A MARATHON-running cleric has spoken of his surprise at being told he is Ireland's newest bishop.
Most Rev Donal McKeown, who was Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor, was unveiled as the new Bishop of Derry yesterday.
The former Gaelic footballer and hurler, from Randalstown in Co Antrim, is fluent in Irish, Italian, German and Polish and worked for Vatican Radio in the early 1970s.
He has completed two Belfast marathons and, at 63, still runs the event as part of a relay every year. His new diocese covers Derry, Inishowen in Co Donegal and large parts of Tyrone and Antrim.
"It is only six days since my work in Belfast was interrupted by an invitation to go to Dublin to meet the Apostolic Nuncio that afternoon," Bishop McKeown told a congregation that turned out to greet him at St Eugene's Cathedral in Derry City yesterday.
"Archbishop Brown's words still ring in my ears – 'the Holy Father has chosen you to be Bishop of Derry'. They sound so disarmingly simple."
The new bishop replaces Bishop Seamus Hegarty who retired in 2011. He had been heavily criticised for the way he had handled clerical sex abuse allegations in both Derry and Donegal.
Bishop McKeown said he was leaving behind 37 years of contacts and friends for a new diocese he didn't know well, but acknowledged people there had suffered as a result of the church and the conflict in the North.
"I know that many people across the diocese have suffered hard times. The Troubles scarred many lives and we know from the Inquiry into Historical Institutional Abuse that many people have terrible memories of their upbringing," he told a packed cathedral.
He said he used the internet to find out about his new home. "When I Googled the name St Eugene, I saw that his name in Irish was Eoghan. In Irish, my own surname is MacEoghain – and part of Tir Eoghain lies in this diocese, as well as Inis Eoghain," he said.
His appointment was welcomed by Archbishop Eamon Martin, a native of Derry who had been running the diocese until his appointment as Coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh last year. "Bishop Donal is friendly and kind and he has been a great support to me since my ordination as archbishop last April," he said.
"I look forward to working very closely with Bishop Donal in the future. He has experience and understanding of a wide range of issues, especially in education, pastoral renewal, youth ministry and vocations work. He has a love for the Irish language and he's not a bad singer either – that should help him in the 'town I love so well'," he joked.
Cardinal Sean Brady also welcomed the appointment: "I am confident that Bishop McKeown has the gifts and qualities needed to lead the Diocese of Derry.
"As well as being an excellent communicator, his experience in Catholic education, parish ministry and diocesan administration have shown his wonderful ability to lead people by word and example. All of this has prepared him well for this special day."
Bishop McKeown was the first of four children of James McKeown (the local watchmaker) and Rose, a primary school teacher in Randalstown.
He has three siblings – James, Mary and Teresa – and five nephews and nieces. His father died in 1998 at the age of 83 and his mother died in 2008, aged 92.
Both he and his father played Gaelic football and hurling with Creggan Kickhams GAA club.