Farewell Father Fergal

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A sea change lies ahead for the parish of Ringsend and Irishtown this autumn, as St Patrick’s Church says goodbye to Father Fergal MacDonagh, who has served the parish for 11 years.

NewsFour sat down with him for a chat about his years in the priesthood, both before and during his years there, and what comes next.

“Before I came to Ringsend, I had been a Head Prison Chaplain. I must have spent 12 or so years in total as a Prison Chaplain. I served in women’s prisons, served in Arbour Hill and Mountjoy, and in Portlaoise.”

The Portlaoise years proved especially eventful. “A group was being held in solitary confinement there. They had been isolated from general population, to a ward of the prison where officers outnumbered the inmates, but there had been an incident and a number of Officers had been taken hostage by the men. Some of the gang were suspects in the murder of Veronica Guerin.

The Minister for Justice at the time decided that these men would never have human contact again, and no one would minister to them. I knew that I could break the effects of solitary by telling the authorities that these men had a right to practise their faith, and I lobbied for them to be brought into general population once a week for Mass.”

Masses were held, remarkably, in a cage “like in a Hannibal Lecter film. I would arrive with only a polystyrene cup, a polystyrene plate with the Host, and a small vial of communion wine. We made the 20-minute service last two hours. I was trying to reduce the tension between the inmates and the prison officers.”

It’s obvious as we talk that these years made a profound impression on his sense of human nature. “In that environment, the abnormal becomes normal. Every second person I met had killed someone, or hurt them terribly.”

By the time he was assigned to the Ringsend/Irishtown parish, Fr Mac Donagh was smoking 40 cigarettes a day, and credits his years in the parish as being a great balm. “I suppose it took me ages to adjust, but it’s something I will forever be thankful for, to the people of Ringsend. It became a safe place for me.” Reflecting on memories of his time here, he explained that he won’t just be leaving parishioners, but friends and neighbours.

He had been striving to lose weight under doctor’s orders (“my new parish is exactly 4.8 km away, I checked it on mapmyrun.com for my walks”) and explained that when the Archbishop told him he was to be reassigned, he barely ate for two weeks. “It was like a grieving process.”

He shared a poignant story that maybe sums his feelings up best: “One good friend I had, Bridie, who died last year, she was in her nineties. We would go on trips in the spring and summer, to Glendalough, for instance. She came to me once and said ‘there’s a rumour you’re to be leaving us. You won’t be though, all my prayers are to keep you.’ When Bridie died, I thought I won’t make it past the next transfer window; there’s no one beseeching Heaven for me.”

Father MacDonagh’s last Mass was held on Wednesday September 24th.

By Rúairí Conneely