Here in W. Australia, when people hear my accent, they ask ‘what part of Ireland are you from’ and I invariable answer ‘from Antrim Town in N.Ireland’, and that is not quite true, because I was born in Clones, Co. Monaghan n 4th December 1935. However my parents, Margaret and Tom Kearney, moved to Antrim when I was two years old, and so all my memories of that time are only of Antrim.
It’s there I attended primary school, went to Church, played football, and attended dancing classes – all the normal things kids did in those days. We lived at 62 Oriel Rd. The teachers I remember – M/s Kitty O’Doherty, Cassie O’Neill, Downey and Frank Harman – those were the days of 2/ 3 classes in one room! The parish Priest was Father Vincent Davey.
I have very happy memories of those days – a loving and secure family life, and close friends that I retain to this day. But they were also the war years and so memories are laced with the bombing of Belfast, refugees on the roads, Belgium, British and American soldiers (the first black man I ever saw!), rationing of food, gas masks etc. It was in those early years that I became aware of the religious and social divides in N. Ireland.
I am the second eldest of five children – Seamus, Ann and Pauline still reside in Antrim. I was undoubtedly the most troublesome, proven by my Mother’s frequent words, ‘one day you will go to jail’!
I was among the first group to sit the 11+ examination. That allowed me to join the other Antrim students who were educated by the Christian Brothers in Belfast – good memories there, though the Brothers had a reputation for being ‘tough’! We, along with the girls who attended Fortwilliam Convent School, took up the top-deck of the bus. At times we were a rowdy lot – on one occasion, ending up at the local police-station because a window had been broken – everyone claimed innocence!
1953 was my final year at school, and a time of decision. I sought advice and was encouraged to follow a priestly/ missionary vocation. And so, somewhat unsure and anxious, and to the surprise of my family and friends, I entered the seminary of the Holy Ghost Fathers/ Spiritans.
Those were the days of abundant vocations to the Priesthood and Religious Life – the days when the Irish Catholic Church was seemingly secure in its beliefs and practice. I say’seemingly’ because to-day’s scene, which is so very different, has to question the real situation in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
On 8th.July my class of 26, was ordained in Dublin. On the following day, I celebrated my first Mass in St.Comgall’s Church – and in the Tridentine Rite!! Sadly my father was not there – he had died 2 years earlier. All this was before the Council of Vatican2 had started – a significant factor in my life!
In October of ’63, my ordination class were sent to different parts of West/ East Africa and S. America. Eleven ended up in Nigeria, and I to part of a parish where Fr.Davey had worked from 1922- ‘32. He was still a legend there when I arrived!
It was a time of hope, promise and great excitement. The Vatican Council offered a new vision of being Church – summed up in words and slogans like ‘People of God’, ‘collegiality’, ‘dialogue’, ‘inculturation’ and ‘co responsibility’.
Unfortunately other events were to overtake us in Nigeria – the Biafra war, which began in 1967 and lasted for more than 2 years. It resulted in the deaths of some 2 million people, mostly children, who died of malnutrition and disease. Our mission became a battlefield and our parishes were feeding-centres. Sadly for those of us who were there at the end, the result was detention, trial, imprisonment and deportation. My Mother’s words were fulfilled,’ one day you will go to jail’.
For most of 1970, I lived at home in Ballymena Rd, but worked full time in the parish – that was a special time. Sadly Fr. Davey died in that same year, and is buried in a plot beside my parents. By early 1971 I was back in W. Africa – in Sierra Leone, where I lived until 1991. Those were difficult years as the political scene was very unstable. There were several military coups – some benign and others very bloody and, like Biafra, it descended into civil war.
There were the good times – especially in the 1980s. I still think of that decade as one of the best and most fruitful periods of my life. For 10 years, I lived in a remote part of the country and in an area where no priest had lived before. There were lots of new beginnings which were coupled with ‘that new way to be Church’ which Vatican 2 called us to envision. The communities that I lived among really did accept and believe that ‘they were the Church’ – that Church, is not primarily an institution, but ‘community’, where we all share in Christ’s Priesthood, giving us common responsibilities and responsibilities because of baptism. Those were wholesome times!
But there was the prolonged civil war. I won’t go into details – they are well documented.
In 1991, I went to a mission in the Gambia, leaving there and Africa in 1997, I took a year of sabbatical, and then worked in a Retreat Centre near Navan. 1999 saw me travelling again – to W. Australia and to a parish called Albany. I was parish priest there until 2006 when I ‘retired’! Well retired from parish appointments – no more administration and church politics. There are lots of the latter here in Australia!
My life in retirement is very full – I am involved in hospital visitation and various local groups. I teach in an Adult Faith Education Centre in Perth, give retreats and seminars, play a reasonable round of golf (one has to hit something) and I am a chaplain in the local prison – yes, I am still going to jail!
If God spares me, I will celebrate 50 years of priesthood in July 2012 – especially in Antrim – the place I still call home!