Farewell Fr Willie
Founder of Ardee Credit Union, a top class golfer, cycling enthusiast and a man of the people all his life. Hubert Murphy reflects on the death of Fr William Murtagh
There have been true leaders of the Church and the community in this region down the years, those that have inspired change by deeds and action, by words and example.
But surely, when the annals are written, Fr William Murtagh will shine brightest of all.
When word broke last week that Fr Willie was no longer with us, a melancholy sense of acceptance seemed to flow over the area, from the Credit Union office in Ardee, to the top of Francis Street in Dundalk and out around the pier and the rocky shoreline of Clogherhead, a village and place he held so dearly in his warm and tender heart.
Fr William reached his 99th year and when I met him amongst friends at the Ferrard Day Care Centre in Clogherhead last year, he mentioned the '100th' and the thrill that would be.
Such an alert character, despite his age, you would have placed big money on him making the milestone.
Sadly, his calling came last week, and for that, the area is a sadder place. It would have been some party!
Fr Willie was the son of Mick and Mary Jane Murtagh and the family ran a well known grocery and licensed business at the top of Francis Street in Dundalk for almost a generation. The two sons entered the priesthood, Fr Michael spending many years in Kilkerley.
Having been first appointed to Beragh parish, Fr. Murtagh then moved south of the Border to Faughart in 1958, where he spent eight years, and next to Ardee where he was senior curate and then to Clogherhead in 1977 when he was appointed Parish Priest. He retired as parish priest in 1979 to become assistant pastor in Clogherhead,
Fr Willie worked right up into his 90s in the seaside village, a familiar face on his bicycle around the village and described on his 92nd birthday by then PP, Fr Paul Clayton-Lea, as an 'absolute legend'.
'I would hazard a guess that he is the oldest priest still working in Ireland, and has married three generations of couples in the parish, not to mention christening thousands of babies.'
'He has won the Priests' Golfing Championship twice, the first time when he was 90, and then won it the following year, so you can see, he's not about to slow down any day yet.'
His later years were spent in Moorehall in Ardee, where he felt really at home.
Fr Willie's early days in Ardee were very productive, setting up the Legion of Mary and the credit union.
He was a huge driving force for the credit union and became the chairman when it was founded in 1963 and held the role until 1977, an innings of 14 years, during which time it blossomed into the giant oak that it is today.
He was succeeded by local businessman, Mr. PaddyCallan ('77 to '82), who in turn made way for veterinary officer, Mr. Ray Muldoon.
His role in the community was also event in 1989 when he became first chairman of the South & East Louth Development Association (SELDA), alongside Ms. Mary McConnon, Castlebellingham (secretary); Benny Devlin and Eddie Caffrey, Togher; Luke Sharkey and Paddy Lynch, Clogherhead; Patricia Darby, Paddy McGrory and Gerry Connor (Whiteriver Mill), Dunleer.
Fr Willie was beloved brother of the late Fr Mick Murtagh PP, May Murphy (Blackrock), and Kitty Murtagh (Blackrock).
His loss is deeply regretted by Archbishop Eamon Martin, Cardinal Brady, the Priests of the Archdiocese of Armagh, his nieces Anna, Dara and Michelle, his grandniece Clíodhna, grandnephews Ronan and Joseph, nephews-in-law Eamon Laverty, and Shane O'Reilly, many friends and Parishioners.
His funeral was last Friday to the Church of St. Michael, Clogherhead, followed by burial in St. Denis Cemetery.
Fianna Fáil TD for Louth and East Meath Declan Breathnach expressed his sadness at the death of Fr Murtagh.
"Fr. Murtagh was my boss for 23 years while I was Principal in Walshestown National School. The love and respect that he commanded from communities such as Ardee, Clogherhead, Dundalk and beyond among his fellow priests in the diocese was evident."
"The children and staff in the parishes he served truly loved him. His ritual visit every Monday to every class room was a lesson to behold. His theme was always centred on three respects that he tried to instil in the children - Respect for Oneself; Respect for your Family; and Respect for your Wider Community was always very much part of the stories he engrossed the children with".
"He had a profound positive effect on all who knew him and he will be sadly missed by all. In his own words as he would leave the class room "Óró, sé do bheatha 'bhaile"!
Reflecting his years of service to the Armagh diosese Fr. Murtagh once remarked "fortunately I am still very active and able to contribute to parish life, a life that I have enjoyed".