In his half a century in the priesthood, Lissycasey parish priest Fr Joe Hourigan cites his four years in Luton as a seminal time in his life.
Originally from Limerick, Fr Hourigan has been parish priest in Lissycasey since 2000, having moved from Ennis, where he was based in the cathedral for 21 years.
On coming home from England, he served in Ruan and Dysart for four years. However, it’s his time in Bedfordshire, 1968 to 1972, that helped shape his outlook on life.
“In a sense, my growing up was a very kind of sheltered life. The Luton experience was very big for me. I found it a great joy. I was full of energy and I had loads of scope for contact with people. I became my own person there,” Fr Hourigan told The Clare Champion.
He feels that he broadened his horizons in England. “For me, it was a great growth experience and I had a kind of freedom to become myself. The area of life I was working in, I knew that it wasn’t going to be done if I didn’t do it. I got a tremendous welcome, although there was a whole lot of great sadness too,” he reflected.
Fr Hourigan says Irish emigrants in Luton were often grateful to have a priest to talk to.
“I left an Ireland where, in a way, the priest was so strong in society and people often saw you as that authoritarian figure. I went over to Luton and I saw a whole lot of young Irish people who would come to the priest and see him as a kind of rescue man because of their circumstances of the 1960s. Their whole attitude was totally different. I think I know why it was. I suppose the priest figure was familiar to them. Maybe one son went over and he brought his brother or sister. In the end, they brought the older people. The whole family was over there.”
These days, he feels that a priest has to earn the respect of the community he serves. A priest is no longer accorded automatic respect.
“I think that’s true. When I was ordained in the ’60s, there was an automatic respect for the priest. For me, it was a kind of a necessary thing because of the kind of background I was coming from. I’d say now it’s much healthier in that a person has to earn their respect. I’m in the happy position now that, after 50 years, we had a most joyful celebration here last Sunday week,” he smiled.
“People will no longer be told things, which I think is good. They listen and make up their own minds. It’s a good thing if they make up their own minds, once that they are making up their own minds and that it isn’t somebody else who is doing it for them,” the genial parish priest maintained.
Fr Hourigan feels a bit more attached to a rural community and has found that a priest can become somewhat lost in an urban setting.
“I could walk into Ennis now and I could meet a fella who’d say ‘Father, how are ye all up in the cathedral?’ All I’d say is ‘you mustn’t have been up there much in the last 20 years’,” he laughed uproariously.
Speaking in the parochial house in Lissycasey, Fr Hourigan says that he has no issue with lapsed Catholics who don’t go to mass but avail of the church for weddings, funerals, baptisms and related events.
“I personally wouldn’t find that frustrating. In actual fact, I’m delighted that people have a sense of freedom in themselves. I think that the first thing is for people to grow up as human beings. That in itself, to my mind, is a fantastic thing. I do believe, particularly in modern Ireland, parents are worried about if their children are going to mass. But I think it’s wonderful if parents can say that their children have grown up to be good human beings,” he said.
However , Fr Hourigan would prefer if more people were committed to the Church.
“It does sadden me a little bit that an awful lot of people seem to be getting on fine without any God.
“But I believe that, if they really got in touch with that little light inside them, as I call the light of faith, that they’d be much greater. I think, particularly primary education now, is terrific. I wouldn’t like, in any way, to go back to what was there when I was growing up,” he revealed.
“It was very limited living, I think, in my youth. But I would be saddened that people are losing touch, as I would see it, with themselves and with the divine. I really feel that the human being is really at their best when they are in touch with their humanity and divinity. Life itself teaches everyone that they need more than themselves. That it isn’t all about me. Happiness comes about through acceptance of others and acceptance of ourselves. All answers to life are in the Gospel,” he believes.
On a significantly broader note, Fr Hourigan, who received his secondary school education at St Flannan’s College, believes that we have already heard most of what is said today.
“I believe there’s nothing new nowadays. The big thing of the moment is mindfulness. But I would say that was something that I learned very early on as a child. My old college professor, Monsignor PJ Brophy, used to talk about the sacrament of the present moment. The great wise people of the past have said it all. I think they have but a lot of people think they’re discovering new things,” he laughed.
Fr Hourigan really enjoyed his 50th anniversary celebration in Lissycasey. His county flag even fluttered in the afternoon breeze.
“It was the most joyful moment of my life and the two sides of the parish were there. I really appreciated the Limerick flag flying, which is a big thing in a country place,” he smiled.
By Peter O’Connell