Fr Ambrose O’Gorman of Kilmacrennan, Ballyshannon and Belleek, celebrated his 100th birthday yesterday (Saturday). Here, he reflects on a long and happy life.
Fr Ambrose was born in Kilmacrennan on April 28, 1912, just a fortnight after the Titanic sank. His father Michael, a native of Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo, was a sergeant in the RIC. In fact, he was the last sergeant to serve in the RIC at Lifford, where Ambrose started school at the age of 3 years and 2 days, and went on to make his first communion. The family moved to Strabane for a few years, then settled in Ballyshannon when Ambrose was 10.
Fr Ambrose remembers his father, who was left without a job after the RIC was disbanded, coming home and tossing a piece of paper on the table. “I’ve bought a house,” he announced, for the princely sum of €1,000.
The house was in Castle Street, just opposite the old Democrat office. Michael and his wife Noreen had seven children, five boys and two girls, and Ambrose was the middle child. His eldest brother was a doctor, two others served in the Army, while yet another brother Ben, also became a priest. Ambrose is the last surviving member of the family.
At one stage, the O’Gorman’s owned the house next door as well, Lipsett’s. This was where Tony Blair’s mother Hazel was born. Fr Ambrose remembers him and his siblings playing with Hazel and her sister Iris. “All the children played together. We’d often play on swings we’d made in the attic of our house. Hazel was good craic.”
He also remembers the British soldiers leaving Ballyshannon. “I can still see them crossing the bridge. I thought it was a very impressive sight but didn’t think much more about it. At the age of 10, we didn’t know right from left!”
He says life in those days was happy but physically demanding. “I remember people down the country having to get up to do a full day’s work milk the cows, feed the chicken and the cattle before they went to Mass at 8am.”
His mother, unhappy at the harsh ways of the brothers at the local national school, removed her boys to Creevy. “My mother, God rest her, took us out of the brothers’ school because we were being battered. She put is in the school at Creevy and we walked the three miles there. I wonder now how my youngest brother did it, he was only seven.”
Ambrose was drawn to the religious life fairly early on. “I don’t remember seriously considering anything else, although my mother’s people were farmers and I always enjoyed working with animals. But I never saw myself becoming a farmer.” He was an altar server during a parish mission and when he went to confession, the priest asked whether he would consider becoming a priest himself and that was when he made his decision.
So, Ambrose went off to Belcamp Secondary School in Dublin. He stayed for three years but it wasn’t a great success. “I enjoyed my stay there but perhaps I was not the material these priests wanted, so I came back to Ballyshannon. The local curate, Fr Neil McGrorty, came to my rescue. He wrote to the Salvatorian Fathers who accepted me and I went to the Place of Foundation in Abbots Langley, about 25 miles from London. I was more settled this time ‘round. I was twenty by then and knew this was what I wanted.”
In May, 1940 the newly ordained Fr Eunan O’Gorman (he reverted to Ambrose after Vatican II), arrived at Ballyshannon Railway Station, to a tumultuous reception. “There was a huge crowd there to greet me, it was wonderful, and very moving. There was even the brass band and everyone paraded through the town with me as Fr McGrorty drove me home. I still find it hard to believe that so many people turned out.” Fr Ambrose says that, when he looks back on his life, this is his happiest memory.
He returned to the UK, where he served for 40 years, mostly in Essex (Chelmsford, Basildon, Newbury Park) but with a short stint in Swansea Valley, Wales. He survived bombing raids in WWII and a plane crash in the 1960s, when he was flying back to London after visiting his mother.
As the plane tried to land in dense fog, he heard a big bang. The plane, a Viscount with about 85 passengers on board, had crashed. “I remember just after the bang and before the crash nudging the man beside me. I asked him what was wrong but he was a dreadful colour, so I didn’t ask any more questions! The plane burst into flames, but we all managed to get safely off. All I had was the new suit from Clery’s that I was wearing, and my breviary, because I had been praying. The fog was so bad that it took them more then two hours to find us, even though they had spotlights. We were all huddled in little groups and had to shout so that they could locate us.”
All through the years, he still retained his deep love of all things Donegal and was President of the Donegal Association of London in the 1980s. Having played for Ballyshannon in his youth, he keenly followed the progress of both Aodh Rua and the Donegal team. Despite being in his 90s, he travelled to Croke Park to see Donegal lift the Sam Maguire in 1992.
When he retired from the priesthood in 1992, his parishioners in Newbury Park bought him a house in Assaroe View, Ballyshannon.
Five years ago, he moved to Shannagh Nursing Home, Belleek, as his sight was failing. He’s in good company, as he is the fourth resident there to celebrate their 100th birthday this year! His fellow centenarians are Mary Jane ‘Lexie’ Carson of Garrison, Mary ‘Mae’ Falconer of Strabane and Ballyshannon and Anne Ferguson of Garrison.
At a Mass held in May 2010 to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of Fr Ambrose’s ordination, Fr Cathal Ó Fearraí observed: “He often says today that he doesn’t see much but, I can assure you, he misses nothing.” Never was a truer word spoken. Despite his advanced years, Fr Ambrose still has a sharp intellect and is full of energy. “He tells me everything that’s on the news and that’s happening in football,” Deirdre Gallagher, manager of Shannagh Nursing Home said. And he still assists at Sunday Mass in the Franciscan Friary at Rossnowlagh.
There was be special Mass at St Patrick’s Church, Ballyshannon yesterday to celebrate Fr Ambrose’s 100th. This was followed by a reception with tea and refreshments in Dorrian’s Hotel.