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My father, the priest: Daughter of Catholic cleric tells her remarkable story

In November 1998 Fr Arty McAnerney stood before his parishioners in Co Tyrone and told them he had a fathered a child. Almost 20 years on, Déarbhla Clarke has described for the first time her remarkable story of growing up as the daughter of a priest. She spoke to Suzanne McGonagle

The daughter of Catholic priest Fr Arty McAnerney has spoken for the first time about their loving relationship

FATHER Arty McAnerney had what almost all priests have never had - the "love of a child".

For the first time, his daughter Déarbhla Clarke has spoken publicly about their loving relationship and how she feels it "made him better".

In an emotional interview, Ms Clarke (33) described how growing up as the daughter of a priest, she "did not know any different".

"There are certain social norms that are acceptable and not acceptable - I have broken nearly every rule in the book," she said.

"I should be a bitter, horrible, twisted person, but I'm not - I follow him. I can sit and I can smile and when my world shatters around me, I can find the positive and the positive was everyone he was involved with."

It was November 1998 when it first emerged that Fr McAnerney had fathered a child.

Standing on the altar at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Beragh, Co Tyrone, the parish priest admitted he had a daughter following a relationship with a woman when he worked as a curate in Drogheda in the 1980s.

Despite Catholic priests taking a vow of lifelong celibacy, Fr McAnerney's sensational statement was greeted with applause from his parishioners.

And for the next two decades he remained a popular pastor, continuing his clerical duties while also enjoying a relationship with his child.

"I've always been proud of my dad and he's always been proud of me," Ms Clarke said.

"I've never had a problem with any of this stuff.

"Sure my dad was great - he was the only one who stood on the altar and said Mass. My dad was absolutely brilliant, nobody else's dad did that."

Fr McAnerney (79), who was originally from Armagh, was stationed in Co Derry in recent years and passed away in hospital last month.

His daughter delivered a poem at the arrival of his remains at the Church of the Assumption, Magherafelt.

"He was one of the most inspiring people. It didn't matter what happened in my life, it's obviously not been the easiest, but he was always there," she said.

"If I needed him, I knew I could lift the phone and that's what has been the most difficult part of the last few weeks is. I'm going to tell him things, I'm going to lift the phone and he's not there."

Growing up in Drogheda, Co Louth, Ms Clarke said she always knew her father was a priest.

"I remember there was a girl on the school bus, I think I was about six to eight, and we had this fight because she could not comprehend that my dad was a Catholic priest," she said.

"I was adamant about it, I was like 'He is, he is, he says Mass and everything'. You know the way kids go on and she was like 'No, no, no'.

"It was only in later years that I started realising that it wasn't the social norm and that's when the problems started where things would have been kept quiet."

She said when it hit the headlines that Fr McAnerney had fathered a child, she was left "very isolated from everything that was going on".

"When the last media coverage happened, I think I was 15 or 16 and it was requested by my mother's solicitor that my dad stopped seeing me, which he did out of respect," she said.

"I can't imagine it was very good for him, but he did and I was not told details, I didn't know - all I knew was that there was media coverage."

However, she was determined to maintain contact with her father.

"I was like a little terrier really, I had found a phone number on headed paper and I was ringing it, trying to get back in contact with my dad and I didn't realise I had the wrong phone number and the phone was just ringing out.

"Then I found another letter with one digit different and the relief on both sides of the phone when he answered."

Ms Clarke said she believes Fr McAnerney was allowed to continue his duties because of the high regard in which he was held.

"I think he was too valuable to lose because he was doing great work in his communities - he wasn't shipped off to California or wherever.

"He was so open about everything from the start, the important people knew and if anybody had any questions, they were answered."

She said she believes her story clearly illustrates why priests should be allowed to have children.

"He had what a lot of priests wouldn't be able to have, he had his God that he loved and respected and did all his work but then he also had the love of a child and a lot of priests cannot say that," she said.

"Quite honestly I think the rules in the Church at the moment are extremely archaic - you cannot expect a man to spend 60/70 years on their own, total celibacy, it is extremely cruel."

As well as enjoying the special bond with his daughter, Fr McAnerney was also blessed with the love of a grandchild, often bringing out photographs of his family from his wallet, just like any proud father or grandfather would do.

They enjoyed birthday celebrations and Christmas and holidays together, including most recently a trip to the north Antrim coast during the summer.

"We have gone on holiday together, we went to Kerry, Carrick-on-Shannon, travelled around the north and all the places a child should see, I saw.

"The Giant's Causeway, Carrick-a-rede, I'm delighted as we were only at that bridge again during the summer and I actually brought my own daughter with us. It was like one of those things - 'the last time I was here, I was with you', that was 15 years ago or whatever."

Ms Clarke said as a doting grandfather, he "really did make a big deal out" of his grand-daughter, encouraging her to read and play the tin whistle and the recorder, "just like him".

And she laughed as she recalled their trips along Lough Neagh at Ballyronan, where Fr McAnerney owned a little rowing boat.

"The way he went on about it, it was like a yacht. He said 'Are you coming rowing with me', and I walked down and saw it and asked 'Do you have life jackets, is it going to sink?'

"Then he moved it down to Ballyronan and because it was a lot bigger there, the boat looked a lot smaller. My daughter loved it as well. He could navigate that boat no problem."

Ordained into the priesthood in 1961, Fr McAnerney served in parishes across the Armagh archdiocese.

His ministry in Co Tyrone saw him comfort relatives of those killed and injured in the Omagh bombing and he was also the celebrant at the funeral of murdered PSNI officer Ronan Kerr in Beragh.

Prior to his death, Fr McAnerney also served in the Magherafelt and Castledawson parish.

"He spent 18 years in Beragh in Tyrone, the people there were absolutely amazing - everybody knew who I was and all that kind of stuff and not one would have a bad word and nobody treated anybody differently, they're just an amazing parish," Ms Clarke said.

"When he moved to Magherafelt, it was more or less the same thing, people weren't as aware but they were still amazing. He was helped and encouraged by his parishioners and his friends, he created a huge life for himself."

She said she has been buoyed by the support received at her father's funeral as well as at the Mass for the arrival of his remains when she addressed the congregation to express her "awe and gratitude at their support", which was greeted by a round of applause from mourners.

"There was just huge support, huge support, it was fantastic to see," she said.

"I'm delighted some people did pick up on the words I said in the Mass that Dad would not want us to be sad, he'd be raging if he knew that we were making a fuss of him.

"I said to his congregation bring the laughter, bring the colour, and there were some reds, there were some oranges, some yellows, some pinks and it was absolutely brilliant to see that it wasn't just black."

Ms Clarke, who spoke to the Irish News in her home town of Drogheda, asked for her image not to be used and for privacy to grieve for her father in the time ahead.

But she said she hopes that by giving this interview, it will help others in similar circumstances.

"I'm sure there a few others out there - I'm really not the only one and it's not a big deal," she said.

"Everybody deserves a mother and father, everybody deserves the love of both parents.

"If there are any others out there, I have absolutely no problem in talking to them and seeing what their story is. I've been there, done that - I have a lot of experience behind me between volunteer work and suicide hotlines and stuff like that, I know how to talk to people.

"There's no scandal, there's no big deal."

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