Local Faces: Fr Michael Murtagh, Parish Priest of Cherry Orchard

By Maurice Garvey

A CHERRY ORCHARD Parish Priest not included in the ‘underlying conditions’ category, Fr Michael Murtagh was in demand more than usual during the height of the coronavirus restrictions.

Many members of the Church, particularly those over the age of 70, could not engage with the public due to the risks involved with the virus.

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Fr Michael Murtagh, Parish Priest, Cherry Orchard (Image:  Aidan O’Neill) 

This meant priests like Fr Murtagh were needed to provide services in neighbouring parishes, on top of the daily work in his own parish of Cherry Orchard.

However, assessing a situation and formulating a plan is something that Fr Michael is adept at, perhaps indicative of his training as an accountant after leaving school in the late 1980s, before he returned to a calling to God.

“I left school in the 80s and trained as an accountant, but I suppose as a teenager I thought about it in the background.

I started working and studying, but it came back to me again,” said Fr Michael, who is originally from the small village of Newtowncashel in Longford, near Lough Ree.

“In 1989, I gave up my job, a career job with the government, and joined the Redemptorist Congregation in Galway.”

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Fr Michael Murtagh, Parish Priest, Cherry Orchard (Image:  Aidan O’Neill) 

His studies continued in Dublin at Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy and at Kimmage Mission, apprenticeship work in Belfast during the mid ’90s, before he was ordained in December 1997.

Following this, Fr Michael was redeployed to the fabled Clonard Monastery in Belfast, and he would spend many more years up north in different stints, an historic time during the Peace Process era.

He lived with Fr Alec Reid, a priest noted for his facilitator role in the Northern Ireland peace process, and someone who arranged meetings between Gerry Adams and the late John Hume.

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(Image:  Aidan O’Neill) 

“I was privileged to meet John Hume a few times. When the first ceasefire was brokered in 1995, I had just prepared the homilies, when I heard the news of the ceasefire.

I met Fr Reid who was looking out over the peace wall, and I asked him: ‘What do you preach about now?’ He said: ‘Tell people to keep praying.’

After being ordained, Fr Michael went back to Belfast in 1997 for five more years, returning again in 2008 to serve as a rector of Clonard Monastery for a further seven years, so the northern capital has played a major part in his life.

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Fr Michael Murtagh, Parish Priest, Cherry Orchard (Image:  Aidan O’Neill) 

“I still go back if I can, it might be for a wedding of people I knew when they were children. It gives me great joy to see them doing well.

Unfortunately some of them are dead now. I found my time there very interesting and was very glad to be there, but there were sad times and also happy times.”

He can’t help but notice the huge changes in the city over the last 25 years.

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(Image:  Aidan O’Neill) 

“When I was first in Belfast, there was no Titanic Museum, hotels like today – even Victoria Centre was not there, I saw huge development in Belfast.

The church in Clonard was 100 years old. We oversaw a whole renovation project which took a lot of time. It was a trial to raise €3m in a recession, which we did.

The church opened the year before the Titanic (1911), and is still on the go, hopefully for another 100 years.

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Fr Michael Murtagh, Parish Priest, Cherry Orchard (Image:  Aidan O’Neill) 

Every year, the annual Novena is a nine-day programme that is well-known in Clonard.”

Ever since he was redeployed to Cherry Orchard in 2015, Fr Michael has become an integral part of the community – often seen at community meetings, and out enjoying walks and talks with the locals.

“We live in the area, whereas most other services are closed in the evenings or at weekends. We are in the area all the time, granted not 24/7. I walk around the area every day and I will meet someone who will tell me ‘I was waiting for you.’

Covid-19 has caused major difficulties for society as a whole, with Fr Michael acknowledging it has been “very hard for funerals” but vital for people to “express their grief.”

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Fr Michael Murtagh, Parish Priest, Cherry Orchard (Image:  Aidan O’Neill) 

“It is a stressful time for everyone, unfamiliar, but we are trying as best we can. My whole thing is to try and be available to people when they need you, whether that is for a prayer, reflection or a service. That has continued during Covid.

“In this ministry, you have to try and be available for the important moments in people’s lives, sacraments, weddings, baptism. And for people who want to practice their religion and the presence of God in their life, we are here when they want to partake in that.”

Fr Michael, and the parish of Cherry Orchard and the Church, are involved in many programmes that support the community, such as food banks, and support services.

“Sometimes you are like a GP, although I am not a GP, in pointing them towards support. The Church is involved in a lot of drug-rehabilitation programmes and we have done a lot of work with people in that regard.”

North or South, Fr Michael’s commitment to the community remains steadfast, but there always remains a constant in his life. “We try to do our best with what is there, and to keep pointing people towards the big guy upstairs.”

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