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Sunday 21 September 2014

Obituaries: Fr Ambrose O'Gorman

Ireland's oldest priest took great delight in the joys of day-to-day living until the very end, writes Paddy Clancy

Paddy Clancy

Published 22/06/2014 | 02:30

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Father Ambrose O'Gorman with his family at their home in Ballyshannon on the day he said his first Mass, May 25, 1940. Photo: James Connolly/PicSell8
FULL LIFE: Fr Ambrose O'Gorman. Photo: Jason McGarrigle

FR Ambrose O'Gorman, believed to be Ireland's oldest priest – and who survived a frightening plane crash and Hitler's bombs during the London blitz – has died aged 102.

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Right to the end, although living for the last five years in a nursing home, he mingled his dedicated faith with a firm delight in the joys of day-to-day living.

Up to the day before he died, when he had a glass of wine with his niece Alma, he was still talking to people about him.

Up until earlier this year he continued to travel out from the Shannagh nursing home in Belleek, Co Fermanagh, to Mass at churches in nearby Ballyshannon and Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal.

On January 7, 1960, Fr Ambrose had a miraculous escape when he and 58 passengers and crew were aboard a British European Airways flight from Dublin which crashed in dense fog at London's Heathrow Airport.

He was sitting in a new suit from Clery's and was praying over his breviary when there was a loud bang just before the crash. The plane burst into flames, but all passengers and crew managed to get off safely. The fog was so bad that it took rescuers two hours to find them, and then it was only in response to shouts from little groups.

During the Second World War, he survived German bombings while serving in several London parishes during the Blitz and as an assistant chaplain to the RAF. He recalled once cowering under a chair during a bombing raid.

He said: "I hid under a chair with my beads and saying the Rosary. We hardly discussed it among the priests but I do remember saying I was never going to learn German."

Fr Ambrose, who was ordained at 28, was born in Dromore, near Killygordon, Co Donegal, but moved at a few months of age to Kilmacrennan when his father, an RIC officer, was transferred.

When he was 10, the family moved to Ballyshannon and lived next door to Hazel Corscadden and her family. She later became Hazel Blair, mother of former British prime minister Tony Blair. Tony Blair and the priest exchanged letters a few years ago.

Fr Ambrose was the middle of seven children of Michael and Noreen O'Gorman. The boys used to walk three miles each way to school at Creevy, when his mother moved them out of the De La Salle school in Ballyshannon because they were "being battered".

He went to England in 1930 at the age of 18 with 10 shillings in his pocket. He later studied for the priesthood there and was ordained in 1940, going on to serve in several London parishes, in Essex and Wales. He laughingly recalled hearing a confession from a Donegal woman during the Second World War when food was scarce. He noticed a great smell. Suddenly she produced a cooked chicken wrapped in foil and they ate in the confession box.

At one stage he was President of the Donegal Association in London.

He was a skilled footballer in his youth and retained a lifelong link with Ballyshannon's Aodh Rua Club. He was overjoyed to be at Croke Park aged 80 when Donegal won the All-Ireland final in 1992, the year he retired to Ballyshannon, where he continued to assist the clergy. He moved to the nursing home in Belleek only when his sight was failing five years ago.

Sunday Independent

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