The Ministry of Love

Above: Father Derek Harris, at home on the boats. Photo by Kevin O’Gorman.

Above: Father Derek Harris, at home on the boats.
Photo by Kevin O’Gorman.

Father Derek Harris is a familiar figure to the Liffeyside boating community. Since his retirement eight years ago he has been their go-to guy for baptisms, weddings, divorces, boat blessings and words of wisdom in times of need.

Yes, divorces! For Father ‘Dee’, as he is known, is no ordinary priest and has a notably more relaxed attitude to the practice of faith than we are used to here in Ireland.

He joined the Columban missionary order in the 60’s, first as a seminarian in Dalgan Park, Navan, then as a missionary with the Maynoth Mission to China. His first posting was not to China but to South Korea, where he spent the following forty years.

His work took him close to the Civilian Control Line, not far from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) which incorporates territory on both sides of the ceasefire line as it existed at the end of the Korean War (1950–53). It roughly follows latitude 38° N (the 38th parallel), the original demarcation line between North and South Korea created at the end of World War II.

The areas north and south of the DMZ were heavily fortified, and both sides maintained large contingents of troops there. The local population adapted and continued to live amongst the troops.

At first, Fr Harris found life in Korea challenging, both culturally and linguistically. To learn the language he would listen to popular Korean songs on the radio and repeat them parrot-like until he got the hang of it. He still loves to sing Korean pop songs when he drives.

He soon embraced his new life and made good friends amongst his parishioners and fellow missionaries. It was a relatively dangerous posting but Fr Harris didn’t think about that much.

About once a month he would don a military uniform and visit three villages that remained within the DMZ to celebrate mass, which he realises must have caused bemusement amongst the North Korean military who kept constant watch on the area from their vantage point on higher ground the other side of the border.

His attitude to the hard and fast rules of the Church was tempered by the realities of life in Korea. For instance, he found himself reassuring his parishioners, “who were devout and made a great effort to attend mass,” that “whenever you celebrate mass that’s your Sunday,” because it was not possible to reach all the villages every Sunday, the day when mass was mandatory for Catholics in those times.

At that time it took up to six weeks to reach Korea by boat which meant that he was cut off from family and childhood friends for long periods. It was difficult at first, especially when his father died in 1964. However, there was no question of him making the journey home.

In Korea his home was far away from the sea, which was hard for someone who had grown up around boats. He had a particularly close relationship with his father who was a popular fitter with the Gasworks. He was one of the first Catholics to be promoted to management with the company. Fr Harris has great memories of picking him up from work in their small boat, powered by a modified car engine, and fishing together until nightfall.

Since its foundation the Poolbeg Yacht Club has played an important part in his life. During trips home on leave, which he would take about every six years, it was his touchstone in Dublin. He has served as club Secretary and Vice-Commodore in the past.

Paul Doody, a former Commodore, told NewsFour that “the Poolbeg Yacht Club might not exist if it were not for Dee. His diplomatic skills were put to good use during the hugely complex negotiations involved in getting the club off the ground.”

For Father Harris, PYC is like a family. It’s where he keeps his boat, La Madeliene, and he enjoys nothing more than spending time there with friends. He told NewsFour, “these guys and girls are my main support. I would have to make major adjustments in my life if I left.” They feel the same way about him and many have tales to tell about his kindness and good counsel during personal challenges.

He now provides a “free-range” ministry to the Liffeyside boating community and is a welcome visitor in all the clubs along the river. His non-judgemental approach to life serves him and his floating congregation well. He believes in love and second chances. Licensed to perform both Church and civil marriage, he will sanctify the union of any couple who want him to and he says, “you have one life to live and love to give and if you find somebody who responds to that you are blessed.”

The distinctive liturgical vestments that Fr. Harris wears to perform religious rituals reveal the philosophical and delightfully subversive nature of this unusual priest. With the help of a good friend, Gemma, the Chinese word for love is now emblazoned in fiery red across the back of his cassock and there are Taijitu, the Yin Yang symbol for “universal oneness”, where crucifixes are more commonly found.

By Jennifer Reddin