End of an era - last resident priest leaves Clare Island

Blades of currach oars sliced sparkling waters. Children raced barefoot in the sand. Parents looked on approvingly, eyes squinting in unaccustomed strong sunshine. Older people lolled in the grass by the beach soaking up the solar energy.

The scene around the harbour at Clare Island on Sunday, local regatta day, could not have been more idyllic. Yet, the swirling undercurrent was one of sadness. Fr. Ned Crosby, the last resident priest on the outpost, was leaving and would not be replaced.

Sweeping winds of change in the Irish Catholic Church due to a worsening shortage of priests are buffeting the western islands first. Inishbofin has had no resident priest since last summer. Weekend Masses have been discontinued at three Churches on Achill Island. Clare Island has now lost its resident cleric.

"Where will it all end?", wondered Ann Flynn earlier as she joined the rush to 10 a.m. Mass. Fr. Crosby was celebrating one of his last Masses on the island. "Come along", said a local to me, "You'll enjoy him".

The modern Church on Clare Island has been constructed beside a centuries old Augustinian Abbey. Sunday's congregation filed into a near chapel with white-painted, unadorned, walls. The timbered ceiling is particularly beautiful. The gable behind the altar, which has a large black Cross as its centrepiece, is similarly panelled.

Like a chat show host who likes to get nearer his audience, Fr. Crosby, a former Missionary who has served in Peru, delivered his sermon from the body of the Church.

His theme, wealth isn't everything. Many with huge riches and fame lived only a dog's life because of the pressures caused by money and status.

He made no mention whatsoever of his imminent departure from the island where he has served for the past two years and unquestionably won the hearts of the 160 or so inhabitants.

Asked what his feelings about leaving were after he had disrobed, he replied briefly . "My feelings are a bit like Sean O'Casey, in a state of chassis".

The responses of islanders, meanwhile, to the same question were neither vague or cryptic.
"Really and truly, it's unbelievable", said the aforementioned Ann Flynn. "I don't know how the Bishop can do this to us".

Ms Flynn, who was born on the island and returned to live there in 1972, said that Mass was good for everybody. Apart from the spiritual side of things, it got people together once a week. "I meet people. It is good for me at my age to meet my neighbours and mix, with visitors".

The fact that the island will be regularly served by priests from Westport doesn't impress Ms Flynn. She asked: "What about wintertime when the seas are rough. Will the priests always be able to travel. What if somebody gets sick in the night and needs to be anointed."

Worry about the non-availability of the Last Rites is uppermost on the minds of the elderly, according to the island's Community Nurse, Margaret O'Grady. She also mentions other factors. Fr. Crosby had become a unifying force. "He really made this place feel like a community".

Oliver O'Malley said the loss of a resident priest to an island was much more significant than if it happened in a parish on the mainland.

"If I was in any other part of Ireland, I could drive fifteen or twenty miles to Mass", he explained. "Islanders don't have that option. In a way it's not fair".

Oliver O'Malley, a Eucharistic Minister, said the changes brought about by the new Church arrangements will take getting used to but everybody has to get on with it.

"This is the way it is going to be", he said resignedly. "Archbishop Neary told us the cloth was stretched and if it was stretched any more it would tear apart".

Boatman Charles O'Malley has been bringing priests to Clare Island and Inishturk for the best part of half a century.

'There has been a priest on Clare Island for over 100 years", Charles said. "It has always been a big consolation for older islanders to know there was a priest available should they suddenly become ill".

Mary McCabe, who is on leave of absence from her work as primary schoolteacher on the island, said: "It's the end of an era . It's the first time in living memory there was no resident priest on Clare Island."
Ms McCabe described Fr. Crosby as a charismatic figure. Young people who had stopped going to Church were coming back.

This was a point echoed by Padraig O'Malley, Chairman of the Parish Council. He said Fr. Crosby's departure from the island was bad at a time when people were becoming disillusioned with the Church.
Fr. Crosby is credited with a Mass-going revival during his two years or so on the island. "He would come down the Church for the sermon", said Padraig O'Malley. "People liked that. They liked the fact that he didn't speak down at them from a pulpit".

Padraig O'Malley continued. "Fr. Ned's style suited the place. He is not a mad liberal but he is definitely not a conservative".

There were some on Clare Island at the weekend, Padraig O'Malley among them, who voiced the opinion that if priests could marry the clerical shortages might not happen.

"Something has to be done", suggested Island Manager, Donal O'Shea. "The Archdiocese of Tuam used to send missionaries all over the world. Now there is a shortage." Fr. Brendan Kilcoyne Secretary of the Archbishop of Tuam, is on leave this week and so was not available for comment on the priest shortage situation as it affects Clare Island and other areas.

However the Archbishop Dr. Neary made it clear previously that he is aware of the sadness which the continued rationalisation will cause but changes are necessary and will continue to be necessary to cope with a continuing shortage of priests in the region.

Courtesy of Tom Shiel and Connacht Tribune