiday weekend. I thought it was a ghost town, there was nobody there, they were all gone home and home was somewhere else, any other part of Ireland. That happened until they began to get married within the community and found their own homes and that’s the community we have now.”
As well as being parish priest in Shannon, Fr O’Donoghue continued to devote his time to social works and other elements. He was the director of Killaloe diocese’s Lourdes pilgrimage for 18 years, which he enjoyed very much.
“I’m still involved in that, but I handed over to my friend, Fr Tom Ryan, the management of it some years ago, but I’m still involved,” he says. “The Holy Land also, we did about four or five trips there. I enjoyed it very much, and so did the people. On the Lourdes thing, we had so many repeat pilgrims every year, who loved to come and made that their holiday.”
Although officially retired since 2002, and having celebrated his 90th birthday this year, Fr O’Donoghue continues to minister in the parish, doing weekend and daily Masses.