From bottling Guinness to dining with the Pope

Fr Aidan McGrath meets Pope Bendedict XVI
Fr Aidan McGrath meets Pope Bendedict XVI

HAVING been raised in a house with two parents, five brothers, one sister, a grandmother and an aunt, Aidan McGrath was never going to be the typical priest living alone in a parochial house.

“I was looking for religious life, I’d grown up in a large family,” he said. “I’ve never lived with any less than nine, we always had a full house so the idea of living on my own? No, thank you very much.

“The idea of diocesan priesthood, basically you end up living on your own.”

The Newry Street native wrote to a Franciscan Order at the tender age of 16 and, almost 40 years to the date on which he left his hometown for religious life, he finds himself back in his brother’s pub recalling the wonderful experiences his choice of vocation has given him.

Looking out the window of McGrath’s pub – run by his brother Tom - on a rainy afternoon in Rathfriland Street the 58-year-old tells me he is relieved to have escaped the searing temperatures of summertime in Rome, where he has been based for the past three years.

On being appointed the Secretary General of the Order of Friars Minor in 2009, Fr Aidan moved from a 25-year role he held at the Regional Marriage Tribunal in Dublin.

The son of well-known Banbridge publicans Mickey and Kitty McGrath, Fr Aidan was ordained in 1980 at the old St Theresa’s Church on the Scarva Road after moving to Killarney and studying in Galway and Rome.

As with most in religious life, Fr Aidan took paths that were chosen for him rather than because of any great personal interest.

“I didn’t even know what canon law was,” he laughed, speaking of an area he now specialises in and even provides annual lectures on at a University in Rome.

When I point out that he clearly must have been identified as having a certain ability to study such a complex area, he is modest, suggesting some people may be bored by it but he finds it fascinating.

During his years working with the marriage tribunal – a body which investigates marriages people suspect are invalid in the eyes of the church for various reasons including physical or mental incapacity or a blood relationship neither the husband or wife were aware of – he said his studies have been brought to life by dealing with people.

“People could come to the tribunal wanting their marriage to be declared invalid to allow them to marry again,” he explained. “Or a brother and sister who didn’t know they were related, something which is extremely rare but becoming a higher danger now that people are having multiple partners and so on so some people don’t know who they’re related to.

“It can be quite a negative job, but you go through that journey with people and you are glad to help people come to terms with a situation or give them the chance to marry again. Real life isn’t always about happy endings. For 25 years I did it and I enjoyed it immensely.”

Not only has his choice of vocation allowed him to meet many different people – he dined with John Paul II during one of several meetings he had with the late Pontiff, and has met Pope Benedict twice – it has also given him the opportunity to travel the world, experiencing different cultures along the way.

As well as visiting places as far flung as Australia, New Zealand, India and Kenya, Fr Aidan recalled some of the most outstanding experiences travel has given him.

He said, “I first visited Zimbabwe in 1994 and have been there every three years thereafter until my last visit in 2007 – it was a mind-blowing experience.”

With 5am masses lasting two-and-a-half hours at a time and the congregation often walking 15 miles to get there, the culture was a world away from what the local man was used to.

And a day trip to South Africa just months ahead of the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994 was another eye-opening experience.

“Myself and a friend had gone off for the day to have lunch and take a walk on the beach when suddenly, as we were heading back around 2pm I thought ‘Something strange is going on here’.

“The shutters on the shops had come down and in a very short time the place was deserted.

“I said ‘This would remind me of Belfast or Newry in the 1970s’. When we walked around the corner of the street, we met almost the entire Zulu nation on the march, up to about 8,000 people. They were going for a meeting that day with President De Klerk. We were the only two white faces on the street.

“We ended up having to walk three miles back in the blazing heat as all the buses were off. We hadn’t been in any danger, but it was a good reminder that this wasn’t home.”

Fr Aidan’s memories of home were further stirred by a person he met in Zimbabwe some years ago who asked ‘When are you people in Northern Ireland going to learn to live in peace like we are living here?’

“They went through an awful civil war,” he explained. “But were living in relative peace at that stage.”

While the Banbridge man left Northern Ireland just as the Troubles were really taking hold, he was not lucky enough to escape all of their terror.

As a teen he remembers watching television in the kitchen of the family’s Newry Street home in January 1972 when an almighty explosion erupted.

“The biggest thing I remember is that – and I’ve often heard it said since - when you’re so close to a bomb going off you don’t hear it – you feel it,” he said.

“It was the most awful experience, it really was like your head was bursting open. And after the explosion all you can hear is falling glass.”

With his younger siblings in bed, he expressed his relief that the blackout blinds on the windows, which normally had the simple function of keeping the glare of the streetlights out, had served an altogether more serious purpose.

“The blinds were in shreds because the glass had come in the windows. Otherwise it would have come in on my brothers and sister. It was very fortunate that on that occasion no-one was killed.”

While the events of that evening are distressing to recall, Fr Aidan has many more happy memories of his childhood in the town, where his family lived, worked and played together.

“We worked in the bar since we were old enough to lift bottles,” he said. “In those days we bottled our own Guinness. Everyone had their own job, Monday was bottling day so you’d come home from school and help with the bottling.”

And so began the time-consuming process of washing and drying bottles, filling and corking them before laying them on their sides until they were ready to be served.

The home he speaks of was a happy and boisterous one, where you always had company and were never without a job to do.

It is this work ethic that seems to remain today, as Fr Aidan continues his dedication to the order he joined all those years ago - holding daily prayer at 6.30am - while also carrying out his day job in Rome.

A typical day will see him deal with a range of administrative matters, but on occasion worldwide events can take over.

“When the earthquake hit in Haiti three of the houses we had there were destroyed, including a local clinic service we offered,” he said.

“All you can do is pass on the news, I can’t solve it but you pass it on to the offices concerned.”

Last year’s uprising in Libya also concerned Fr Aidan, who told me one of the members they have based there, an Egyptian man, was beaten up in the street as Colonel Gaddafi’s forces continued to fight protestors during the rebellion.

The situation in Syria is one Fr Aidan said the order is currently “watching”, with two of their churches having become places of refuge for women and children there in recent months as the situation deteriorates.

While he has been based in Rome for the past three years, Fr Aidan has not been immune to the news of church scandals and the level of abuse uncovered in Ireland in recent reports.

He described the church’s handling of the widespread abuse as a “catastrophic failure”, as well as expressing his concern for what he sees as a wider problem in society.

“We’re all the time skirting around this huge problem that’s there,” he said. “The church’s guilt and failure to deal with it, that’s one aspect. The other aspect is the huge problem that is still there in society, which is not spoken about - in families, with neighbours, with other adults in positions of trust. It’s huge and it’s not getting the coverage. I hope the situation with the church has at least prepared people to deal with it.”

Looking to the future Fr Aidan is more than content with his life in Rome for now, with a culture of siestas in the early afternoon and the odd glass of wine with a meal, but is always glad to get back home to Banbridge - and away from that searing Italian heat of course.