Vet who saved legendary racehorse Galileo answers call to serve the poorest of people
When Tony Morris of the Racing Post wrote of Galileo in 2013, he described the legendary stallion as "truly a phenomenon, a ruler of the world himself and universally acknowledged as the best sire on the planet". As tributes go, it was appropriate given Galileo's champion sire status in every year bar one between 2008 and 2013, and without exception in every year since.
But it's a record that might never have come to pass were it not for what Niall O'Riordan and many others believe to have been divine intervention in 2008 in the life of Coolmore Stud's most-storied resident.
For Galileo, and for the many within the racing industry whose livelihoods depend on his survival and success, it was fortunate O'Riordan was two years away from pursuing his vocation to be a priest. So when the ruler of the equine world fell gravely ill, the Thurles native was still a vet and on hand to treat him under the direction of John Halley and the late Doug Byers, acknowledged as the 'godfather of equine medicine'.
With Galileo needing two surgeries within 48 hours, it was no surprise his wound became infected. It was O'Riordan's job to nurse the horse to health. Despite his experience with thousands of racehorses, Galileo's temperature continued to spike.
It was then O'Riordan placed his faith and the fate of Galileo in the hands of God.
"I had been up all night with him. I went to mass at eight o'clock in the morning in Fethard. After mass, I went to the sacristy to Fr Tom Breen and said: 'Fr Tom, Galileo is sick. Is there any chance you would come and bless him?'"
Recalling the priest's arrival at Coolmore, he says: "There was the best surgeon from England there and Doug Byers. They were watching this Catholic priest come in and bless the horse. They probably thought I was crazy. But that evening, Galileo didn't spike a temperature again. Many people want to credit me with saving Galileo, but I'm convinced it was the priest who blessed Galileo. I know God played a part in it. It was an intervention."
O'Riordan could have traded for years as a vet on the role he played in saving Galileo. But he didn't. Rather, he chose to answer the calling he first had at the age of 17 to become a priest following a trip to the Holy Land.
"I really felt such a presence of God, and was introduced there to some of the Sisters from the Family of Mary. Then I met the founder of the community, Fr Paul. Through that, I fell in love with the community, and years later, decided to go to Rome. But it was big fight to take this step."
A decision to follow his father and brother into veterinary medicine saw him take up a place in UCD in 1998. But while he pursued his studies, he also began to pray more. In 2003, and within weeks of graduating, O'Riordan met Fr Paul again, who this time, asked him to come to Rome to consider a vocation. It would be a further seven years before O'Riordan pursued the offer.
Asked how it felt to give up on his career as a vet, he said: "There are enough vets in the world. I said it to my father. I was a vet, but what could I do as a vet? I could treat an animal. For me, what is that to compare to a priest who can bring heaven on earth?"
Within 24 hours of arriving in Rome in 2010, O'Riordan's CV as a vet had been consigned to history and he was cleaning floors and toilets and taking the first tentative steps into his novitiate with the Family of Mary.
He said: "It was a big change. When I was a vet, I was used to driving into a yard and having people stop what they were doing to come and help me. Now I had to learn to become the servant. Not that those who helped me as a vet were my servants. But I had to learn to serve. That's what a priest is. He's a servant of God and he serves the people."
Last December, O'Riordan was ordained as a priest with the Family of Mary in a ceremony at the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. While Fr Niall Maria, as he is now known, returned home briefly to visit family and friends, and said mass at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Thurles last month, he already knew his mission would be taking him to Uzovska Panica in Slovakia, to tend to a community of Roma gypsies.
Fr Niall describes it as a world of abject poverty, but the Roma can rely on the care and support of the Family of Mary through its Caritas programme, which regularly distributes food and clothing.
To make a donation to the work of the Family of Mary, go to http://www.de-vrouwe.info/en