Fr Kevin Hegarty
Claire Byrne presents a programme on RTÉ 1 on Monday nights. When the show ends, she leaves the station to drive home after midnight. As a journalist she stays in touch with news programmes throughout the day. On Monday nights she relaxes and listens to music on the radio on her way home.
One night last autumn, she turned off the radio. One of her guests had left such a profound impression on her that she needed to process his contribution.
He was Fr Tony Coote, a Dublin priest, who had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND). During the summer, despite his debilitating and terminal illness, he had organised a national walk to raise funds for the care of Motor Neurone patients and for research into a cure for the disease.
In her introduction to Tony’s work, ‘Live While You Can’, she wrote: “We had a brief chat before the interview, and the first thing I noticed was the joy around him and the sparkle in his eyes and the good humour. Good humour follows this man in spades and his optimism and pragmatism is infectious. It was that optimism and the ‘let’s get on with it’ spirit that stopped me in my tracks. There I was feeling tired after a long day, worried about minor troubles, allowing little to bother me, and I was talking to this person who can no longer walk or lift his hands and whose future is inescapably bleak. Meeting Tony Coote is the kick in the behind that many of us need.”
Before his illness brought him national prominence, Tony had left a positive imprint in his various pastoral appointments. After his ordination in 1991, he worked as a school chaplain in UCD and parish priest of Mount Merrion and Kilmacud. He was noted for his imaginative ideas, his understanding, the brevity of his inspirational sermons and above all his compassion.
Among the initiatives he pioneered were the UCD Volunteers Overseas, where students help out in developing countries during the holidays; the mental health movement Please Talk; and the provision of homes for Syrian refugees in Mount Merrion and Kilmacud.
Francis Stuart, in his novel ‘Redemption’, writes of his priest character Fr Mellowes as having ‘a very great gentleness and those who needed gentleness came to him’. “Many of them did not know why they came to him,” he wrote, “but it was in the first place because of this gentleness that was a rare thing and which they found nowhere else.”
Tony embodied a similar gentleness in his ministry. Born in Dublin in 1964, Tony was one of a family of four boys. Pain and loss shadowed his childhood. A young brother died in infancy, his parents separated acrimoniously and as a result there was financial insecurity. Their struggles informed and shaped his work as a priest.
The Polish novelist Joseph Conrad reckoned there are moments that reveal starkly the depth of our character. For Tony, that time came when he was diagnosed with MND. Rather than languish in self-pity or give way to anger, he embraced his illness positively and resolved to live as fully as he could in the time remaining to him. He organised a walk, in which he participated in a wheelchair, from Letterkenny in Donegal to Ballydehob in Cork, and which netted €700,000 for MND care and research.
He never lost his sense of humour. At the launch of his book last June, in the Church of St Therese, Mount Merrion, attended by 2,000 people, he spoke:
“I’m mortified by tonight, but I am also deeply grateful. Let’s face it, the next time I will be wheeled down the main aisle of a full Church, I will be in a wooden box. Sorry, but you need a good sense of humour to live with an illness like this. And sometimes the humour is very dark. I feel now that I am aboard a very fast train with only one stop. I’m like everyone else, I only know this world and this life. But I see no meaning in this life ending in a grave. When the train stops I will step onto that platform with hope and no fear.”
For Tony, the train stopped on August 28, 2019. May he rest in peace.