Fr Gary Donegan: My Fitbit makes me feel like a prisoner with an ankle bracelet but it works

Gail Bell asks experts and people in the public eye what keeps them going. This week: Fr Gary Donegan, Passionist priest, formerly of Holy Cross in Ardoyne and now based at Tobar Mhuire retreat, Crossgar

Fr Gary Donegan – chocolate is my guilty pleasure and I also love strange ice-cream flavours. Picture by Hugh Russell
Gail Bell

1 Up and at it – what is your morning routine?

I get up at 7am and then it's time for a shower, meditation and Mass. I try to beat the early morning commute from Crossgar (Tober Mhuire retreat) to Crumlin Road (Holy Cross Parish) but it's a nightmare... I find the traffic very frustrating – it's only a 15-mile journey, but it can take hours!

2 What might you eat in a typical working day for...

Breakfast? For breakfast, I'll maybe have a slice of wheaten bread with extra strong coffee. I've always been addicted to good, strong coffee, ever since my student days when I needed it to stay awake.

Lunch? Lunch is usually chicken or a meat dish in 'R City Coffee' shop at the Houben Centre in Ardoyne. It's a fanastic place.

Evening meal? My evening meal will probably be just a sandwich – I'll fire a tin of tuna between two heels of bread and that will do nicely. I like to have my main meal of the day at lunchtime at the Houben.

3 Is nutrition important to you?

Yes, as a diabetic, I have to try to curtail sugar and fats (I will say that, just in case my doctor is reading this...)

4 Best meal ever?

Ah... that's a three-way tie – Florentine steak in Florence; The Palm, Washington DC – famous for being in the TV drama The West Wing; and the MacNean Bistro, Blacklion, Co Cavan. My friend Nevin Maguire is chef at the MacNean and, honestly, eating there is not just about having a meal, it's more of an event. It should be on everyone's bucket list at least once. I discovered The Palm when my friend – a Presbyterian minister – and I took a road trip to Washington about three years ago and the doorman at our hotel told us about it.

5 Do you have a guilty pleasure?

I love chocolate and I also love the strange ice-cream flavours you get in Murphy's ice-cream parlour in Dublin. The include Xmas pudding ice-cream, sea salt and brown bread which are my particular favourites.

6 Have you ever been on a diet? If so, how did it go?

I have never been on a diet.

7 Do you take health supplements?

Rarely – sometimes, I'll take vitamin C.

8 How do you relax?

Sport, cinema and reading all help me relax. The last book I read was on Billy Connolly as one of our Passionist priests, Fr Frank Keevins, used to play in a folk band with him. I love thrillers when it comes to film, although one of the best films I have seen was the recent release Stan and Ollie. I thought the acting was superb.

9 Teetotal or tipple?


10. Stairs or lift?

Since getting a Fitbit, I've been converted to the stairs. I used to take the lift for speed but now it's always the stairs.

11 Do you have a daily exercise regime?

I like to get in my 10K of steps each day, due to the pressure of my new Fitbit. It's a bit of a blessing and a curse, though, as, invariably some sickener will ring up to say they have done 12,000 steps or something before I've even got out of bed. Honestly, though, it's probably one of the best Christmas presents I've ever been given. I love to walk more now, especially along the trails at Tober Mhuire or along a nice beach.

12 Best tip for everyday fitness?

Get a Fitbit as a present – you feel like a prisoner with an ankle bracelet but it works.

13 On a scale of one to 10, how fit do you think you are and how fit would you like to be?

I think I'm around a five but I would like to be a nine.

14 Have you tried, or would you try, alternative therapy?

I have tried it and, no, I wouldn't try it again. The last time was when I had acupuncture and I went home with a needle still stuck in my shoulder. I found it when I was about to go into the shower.

15 Were school sports happy times or do you have a memory you would rather forget?

I was a school javelin champion during my last year of school at St Eugene's College, Roslea, so you could say school sports were happy times for me. I was less happy at finishing second to fellow student and runner Michael Crudden in the 1,500m, having already beaten 'Pat the Rat' and 'Moses'.

16 Did you ever have a health epiphany which made you change your lifestyle?

Diabetes is a life-changing condition which requires me to have one major injection in the morning and then others before meals. Each day there will be minimum of four injections as well as medication but when you meet really sick people in hospital, it puts my condition into perspective. Diabetes can be a massive inconvenience at times, but you can manage it and just get on with life.

17 Best health/lifestyle advice you were ever given and would pass on to others?

The late Pat King, GAA legend, who said, 'Never hang up the boots'.

18 Who inspires you or who would you try to emulate in terms of fitness/attitude to life?

I admire Fermanagh Gaelic footballer Ryan McCluskey for his fitness, and also my heroic brother, Mark, for the way he copes with his MS.

19 What time do you normally get to bed and do you get enough sleep?

I will normally get to be at midnight or just after. My average nightly sleep will be 4.5 hours – according to Fitbit. It seems to work for me.

20 Would you say you have a healthy attitude towards your own mortality?

Yes, I think I do. I sat at the bedside of a young man in a hospice in Leeds as he died and I lost the fear of death because I felt God's tangible presence.

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