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Fr Michael Keane

FR MICHAEL Keane, who died last month in a nursing home in his native Claremorris, Co Mayo, was best known as Ireland's 'Cupid Priest'. He founded the Knock Marriage Bureau in 1968 at a time of rampant emigration from rural Ireland when it was more difficult for couples to meet and socialise and the marriage rate was low.

Marketing came naturally to the young Fr Keane who had an easy-going, gentlemanly, manner and a droll sense of humour. He did television, radio and newspaper interviews by the dozen. Astutely, he decided to publish the fledgling bureau's annual report around Valentine's Day when, as he once put it himself, "people are thinking of love and such things".

In the early days of the bureau, the 'young curate plays Cupid' angle ensured generous coverage in the national and local papers as well as abroad. The service was novel although it has always suffered somewhat from the unjustified stigma of being 'a last-chance saloon' for the young and not so young in rural parts.

Consequently perhaps, it has been notoriously difficult for any reporter or documentary maker over the years to gain access to the now 900 or so couples which the bureau claims to have united in wedlock.

Fr Keane, born in 1925, was ordained on June 18, 1950 as a priest of the Archdiocese of Tuam. He served for periods in Cloonfad, Castlebar, Tully Cross (Connemara), Roundstone, Connemara and Kilkerrin (east Galway) before embarking on setting up what is regarded as his most important life's work, the foundation of the Knock Marriage Bureau.

Fr Keane wasn't just a 'jolly matchmaker', however.

According to the present Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Michael Neary, who delivered the homily at the funeral Mass in St Colman's Church, Claremorris, he was "a man of principle" who "could be argumentative when he felt an issue needed to be ironed out or a point of principle made".

Fr Keane clashed with at least two archbishops in his time.

In the late-Seventies, while a curate in Dublin, he had a sharp disagreement with a superior over how the parish should be run.

This led to him being disciplined by the Archbishop of Dublin. For 23 years, Fr Keane was not permitted to say Mass in public, until a Jubilee Year reconciliation in 2000 when he was reinstated and his Mass-saying faculties restored.

The treatment accorded him in Dublin by the church authorities still rankled with him as late as 2008. when he was well into his 80s.

He told a reporter who interviewed him the way he was treated by the church over the Templeogue situation was "outrageous".

Fr Keane had been a long-standing and vocal member of BASIC, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, which campaigns and works for the ordination of women, and LEAVEN, a group that supports married priests.

Three years ago, in one of his final interviews, he controversially claimed celibacy was turning priests into "dried-out prunes" emotionally with nothing to look forward to except maybe getting a parish of their own.

Expressing a great deal of sympathy for priests who fall in love, Fr Keane said celibacy was having a negative effect on many priests in modern Ireland who are "totally lonely, longing for human relationship".

A voracious reader, "an academic who loved to read", according to one of his nephews, Fr Keane spent his final years in his native Claremorris, a pillar of support for the local community and the residents of Claremount Nursing Home where he drew his final breath on August 27.

Sunday Independent