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Fr Michael O'Grady at the pier in Kildysart. Photograph by John Kelly

Kildysart’s Fr Michael enjoys transatlantic life

WHEN he left Ireland for Arizona in August 1958, the then 24-year-old Fr Michael O’Grady thought it would be at least 1965 before he would set foot in Kildysart again.
He was one of four newly minted priests who sailed the Atlantic, having spent six years at the seminary in Carlow. One of the four was Fr Tom O’Dea from Newmarket, who is now based in Ballynacally.
“All four us set off for Arizona from Cobh. The bishop wouldn’t let us fly. He wouldn’t pay for us, probably and then he made us go by train from New York to Tucson. I’d say we were two days on the train. We had been seven days on the boat,” Fr Michael recalled in his house in The Square, Kildysart last week.
A Harty Cup winner with St Flannan’s College in 1952, Fr Michael also played minor football (three years) and hurling for Clare.
His GAA skills didn’t desert Fr Michael entirely in the US. In fact, he seemed to mix baseball with hurling once or twice.
“They couldn’t figure out how I could pick up the ball with a baseball bat. Just before I came home, I met somebody at a funeral. He said ‘I was in sixth grade when you were in St Theresa’s. The only thing I can remember about you is that you could kick the football over the school.’ He didn’t remember anything else,” Fr Michael laughed uproariously.
Save a brief stint playing football in New York in 1969, leaving Ireland signalled the end of his competitive sporting career. However, a bit of inventive thinking aided him in coming home for a month’s holiday in 1960.
“The first year we went out the word we heard was ‘you can’t go home for seven years’. Guys hadn’t been allowed home for their parents funerals. It was crazy. O’Dea and I were the first two to come home after two years. The parish priest asked me ‘where are you going on your vacation?’ I said, ‘I’m going east’. I didn’t say how far east and he was smart enough not to ask,” the 81-year-old, now retired priest, laughed.
Fr Michael had three sisters and three brothers. Sadly his brother, Dan, drowned in 1947, aged just 17.
“He drowned down at the pier here in Kildysart. I was there with him. We hadn’t a clue about swimming. We were dog paddling and calling it swimming. I never really knew what happened. Did he get a heart attack or did he get cramps? In those days, children were kind of pushed aside. It was a different time,” he recounted sadly.
The tragedy had a devastating effect on Michael’s mother, Elizabeth and his father, Michael.
“My mum shrivelled. We lived down the Quay Road. We were all born down there. When I took off, the family got scattered. Rose is in Limerick and is the only one left along with myself.”
Since retiring in 2005, Fr Michael generally lives in Phoenix from October until May and in Kildysart for the rest of the year.
His first post in Arizona was in Phoenix, where one of Fr Michael’s jobs was to work with what was called the convert class in his new parish. He met with the parish priest, who detailed what was expected of the new recruit.
“When I was going out the door, he said, ‘incidentally you have the convert class too’. I said, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’ve hardly ever met a Protestant in my life. There was only one in Kildysart, a Mrs Kelly and she became a Catholic the year I was ordained.’ He said, ‘you’ll get the hang of it’.”
Fr Michael sought a bit of advice from some of the 49 Irish priests in the State.
“One guy said ‘you could start by proving the existence of God’. I went in anyway. I always joke that by the time the class was over, I didn’t believe in the existence of God myself! They all came back the following week. It was marvellous,” he smiled.
After six years in Phoenix, Fr Michael moved on. What followed was an experience he remembers vividly.
“I was transferred to, Morelci, a little Spanish-speaking mining town. It was the biggest open pit mine, I think, in the world. It was about 230 miles east of Phoenix. Fr O’Dea drove me. It was all hills. There were no streets. You’d say you lived on A or B hill. You parked down below and you walked up most of the time. O’Dea said to me, ‘what in the heck did you do to get sent up here? Don’t worry, we’ll send you care packages’.”
The town was owned and administered by Phelps Dodge, a mining company.
“The population was about 5,000 people. There was only one store and the company owned the store. They had their own police and their own sheriff. They paid very good wages. They even owned the church,” he revealed.
He later served in Scottsdale (twice) and in Mesa, a Mormon town where he was made pastor or parish priest. Stints in Tempe and Scottsdale again were followed by Fr Michael’s appointment as rector of the Cathedral in Phoenix in 1990. He filled that role until 2005, when he retired.
“I think I loved every parish I was in. I was thinking of that the other day. I wouldn’t change a thing,” he reflected. He bought his own house near the cathedral in Phoenix and also owns a house in Kildysart.
On his visits to Clare, he says mass in Cranny, Coolmeen and Kildysart, assisting Kildysart parish priest Fr Albert McDonnell.
While a huge admirer of the Church’s work in Kildysart, Fr Michael can’t but notice that the Church in this country is still experiencing a disconnect between it and younger people.
“I see a huge fall-out here among the young people. It’s almost like a non-issue. I find it very sad really but I have no solution to it. In America, it’s not like that. The priests are still very well treated where we are. I never see anybody with a collar here. Very seldom,” he said.
However, he admires the spirit evident in communities like Kildysart.
“I love being with the people. The culture and the sense of community is inspiring. I’m sure people are still spiritual in their own way. It’s just a new way. Fr O’Dea is very strong on that,” he said.
Fr Michael has also noticed that people in Ireland seem to judge a priest by the speed of his mass.
“There is more participation in the mass over in the US. I was talking to my brother, Tom, one day and I said ‘was the mass ok today?’ He said, ‘it was grand. They all loved it.’ Then after a while he said, ‘Donnellan said you could tighten it up a little bit’. I love that expression.”
He senses that people these days are more questioning about what they hear delivered from the altar.
“When we went to mass, we didn’t know what it was all about. We just knew something holy was going on and the faster he did it, the better. But we had no sense of a connection between that and the rest of the week. Our parents never questioned anything but people went to school and began to ask questions. If Pope Francis’ thinking filters down, we’ll be ok. He doesn’t use any language we don’t understand.”
After 57 years service to the Church, would he go the same route if he had the choice in 2015?
“Then I had no doubts. Would I do it again? It’s hard to say but I loved it so much, that I would. It’s not more difficult in the States but here, it would be difficult,” he senses.

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