Northern Ireland news

Parishoners support priest banned from saying Mass following theft conviction

Fr John Irwin pictured with Dungiven Mass goer Seán McElhinney
Connla Young

Mass goers in Co Derry have defended a retired Catholic priest banned from celebrating the sacraments in public.

Parishioners in Dungiven last night spoke out in defence of Fr John Irwin after the Bishop of Derry Bishop Donal McKeown said he “is not to be engaged in any public ministry”.

It is understood Fr Irwin, who is aged in late 70s, celebrates daily Mass at his home in the town and that on occasions dozens of people from the area attend.

In 2014 Fr Irwin was convicted of stealing £2,000 over a three-year period.

He was accused of stealing £1,440 of collection money from St Patrick's parochial house in Pennyburn, Derry between May 2011 to October 2012.

He also pleaded guilty to stealing £300 from the Derry Diocesan Society fund between December 2009 and May 2011.

He was given a conditional discharge for two years.

Details of the Mass and sacraments ban were contained in the annoucement of clerical changes in the Diocese of Derry isssued on Monday.

In his statement Bishop McKeown said “his (Fr Irwin’s) exercise of priestly ministry has been restricted for some years”.

“Fr Irwin is not to be engaged in any public ministry,” he said.

“Any celebration of Mass or sacraments with members of the public present is in contravention of clear written and verbal instructions to Fr Irwin from the Bishop of Derry.”

Bishop McKeown added that “this clarification is offered for the common good of the people of the diocese”.

Dungiven native Seán McElhinney, who regularly attends Mass in Fr Irwin’s home, last night defended the priest.

He added that Masses said by Fr Irwin were private but that numbers attending have grown and include a range of people aged between 16 - 80.

“In the beginning he was saying them for two or three people but word got out and as a priest he was not going to turn them away,” he said.

Mr McElhinney said that the priest’s past is of little interest to local people.

“I know for a fact that Fr John spends time with people, he spends time with me when I am suffering from the challenges in my life, and never makes us feel like we have done anything wrong, why would we do that to him?

“Everyone makes mistakes

“He does not stand preaching to people in his kitchen, he asks them how he can help them make their lives a bit better.”

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