CANON Michael McLaughlin will reach a remarkable milestone on June 11, when he celebrates the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.
Unlike 10 years ago, when large numbers attended the special mass and celebrations in Kilmaley to mark the golden jubilee of his ordination in Carlow Cathedral in 1960, things will be more subdued this time round.
The Covid-19 restrictions mean that the members of community will be unable to organise a mass to mark the big occasion for the now retired Kilmaley parish priest, less still a big party, but they are always with him in spirit.
The 84-year-old Miltown Malbay native, who is now visually impaired, has great memories of all the parishes he’s been in.
“I hated leaving the first parish I was assigned to; I would have stayed there forever if I could. But you learn to move along, you’ve no choice, and you learn and gain different experiences wherever you go. I benefited from the changes. You find out that different things you thought you could not do become possible.
“After getting to know a place, I loved it and its people, and I hated leaving. It was the same every time for me. I found contentment and happiness everywhere I been,” he says.
In much the same way that nowadays footballers get free transfers, during his earlier years as a priest, Fr Michael was “sent on loan” to several diocese across the country. This was because the Diocese of Killaloe had a surplus of priests due to the number of vocations in the 1950s and ‘60s.
He was born on August 2, 1936, the oldest of three sons, to Tom and Rose McLaughlin (nee Doherty). His father was a guard, who hailed from Moville in County Donegal, as was his mother.
“There was a lot of tension after the State was founded and men from the border counties who joined the guards were usually sent well away from home. That’s how my parents ended up in Miltown,” he outlined.
Explaining how they met, he continues, “They knew each other growing up but my mother was in America for 10 years. She was home on holidays in Moville when my dad was holidays from Miltown as well. They married and set up home in Miltown. My father already knew the place through his job, but it was very tough for my mother. She had a half Donegal / American accent and did not know anybody at first. People were good to her and helped her settle in, and she grew to love the place.”
Fr Michael recalls with great appreciation how locals rallied to support their family when tragedy struck. His younger brothers, Nicholas and Thomas were twins, but the latter died when he was just a year old.
“I was three or four-years-old at the time, but I still have vivid memories about Thomas’ death. We didn’t know the cause; he had been sick for a while. My mother was really upset and sad and I remember people coming to the house to comfort her. They bought me sweets to try to distract me. For years afterwards, it used to take me a long time to convince people that I could remember all the details; being told your baby brother “is with the angels”. That kind of thing stays with you; even to this very day,” he says.
Fr Michael often said this memory is something he has drawn on when dealing with grieving families. Compassion and empathy have been an important part of his approach to helping people in difficult situations.
Fr Michael has fond memories of childhood holidays in Donegal, except for the travel.
“It was a very long journey; it took us two days. We took the West Clare Railway to Ennis and then changed trains to go on to Athenry and Sligo. We stayed there overnight and took the bus to Moville. I always got sick on the bus.
“Once we got there, I had a great time with all the relations. My mother’s family had a pub. They had a barroom for VIPs and an ordinary place for the other customers. I used to love listening to the auld lads telling stories. They’d be chewing tobacco and spitting into the fire; seeing who could spit the farthest. I tried the spitting but wasn’t much good,” he recalls.
The carefree teenager might never have been a priest, however. His initial thoughts were to join the guards and follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I was too young and too small at the time, and that was it,” he muses.
But living next door to St Joseph’s church helped steer him towards serving the community in another way. He was an altar boy from an early age, so the Church was always a factor in his life.
Michael enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Miltown, where he attended national school. He played football and learned to swim at nearby Spanish Point. Later he was a lifeguard at the White Strand.
He and many others from the area travelled on the West Clare Railway to attend secondary school at Ennistymon CBS. He subsequently became a boarder at St Flannan’s College in Ennis. It was at a time when students were only allowed outside the college precinct for holiday.
Holidays brought a great sense of freedom back home and much of his time was spent playing football and he later trained St Joseph teams.
While in St Flannan’s, Michael developed a strong calling to the priesthood and after sitting his Leaving Certificate, he entered the seminary in Carlow.
“A lot of lads from Killaloe studied there instead of Maynooth – Archbishop Michael Fogarty established some connection,” he said.
Following his ordination, Fr Michael celebrated his first mass in a packed church in Miltown Malbay on June 12, 1960. While the Second Vatican Council unfolded during his early ministry, he said that apart from the celebrant facing the congregation and Latin being replaced by the vernacular in the mass, the role of the priest in the community changed little. He was there to lead and serve the many facets of parish life.
Fr Michael’s first assignment was very short – two weeks in Nenagh filling in for a priest who was on holidays – but he was then loaned to the busier Diocese of Galway. He recalls a motorbike was his mode of transport.
It was then on to Liscannor, which is also in the Galway diocese, and he showed his diverse interests in being involved in schools’ administrations, sport and drama.
“I was in London for a few years on a supply basis to help if priests were unavailable or on holidays. This was fairly common then,” he explains.
Returning to Ireland in 1964, Fr Michael was assigned to Cloghan and Banagher in Offlay, and the following year saw him off to yet another diocese – Clonfert – when he was appointed curate in Loughrea.
He was recalled to the Diocese of Killaloe in 1969 as a curate in Bournea, near Roscrea. Fr Michael saw it as a bonus being within striking distance of Semple Stadium in Thurles, the venue for all the big hurling matches.
This was also the case in respect of the Silvermines, when he arrived in 1973. His legacy there includes a development association, Tidy Towns group and youth club.
“When I was there, I encountered several deaths associated with the mines and that was difficult to come to terms with. I had to be there to console and support the families caught up in these tragedies,” he says with sadness.
On a happier note, Fr Michael recalls an encounter with a Limerick man in Lourdes years after leaving the Silvermines.
“He came up and asked if I was Fr McLaughlin who celebrated mass on the Sunday evenings after games in Thurles. When I said say, he replied “I thought you were dead”. I said, “No, thank God.” Several years on I’m still here to tell you this story. I think he had been put up to it for a bet,” he maintains.
In 1979, Fr Michael arrived on very familiar territory in Ennis to fulfil several duties. He was appointed chaplain in Cahercalla Nursing Home, a role he has described as “very rewarding”, and spiritual director at St Flannan’s College. In addition, he was director of vocations for the Diocese of Killaloe.
Fr Michael was appointed parish priest in Kilmaley in 1993 and, as in all his previous postings, continued to work with great energy with local schools, social and sporting organisations, as well as dealing directly with the elderly and vulnerable families.
“We’ve a great community in Kilmaley, Inch and Connolly. When I was working alone in the parish for many years, they were very tolerant and understanding when I couldn’t get around to do everything.
“The community has taken up a lot of challenges, one of the big ones being the day care centre. It’s a model facility and I go there myself. It’s closed due to the Covid-19 situation but it’s still putting out 50 or 60 meals a day to the people who usually go there, including myself,” he says
Apart from his sight loss, which has left him unable to read or write, Fr Michael says he is enjoying good health.
“I might’s be able to go anywhere, coronavirus or not, but I can still concelebrate mass and the other sacrament with Fr Martin Blake and that’s very important,” he concludes.