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Embracing new life on the island

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DUTY CALLS  Fr Gerard Quirke is pictured with Fr Charlie McDonnell last year performing the ritual of the ‘The Service of Light’ which happens on Holy Saturday night at the Easter Vigil. Fr Quirke will be performing the Easter ceremonies in his new parish of Achill this Easter. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Fr Gerard Quirke on being transferred to Achill during the global Covid battle

Achill
Anton McNulty

Moving to a new parish can be a daunting experience for any priest, but moving in the middle of a pandemic when social distancing is recommended brings a whole other set of challenges.
Fr Gerard Quirke, one of the Archdiocese of Tuam’s youngest priests, was transferred to Achill in the middle of December, and he admits it was a jolt.
“It is wild and rough. I have never been to Achill before I was sent here. It was literally a baptism of fire. I had no sense of the geography or the size of the place or the weather or anything like that. Being a townie from Tuam it certainly was a big change, but it is one I have come to get used to.”
A keen cyclist, Fr Quirke was involved in a serious bike accident in the summer and his scheduled arrival in September was delayed to allow him to recuperate.
Just two weeks after his arrival, the country went back into Level 5 lockdown. With no opportunity to meet his new parishioners, Fr Quirke has had to adapt in order to reach out to the community.
In January, he started broadcasting Mass from both Bunnacurry and Dookinella Churches on Facebook, and for Ash Wednesday he placed packs with ashes and in shops for the people to collect. He did something similar with palms on Palm Sunday.

Regulations ‘frustrating’
Fr Quirke says that while Masses on Facebook are well received – not just by people in the parish but by people living away from home – they do not make up for meeting people in the flesh.
“It is difficult not being able to do the things I want to do. I have adapted to the situation and reached out in different ways, but you can never be able to replace not being able to sit with someone.
“The reason I was sent to Achill is to be here for the people and not for my own interests or comfort. It is difficult not being able to do that [be there for people] in the truest sense.
“The frustrating part is they know me but I don’t know them! They see me on Facebook and they see all that, but I have no inclination of who they are. There are some wonderful people who do help me, and I get a sense of the close community here on the island. The people I have dealt with have been fantastic so far, and I cannot wait to meet with the whole community.”
Under the current restrictions, congregations cannot attend Mass, except funeral Masses, were numbers are confined to ten.
Fr Quirke believes that churches should be opened up for Mass. “It is extremely frustrating, because when one looks at supermarkets and they are open and no restrictions on people being allowed in. Yet our churches are the largest buildings in the parish and people are not allowed in … If you go to a supermarket you can have 30 or 40 people doing their shopping. It is very frustrating that the Government doesn’t recognise salvation as an essential part of life.”

Safe places
Since arriving in Achill, Fr Quirke says he has been reading the book, ‘My Father’s Wake’ by Kevin Toolis to understand and learn of the various traditions surrounding funerals on the island. He says the practices are unique, and that forbidding people from celebrating their dead as they have done for generations is unnatural.
“Achill people do funerals like no other community in the world. It is in the DNA of the people of Achill to celebrate and honour a person’s life. I know people have adapted and have put up with the way funerals are dealt with these days, but it is not natural.
“We need to get back to what we do best and have these traditions kept. They are not just superstition they are a way of bringing people to the realisation that someone has passed and the community are there for them in their grief.”
For the second year in a row, Ireland’s churches will celebrate Easter behind closed doors. Fr Quirke hopes congregations will be back in churches for the summer.
“It will be strange being faced with a full church again. It will be like my first days as a priest all over again.
“I think people will start returning, but it will take time. I would encourage people not to be afraid to come back. When we were open before Christmas, the sanitisation was done to the best [standard], so churches are some of the safest places you can be. I would say to people don’t be afraid to come back.”