Seventy-six years ago Fr Sean Kilcoyne first thought of becoming a priest. He was in secondary school in Castlebar and wondered what it would be like to be a man of the cloth.
Over the years as he picked up a copy of The Irish Catholic or said his prayers, the young man, who was born in Islandeady between Castlebar and Westport, would wonder if he had a vocation.
But as the years passed and he left school his life took a different direction. He spent three years in the army in Dublin in the early 1940s before working in a factory and finally in Eircom’s post office engineering branch. He was based in Galway and it was here he met his wife, Rita Monaghan from Caherlistrane.
When she died in December 1981 after a five year battle with cancer he wondered what he was going to do with his life.
“I was on my own in Renmore - we didn’t have a family - and I started thinking what would I do. I would never be content doing nothing. I knew in two years I would be retiring from Eircom so what then? It was either go and get drunk or....,” he says laughingly.
The “or” held the key to the next chapter in his life and the realisation of a boyhood calling. He began to think again about becoming a priest.
“I prayed for help. I turned to the Blessed Virgin. My problem was that was 25 years ago and late vocations were unusual. I had a very good friend, a Redemptorist priest called Fr Vincent Kavanagh who was based in Limerick, and I called him. He said it was perfectly doable.”
Fr Sean did not tell any of his family, even his brother Fr Colm Kilcoyne who is 12 years his junior, about his plan to become a priest. The first person he confided in after he had made up his mind fully was the late Sr Margaret Mary of the Poor Clare Sisters in Nuns Island.
“She and I were very great. She was very good to us when Rita was sick. I told her the story and she wanted me to go to Bishop Eamon Casey [the then Bishop of Galway to discuss his vocation].”
But he was not ready for that commitment yet and sought out a Franciscan priest called Fr John Bosco, who had previously been based at the Abbey Church in Galway but was now in Athlone. He became Fr Sean’s spiritual adviser.
“He said I could be a candidate for the priesthood. I wasn’t retired at that stage and went to see him every weekend. Then I told my brother, Fr Colm, and he said ‘I think you’ll make it.’ Later I went to see Bishop Casey and he was fine [about it].”
Fr Sean, who celebrated his 90th birthday on August 18, went to Rome to study for the priesthood the month after he retired from Eircom in October 1984. He did not find it difficult, he says. “I would have been studying over the years as part of my job. Nothing grandiose but I’d be keeping in touch with what was going on.” He spent four years in Italy and loved it.
“It was a new adventure, it was great,” he says. After being ordained by Bishop Casey in Galway in June 1988 he was appointed a curate in Mervue. “I enjoyed it there. I knew lots of people’s mothers and fathers.”
He later served in parishes in Claregalway, Kilchreest and Bushypark, worked for four years preparing schoolchildren for Holy Communion and Confirmation before becoming a chaplain at the Bon Secours Hospital in Renmore in 2005. He says people like having a priest around a hospital. “When we get sick we turn to the Hail Mary and ask the priest to say an extra one for us!”
Being a late vocation posed no problems whatsoever for him, he says happily. In fact, having spent most of his life in a different career proved to be tremendously beneficial in terms of being able to relate to parishioners and their difficulties and to have the inside track on what people wanted and expected from a priest.
“I was lucky. I spent most of my life on the other side of the rails so I knew what people would be saying if I went on too long at Mass. I could have said it myself!”
He found working with children, performing wedding ceremonies and offering prayers for people in need the most satisfying aspects of his ministry.
“I worked in cathetics for four years and I liked preparing the children for Holy Communion and Confirmation. They were surrounded by a great air of innocence, it was grand. There was sadness too because out of 50 there might be 30 who were all right but the others had an existance you mightn’t hope for them. I loved marriages too, all the happiness involved. Giving advice and praying for those who asked you was good as well. There is a lot of satisfaction in the whole lot of it.”
Fr Sean, who recently was one of the recipients of a Rehab Galway People of the Year award, says he is glad he chose the path he did on retirement.
“I was never in any doubt about it. Any decision of importance I want to make I think about it, pray about it and then make it.
“You hope you are doing good. I like people, I’m not judgmental, I’m a forgiving person. Over the years I cannot think of anybody I have had hard feelings over and I’ve mixed in all sorts of situations. If you gave me a million pounds I couldn’t think of anybody I’d want to have a dig at.”
He relaxes by reading, watching cowboy films and documentaries (“there is some desperate stuff on television” ), and keeping up with sport. He has a special interest in basketball and Gaelic football because he played both as a young man.
And the secret of his long life? “I don’t know....if you can cultivate a ‘not-worry’ attitude. I do but I’m as conscientitious as anybody and as anxious to do things right. I’ve found in life that lots of things turn out for the good but you wouldn’t see this at the time.”
He has had health issues but refuses to let these hold him back. He has led a full life and enjoyed every minute of it.
“I had a part of my stomach taken away but that doesn’t stop me from eating! I took a pint with the best of them, I went with girls, I was out at all night dances and then I came home and changed my clothes and went to work!”
Older people who may be thinking of joining the priesthood should follow their hearts, he believes. “If the thought enters your mind don’t dismiss it. Pray about it and if it persists find out about it. There is nothing worse than looking back in time and regretting it. I’ve met older people and one of the biggest things that causes unhappiness at the end of life is regret over the things they didn’t do. I believe in taking chances.”