Fr Gary Donegan: 'I'm not meant to be popular, I'm here to serve'

It's just as well Passionist priest Fr Gary Donegan seems to have been cut out for danger: his peace-building work in north Belfast has taken him to the front line of often bitter inter-community disputes. He tells Joanne Sweeney he's here to serve all of the people, not just some of them

Newtownbutler native Fr Gary Donegan is guest of honour at an event in New York state tonight in recognition of his peace-building work, for which he has already received several awards Picture: Hugh Russell
Newtownbutler native Fr Gary Donegan is guest of honour at an event in New York state tonight in recognition of his peace-building work, for which he has already received several awards Picture: Hugh Russell Newtownbutler native Fr Gary Donegan is guest of honour at an event in New York state tonight in recognition of his peace-building work, for which he has already received several awards Picture: Hugh Russell

IT'S been suggested that should a movie ever be made on the life of Fr Gary Donegan, Ray Winstone could be the right man to play the part. The choice of the Cockney tough guy may not be so far-fetched in capturing the essence of the Co Fermanagh 'street' priest who was known by the nickname Block to his boyhood friends due to his defence skills in Gaelic football.

"I once did the Myer-Briggs personality test," the teetotaller tells me. "I asked the [tester] 'What would you advise me to be?' regarding work. "She answered 'A fire truck driver. But you'd have to be the commander. The more danger there is, that's for you.'"

Tonight Fr Gary, who was rector of Holy Cross church in Ardoyne for over 15 years, will be feted by Irish Americans in Albany, New York when he is guest of honour at the annual Freedom of All Ireland night. He will also receive the Father Murphy award for 2016, which follows on from his being named Person of the Year in the 2016 Aisling Awards in Belfast; and earlier this month he received the annual Community Relations Exceptional Achievement Award.

"The work that I have been recognised for is the work that I literally do on the street – I've often been called 'the priest with the jeans'," says Fr Gary as we chat over coffee at the Houben Centre in north Belfast, the former Holy Cross school building which he helped revitalise as a community centre for both traditions.

"My hero is Pope Francis because Pope Francis made me mainstream. In [Pope Benedict's] time, I stuck out like a sore thumb in church circles, and could be the object of ridicule at times. But then [Pope Francis] comes along and says 'Get your ass out from behind the desk, get into the street, get into the mess'."

Fr Gary recently moved to the Tobar Mhuire retreat centre in Crossgar, Co Down but despite the move, he is still very much involved in chipping away at the coalface to deliver practical peace and reconciliation. He's a lively conversationalist, peppering his chat with stories of secret meetings with people operating beyond the law, him in the middle of it trying to make the situation better and safer for the wider community.

Frustratingly for a journalist, though, he frequently adds: "That's off the record".

Suffice to say, he's a man who can hold his own in most situations, whether addressing national and international leaders or talking to people suffering in the most extreme of human conditions.

The site of the former Camp Twaddell – the epicentre of a three-year loyalist protest against the Parades Commission ban on a Twelfth parade returning past Ardoyne shops – is literally just over the road. It’s where the 52-year-old priest stood every night to build relationships, understanding and peace with the protesters and their community representatives during their campaign.

His ministry and leadership in north Belfast has very much been on the street. He and his predecessor and former colleague Fr Aidan Troy were very visible during 2001-2 when they tried to protect schoolgirls and parishioners going into and out of Holy Cross primary school and church from angry loyalists, protesting against Catholics' presence in 'their' area.

It was on the street that he stood in support with the young widow of Michael McGibbon who was gunned down in Ardoyne last year by a dissident republican group calling themselves 'the IRA'.

And it was on the street that the ugly confrontation between him and Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective spokesman Dee Fennell took place in October. Fr Gary faced a barrage of verbal intimidation when Fennell and other residents took against him during their protest when three Orange lodges were finally allowed to make their return journey along Crumlin Road. TV footage showed him, alone, being shouted down by people from his own community.

There was a real sense that it was a frightening experience for him, but he was not cowed. Recalling it, he says: "I stood back and then I deliberately walked to the middle of them and delivered one line and pointed and said: ‘I stood there every night for two and a half years – where were you?’"

His believes that as a Passionist priest of 26 years he’s there to serve, "regardless of a person's creed or colour".

His commitment to try and work out the problems of the street led him to one surreal moment recently.

"I was walking down Royal Avenue and a policeman stopped to talk and then these two massive big loyalist lads come over and said, 'Right, big man, any chance of a picture?' And here's a cop taking a picture of me and these lads, and I'm thinking, 'This is straight out of Father Ted'."

He mentions Father Ted a few times and refers to one priest friend by his nickname, which could be straight out of the satirical comedy: 'Galloping Jesus'.

Fr Gary – a Father Ted character based on him might be more all-action priest – he casually mentions a recent time when he was first on the scene of a suspicious package near a takeaway, into which he ran to clear everyone out – only then to find he’d left himself standing near the package.

Fr Gary would be the first to say that he's no hero, though. He broke down crying at a Mary Black concert while on a sabbatical in San Francisco a few years back, the effects of witnessing and dealing with trauma finally catching up with him.

"I watched the film The Hurt Locker and I saw me in [the US army bomb expert who's the central character] because as he was getting closer and closer to the end of his tour, he just kept taking bigger risks," he says. "So my way – which was eventually diagnosed – of dealing with trauma was more trauma."

While he has turned down book offers and a film offer on his Holy Cross experiences, he is aware that his is a compelling story. Yet it might never have been. The Newtownbutler man fought off his religious calling in his mid-teens, shocked at how God could allow his friend Fergal O'Harte die of cancer at age 14. On the other hand, he was inspired by the peace and comfort a priest gave to his aunt when she was seriously ill.

Praying alone at night at his local church, he often questioned his calling before becoming a postulate at the age of 18.

“I kept on going, ‘So is this what the Big Lad wants me to do?’ And I felt ‘No’,” Fr Gary admits, adding that he wanted a wife, together with “the five snottery children, the Audi 80, the bungalow, a box for Ulster [rugby] and to play for Fermanagh." Of the last he says: “That was my big thing.”

Though he never made it to the senior squad, Fr Gary played for his county at minor and schools levels. His father Michael was chairman of Newtownbutler GAC for over 20 years.

These days he is dismissive of some of the younger priests the Catholic Church is ordaining, "all dressed in black with their hands joined together”.

"What good are they if they have to attend a scene where someone has hung themselves? What use are they if they have to go up to administer the last rites to someone who has been shot in the head several times?" he asks passionately.

"I don't get it. We are not ordained to be looked at. We are ordained to serve. You're not meant to be popular – in fact some of the best things I've done in this life have got awful reaction from some people.

“Sometimes you just have to say the really hard things and make the big gestures."