As part of our Westport focused feature this week, we caught up with Westport Parish Priest Fr Charlie McDonnell
How long have you been parish priest?
I am eleven years in this role; my title is Administrator of St Mary's Parish Westport.
What does your role entail?
I'm a Jack of all trades, in that you are pastoring for people however they want you. It's mostly around the Sacraments of masses, weddings, funerals, baptisms and then you are in people’s lives in other ways inevitably and then there is the whole community side. At the moment it's a lovely pace because Covid has slowed everything down; as bad as the pandemic was, for the first time it meant you were getting to everything you were meant to get to; but now we're getting back into things.
Do visitors make up much of your Congregation?
The biggest interaction would be on Sundays but all year round I would say a reasonable amount of our Congregation is visitors; recently we had people down from Monaghan after the match; last weekend there were people over from Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and then we have other denominations and people coming from all over Europe who decide to have a look.
What do visitors say about their experience of Westport?
I have never heard anybody say anything negative. Westport is kind of a balanced tourist town, it has beauty, a nice pace of life, is cosmopolitan while also being just 20 minutes from Leenane, 40 minutes from Achill, you're on the doorstep of Connemara; it offers a lot; it’s a good base.
How is Westport faring as Ireland emerges from the pandemic?
Westport I think is doing very well; it has bounced back quicker than most places because it is Westport. If you drive to any other town you can see Westport is back. It is unbelievably busy, there are a lot of people about and a lot of visitors; there is nearly a July crowd here already.
What do you think of Castlebar?
Having grown up there, Castlebar will always be the best place to be for me. They might tell you Westport is the best place to live. Traditionally, the two towns may be rivals but I think we complement each other very well. Castlebar is still the main business and administrative centre, with the hospital, council offices and so on; so a lot of people living in Westport are actually working in Castlebar and shopping there. I notice people coming from Tuam to Castlebar rather than going to Galway, because the pace is a lot easier as well as parking; it's amazing how many come over the border.
How has Westport changed over the years?
I think it has become more settled as a town, it's building on itself all the time, like every town, and facilities have improved over the years, but it's also a harder place to find a home in and that’s probably the biggest challenge. In Castlebar, my siblings live a maximum of ten minutes from work to their home; that is much less possible or affordable in Westport. If you’re from a place and that’s your home place and you’d like to stay there, this can be hard. In the 60s, 70s and 80s people were leaving the country and going abroad because they couldn’t afford to live in Ireland due to lack of work opportunities; now you have people internally who just can’t afford to live here; that will certainly help the development of more rural areas, but you do lament for the locals.
Where else would you live if you weren't in Westport?
Genuinely, even with all the ups and downs, I would never ask to leave here; when you’re here, you want to stay here, a lot of the priests would say that, but then that day will come when you have to move and you just adapt to your new parish. The workload in Westport would be different, because here we have Croagh Patrick and the development of the new path; it has been a very exciting time to be involved in that and the challenges with replacing the doors etc of the church on top. We're awful lucky to have Fr Tony King here and all the work he does.
What one thing would you change about the town?
Affordability of houses and the property market here in general. It's very hard especially for a lot of younger couples trying to get on the property ladder. I wouldn't mind some more Mediterranean weather as well.
What do you like most about Westport?
The people. Anywhere I've been it's always been about the people and there is a tremendous sense of support here and care in the community. The lynchpin of Westport's success I think is that, for the most part, people pull together; you see it in business and the hotels but also in our own organisations; nobody is looking just for their own spot, there's no pulling between organisations, which often happens. Westport sees people just getting on together as part of its success.
What are the must-see-and-do things for Westport visitors?
Well, I can't talk about the pubs as I don’t drink, I never drank; but the town itself offers an awful lot. I would say, come to the Church, put plenty of money in the candles! Seriously, just walk around Westport, Westport House and domain is probably the top thing; we are extremely lucky and appreciative and cognisant of its history and grateful to the Brownes and the Hughes who have kept it in the town, kept it open, and are building on what was there; also we have the playgrounds, the leisure centre, cinema, the Greenway - the first in the country - so of course the original and the best, and then Croagh Patrick is a massive attraction and now, thankfully we are restoring the mountain to put it on a much more sustainable footing; so there is no end to what visitors can do in Westport.
You are known and loved for your preaching skills and for saying the words people need to hear in difficult times - are you a natural preacher?
I don’t think about preaching; it's a small part of the role; thank God I genuinely haven’t a clue what I'm saying half the time and I do leave it to the Holy Spirit to inspire me. Genuinely, I always say a prayer beforehand asking - You direct this - and see where it goes. The words could change when you see someone in the congregation or speak to a particular situation or reality in time, such as in Covid. You try to make it relevant to people’s lives and apply it to the gospel for the day. I would know that the gospel this Sunday is for healing, hurt - and I would think around that; but something could happen on Saturday and you would want to change it a little; you need to be sensitive. Then for funerals and things like that it is important to write notes and be prepared, to listen to those who do know the person and let families say what they need. I remember in 1997 my very first homily as a deacon, it was a Saturday evening when I was at home in Castlebar for Christmas; I had stuff written down. I remember there was a couple of families I wanted my words to speak to, but then afterwards, the number of people who came up and said 'you were speaking to me', for me that is the Holy Spirit, speaking through me to so many, and at work in the people themselves.
Do you think life is harder or easier for young people now?
I think it's all relative and each generation and decade brings its own challenges, experiences, joys, hopes and expectations. Previous generations had to worry about having no shoes, living through the war, in the 60s and 70s through poverty and emigration, your father living abroad sending money home but you never saw him; life maybe was simpler but not necessarily easier.
What age would you love to be again and why?
I was 50 two weeks ago and am quite happy to be this age. I suppose you would love to go back to your 20s, but only if I could bring everything with me that I’ve learned so far and not have to go through it again. Life is a learning curve.
What was the best day of your life?
Yesterday was my 24-year anniversary of becoming a priest - but I think the summer of 1990 after my leaving cert were the best days of my life. Before that I was very shy but during that summer I came out of myself and really began to enjoy life.
What is your favourite film?
Anything with Julia Roberts or Clint Eastwood.
What is your favourite music?
Anything from The Waterboys and The Saw Doctors.
What makes you laugh?
It doesn’t take much. A sense of humour is very important; you have to see the funny side of things.
What annoys you most?
People cycling on the footpath is something I really abhor; it's not a big issue in Westport but it's an issue in towns now far from here, that will remain nameless, because it is dangerous! Also, any form of injustice, someone skipping a queue or getting something over on someone else, people being treated unfairly. I am very conscious that we all need to be treated equally no matter who you are or where you come from. For me you have to practice what you preach.
What is your worst habit?
I've no shortage of bad habits; ask the people around me, its the reality!
How do you relax outside work?
Music. I don’t walk enough but I enjoy out the Point and just being by the sea; I used to be a lot better at going to matches than I am now, and sometimes I like to escape to Galway.
Who would be your three ideal dinner party guests?
Bernie Gill from Horkan's Hill, because she's great craic and would keep you going and give out to you. I love people who give out to you in a way you know they are on your side, it's not vindictive; you can sit back and have the craic where you don’t have to do too much talking. I would also love to meet the Pope. I really would; and who then would I throw into the mix? You’d nearly say Michael D - no, say Tom Navin - and you couldn’t leave Mary out either.
What's your favourite saying or motto?
It’s all good; it's all a bit of craic.
Who will win this year’s all Ireland?
I think we’ll wait and see; I could not guess; I would only be speculating.
As a priest, what would your main message be to people?
I think, be yourself; we live in a very conflicted and conflicting world at the moment; in both Church and society we are becoming more polarised. So I would say, let people be themselves, hold their own fears and beliefs and encourage them as gently as you can out of their fears; have respect for where somebody else is at; we listen to react rather than to hear; just listen so you can understand; why add to the angst, to the conflict; Covid has had an awful effect on people, wherever you stand on it, people hold very sincerely held views, yet they are mocked for that, victimised nearly. I think the reality is, protect, look after and respect each other and allow people to be true to themselves, because we need to be getting on with it; the economy needs to get on with it; it is difficult and people have genuinely held fears, but they are also getting on, doing their best and living day to day; so I say, Carpe diem - seize the day - and live and let live.