Links between Co Longford and Clonard Church, one of Belfast’s most iconic buildings, do not immediately spring to mind.
That is until you delve a little deeper and talk to one of its present clutch of religious leaders.
Fr Michael Murtagh is one such individual. A former pupil of St Mel’s College, the well spoken Newtowncashel native has spent the past number of years north of the border as the historic monastary’s superior.
Ordained in 1997 after joining the Redemptorist Order 12 years earlier, Fr Murtagh has been spending much of his recent time on the phone to builders ahead of the church’s large scale renovation.
Asked about its background and contribution to community life in Northern Ireland, Fr Murtagh immediately set about rhyming out its long line of achievements.
“This beautiful church was opened just off the Falls Road, West Belfast in October 1911 and is located between the Falls and Shankill Roads. Since 1911 it has served the people of Belfast and beyond through two World Wars and in more recent years through decades of unrest in what has become known in popular terms as ‘the Troubles’. Through the work of some of the Redemptorist priests, who serve this Church from the adjoining Clonard Monastery, a process was begun that led ultimately to the IRA Ceasefire in 1994 and the subsequent Good Friday Agreement,” he revealed.
Providing daily masses as well as consultations, each year in June the place where Fr Murtagh has called home for the past 12 or so years, holds a much vaunted Solemn Novena involving nine days of uninterrupted prayer.
“This is an amazing experience that attracts 15,000 through the Church doors each day over the 10 Novena Masses – a truly remarkable occasion in the life of any city,” he continued.
Recalling home and his beloved Newtowncashel is, you get the impression, still very important to him.
And as is so often the case, it doesn’t take long for ‘football’ to enter the conversation.
Chuckling quietly to himself, Fr Murtagh’s laughter rises a decibel level or two when asked if he ever donned the famous red and black of the south Longford club.
“Poorly,” he replied. “Although I did play a bit for Mel’s too.”
That, however, is history. Now Fr Murtagh is in the throws of charting history of a somewhat different, but equally satisfying kind.
Highlighting repainting of the church’s ceiling and new decorative motifs as well as more modern heating, sound and lighting improvements, he said all roads now lead to this Sunday (March 25) ahead of a Formal Dedication service.
“Bishop Noel Treanor is officiating and the estimated cost (of refursbishment) is £2 million. We are well on our way to achieving this goal thanks to the ongoing generosity of the local community but we have a little distance to go yet,” he added.