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Remembering Fr. Oliver O’Doherty

Salvador Ryan recalls a priest who had a lasting impact on the communities in which he served

Salvador Ryan

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Salvador Ryan

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Remembering Fr. Oliver O’Doherty

Five years ago, on Monday May 18, 2015, a very special priest was laid to rest in the grounds of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Templederry.

I first met Fr Oliver (Ollie) O'Doherty in 1995 when he arrived as newly-appointed parish priest to Moneygall, having served in the parish of the Silvermines for a couple of years after retiring early from a career teaching Irish in St Flannan’s College, Ennis.

A few days previously I had actually been speaking with one of the parishioners in the Silvermines who was lamenting that they would never find any priest like Fr Ollie again and were heartbroken to lose him. At the time I wondered just what was so special about this man. It wouldn’t be long before I found out.

So much could be written about Fr Ollie, but I’d like to focus on one aspect of his personality in particular – his humour – and the way in which he managed the increasingly debilitating condition of Parkinson’s with which he lived for so long.

Fr Ollie was no sooner arrived in Moneygall than his reputation for being the most loveable of pranksters began. The most frequently recounted story is that of his crossing the street to Bergins’ shop on what was probably his first morning in the parish. It also happened to be the first working morning of a young employee. She had heard that there was a new priest in the village, but wasn’t quite prepared for her first encounter with him.

Fr Ollie walked into the shop, mooched around for a bit, and then picked up an apple from a box and proceeded to take a large bite out of it. His face puckered and he exclaimed in a very serious tone (which he was adept at calling up when necessary): “I don't like that one!” And he carefully placed the half-eaten apple back in the box.

“I'll try another one”, he went on, and sampled the second apple in the same way, reacting just as badly to its taste and throwing it back in the box as he made as if to leave. The new employee looked on in bewilderment. This was her first day.

But it was also the new parish priest’s first day. What should she do or say?

Fr Ollie had a habit of letting you stew for a while when he was having you on and the seconds must have felt like hours until his face burst into a broad grin and she suddenly realised she’d been had.

Soon we would get very used to Fr Ollie and his sense of fun and easy-going manner.

This, I believe, was the key to his coping with Parkinson’s.

While a serious man of great depth, he never took himself too seriously. I remember seeing a team of people help him to vest in the sacristy before Mass (as this could often be a challenge for Fr Ollie), one person at each end of the cincture which is tied around the waist, another straightening the often crumpled alb on his back. The scene resembled a racing car momentarily stopped at a pit stop and being readied for road again.

And, in all of this, he was utterly unselfconscious, peppering the conversation with self-deprecating humour and with his Santa-Claus-esque laugh: “Ho, Ho, Ho!” And this put his helpers at ease.

Fr Ollie was a man whose ease with himself was infectious.

On other occasions he would arrive out to say Mass, realising that he hadn’t brought his glasses with him and so couldn't read from the missal. But this didn’t faze him one bit.

He simply announced: “Would anyone have an auld pair of glasses I could borrow?”

And the first person would make his way sheepishly up the aisle. Fr Ollie would try them on. “No use!”, he’d exclaim and leave them down on the altar.

A second person would walk up. “Not much better!”

And a third. “A dead loss”.

Soon there would be a crowd gathered round the altar collectively surrendering their specs. And Fr Ollie would ponderously go through each in turn until he found a suitable pair.

The discarded glasses would often lie on the altar-cum-optician’s-shop until the end of mass when Fr Ollie would announce: “ye can come on up and collect yere glasses – I’ve lost track of who owns what”.

One of those fateful mornings, the only pair that proved suitable belonged to a female parishioner who was wearing a Deirdre-Barlow-style pair of glasses with diamonds on the side.

Fr Ollie wore them with great pride during the mass and when the sunlight shined through the window, shafts of reflected coloured light from the diamonds bounced off the church walls creating a mini laser-light display.

Fr Ollie loved to get a reaction from people who didn’t expect him to utter the things he did.

One older man who huddled in the church porch every Sunday, and who probably got nervous if ever required to cross the threshold of the church door, was approached by Fr Ollie a week or so before Christmas.

“Mick” (*not his real name), Fr Ollie bellowed, “I was thinkin’ maybe you might sing the O Holy Night this year; they say you’ve a grand voice!”.

The blood drained from “Mick’s” face as he protested that he hadn’t a note in his head.

“You'll be grand”, Fr Ollie went on, “sure, you'll do it so”, as he walked away trying to suppress his laughter ...

If he was having a “bad glasses day”, Fr Ollie could sometimes stumble over his words when reading from a text. But even then his recoveries could prove to be far more memorable than the text itself.

I remember him reading from of the Bishop’s Letter on Migrants and Refugees one Sunday morning.

As he read through the text he came to a quotation from a refugee living in Ireland: “It's hard being a referee”, Fr Ollie quoted ... and then caught himself. “Refugee”.

Then quipped: “I suppose it's hard being a referee too”.

And then there were the things that only Fr Ollie could get away with. As he would distribute Holy Communion, his hand, which had a tremor, would often have difficulty in separating communion hosts from each other, or, indeed, grasping an individual host to give to a communicant.

There’s one occasion I’ll never forget.

He would always announce “Body of Christ!” in a deep, resounding voice just before he got to you, so, unless you were used to this, it was sometimes difficult to know if the words were directed at you or the person before you in line.

In any case, he approached one parishioner and, as his hand dipped into the communion vessel to take out the host, a large part of the host broke off and dropped to the ground, leaving Fr Ollie with only a sliver in his hand and the rest on the carpet.

Unflinching, he moved to place the sliver on the parishioner’s tongue while also beginning to slowly bend down for the remainder of the host on the carpet.

“Body of Christ!”, he boomed, “hould on there, there’s more comin’!” ...

These are just a few of the many memories I have of Fr Ollie and his unique personality that won the hearts of all who encountered him. People saw in Fr Ollie a wonderful humanity, a genuine humility, and a deep joy (even in the face of debilitating illness).

The ease with which he carried himself put others at their ease, counter-intuitively making his physical vulnerability his particular strength.

As we gathered in large crowds in Templederry five years ago to bid Fr Ollie a fond farewell, I’m sure it must have crossed the minds of many of us that we had witnessed in this man a genuine sainthood wrapped up in the most deeply human of qualities.

That’s surely the best kind.

Salvador Ryan is a native of Moneygall. He is professor of ecclesiastical history at St Patrick’s College Maynooth.