A priest first, an accomplised entertainer second

Matt Britton

Reporter:

Matt Britton

Had one young Donegal Town man not answered the call of his priestly vocation when he was ordained in June 1951, there is no doubt that he could well have tread the boards of the Abbey Theatre, the London Palladium or even Carneige Hall.

Had one young Donegal Town man not answered the call of his priestly vocation when he was ordained in June 1951, there is no doubt that he could well have tread the boards of the Abbey Theatre, the London Palladium or even Carneige Hall.

Fr. Hugh Curristan P.P. of English Martyrs Church, York in Yorkshire, England and native of Ballydevitt outside Donegal Town passed away peacefully on March 29 in St. Eunan’s Nursing Home in Leterkenny.

Fr. Hugh was born in Ballinakillew outside Donegal Town and was educated in the Four Masters and Ballydevitt National Schools before going to St. Eunan’s College in Letterkenny to complete his secondary education.

The Donegal man answered his call to the priesthood and studied at All Hallows in Dublin where he was ordained in June 1951 for the Diocese of Leeds.

He spent most of his time in the coal mining district of South Yorkshire where conditions were rough not unlike his own rural background at the time.

Fr. Hugh was quick to adapt and soon won the confidence and friendship of the miners and went on to spend five of the happiest years of his life there.

During his time in the coal mining parish he was soon to discover that there was no Community Centre in the area. and he was quick to take over a derelict building and turn it into a parish social club.

The Donegal man soon found out that there wasn’t much demand for the Gregorian chant in the club and to meet the local needs, he drew on his past experience of his “gap year” playing the dance halls of his native Donegal.

At the time one good Catholic and avid fan of the centre was reported as saying, “That new curate of ours mightn’t be much of a preacher but by God, he can certainly entertain.

Another friend from those early days described Fr. Hugh as “a priest who played both God and Pontius Pilate in mystery plays and served the people of this area for 30 years.”

In the late ‘50’s Pope John XXIII made an urgent appeal for help for South America because of the great shortage of priests there and Fr. Hugh soon found himself working in the shanty towns of Lima in Peru.

Much of his time was spent fighting for the rights of his people and he also set about building a new church and establishing a new parish.

When he arrived in Lima he had just 150 parishioners - when he eventually left he had 5,000.

During this time he had teamed up with another great entertainer and another priest, Fr. Tommy Doherty who was the parish priest in Donegal Town but possibly best known as the operator of the local cinema in the town.

These two entertainers set about organising concerts, bazzars and variety shows to raise funds for his work in Lima even though they were thousands of miles apart with none of the modern tools of communication.

As a child growing up in the town, I can still remember the excitement when word would spread that this “singing priest from the missions” was coming home to perform at his packed out concerts and shows.

The idea of a priest entertainer was a novelty especially since his talent was of such high quality but far from taking from the dignity of his religious profession he felt that it helped break down barriers and draw people closer to him and the church.

One of his favourite acts was an impersonation of Liberace, the overdressed American pianist. The “take off” was so realistic that it soon attracted the attention of the media which led to many television appearances both at home and abroad including Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show.

No deserving charity ever failed to get his support. One of his favourite quotations was one that is very relevant today, “ You don’t ask a man with cancer what is his religion. You are more concerned about getting him into a good hospital.”

Fr. Curristan will be remembered by his many friends at home and indeed many in the world of showbusiness including Cliff Richard and Val Doonican to name but a few and Daniel O’Donnell.

Many’s a time when the younger Daniel was touring England and finding it hard to find a Mass Fr. Hugh was always there to oblige.

As an entertainer he will be remembered best for his sheer genius in having audiences proverbially “rolling in the aisles” in laughter with his sometimes and wickedly accurate impersonations of larger than life characters such as Liberace, Noel Coward, Terry Savalis, Max Bygraves, Dame Edna Everidge and Sister Wendy.

He was once quoted as saying, “I act and I sing, dance in a ring, play the piano like anything - but more than these I serve my God in all I do.”

Fr. Hugh spent the last three years under the care of the staff at St. Eunan’s Nursing Home in Letterkenny where he was treated like a member of one large happy family.

The Bishop of Middlesbrough, the Rt. Rev Terence Patrick Drainey conducted his funeral mass in St. Eunan’s Cathedral in Letterkenny and was joined by a large number of priests both from Ireland and England.

A memorial service for the Donegal man who meant so much to the people of York will be held in York later this year.

Fr. Hugh is predeceased by his brothers Eunan and Tony and is survived by his brother John Phillip and sisters Bernie and Mary.