Fr Tony O’Riordan says he would love to return to Moyross some day Picture: Press 22
THE Parish Priest of Moyross, who stepped down from his position last week, has warned there is the potential for “the legacy of extreme violence to rear its ugly head” unless everyone is included in the city’s renaissance.
Fr Tony O’Riordan, who has led the Corpus Christi parish for the last six years, leaves the northside estate in a much more peaceful state than when he arrived, when high-profile crime was common-place.
While that has died down, the issues of drug abuse and poverty still reign.
And Fr O’Riordan says it’s “dangerous” to ignore those who may be feeling excluded from the city’s new found vibrancy which has seen a rise in economic activity.
“On one level, the city is on the up. But closer to home I see there are so many people excluded from that vibrancy, that future. There is a disconnect between the development of that vibrant city, and the depressing reality of so many lives of people in other parts of the city: in Moyross, in Weston, in Ballinacurra. In the city centre itself like in Steamboat Quay,” he explained.
Fr O’Riordan says those charged with promoting the city need to deal with the social problems it faces, while at the same time presenting “a very positive image”.
“I pick up a bit of a message that we do not want to talk about the problems in the city, as it may drive investment away. Yet the problems are there, I see them every day. Most of the problems are surmountable – but they need to be faced,” the priest explains.
As he prepares to leave Limerick to embark on a period of reflection in Melbourne, as is customary in his Jesuit faith, the Cork-born priest also criticised state agencies for not effectively serving the people they should be serving.
“Institutions have this danger of resorting to serving the people in the institutions rather than the people to whom they were established to serve. Schools are often set around the needs of teachers rather than the students. I see this in so many services, where the way in which they operate serve the needs of the people who work in them, rather than the people who use them. The resources which are targeted are sometimes funded to suit the youth workers rather than the youth,” he said. “I think it’s unjust”.
The priest took particular aim at the child and family agency Tusla, saying it is “not fit for purpose” adding “vulnerable children” have been failed.
Although Moyross has come on in leaps and bounds in his time, Fr O’Riordan believes the people in the estate remain quite “fragile” – and need to be trusted to be given a level of self-confidence.
“The people of Moyross are amazingly resilient and amazingly wise because they have been tested. What makes an area like Moyross different is alongside personal tragedy, there is a communal nature to what a community has experienced. I think rather than ever coming in here saying I have the solution, I feel my job is to understand. I think even after five years, I am only beginning to understand the dynamics and resilience of this community. Part of the negative side of growing up in an area of deprivation is people can internalise a message they are different from other people, and that can lead to lack of confidence,” he explained.
On education, the priest believes schools across Limerick are “failing” many youngsters.
“It’s not that they are not able. It’s the system that is there. Schools are not adapting to what their needs are and how to educate them, given some of the difficulties they might have. Given families might be homeless, families where there is overcrowding, families where there might be a lot of anti-social behaviour, families where there is displacement.
“How do you respond to education in a way which keeps people on track,” he asked, “There is a poverty of aspiration.”
He says children in all regeneration estates should be aiming to get into the new high-tech jobs on offer in companies like Regeneron, and Johnson and Johnson which typically require third level degrees.
“I think at a level of intelligence and ability, the kids in Moyross are as able as any group of young children in this country. It angers me so many kids in Moyross end up doing the Leaving Cert Applied. Where is the aspiration for those kids?” he asked.
The priest dismissed the often-held view that employers discriminate based on people’s addresses, saying: “An employer wants a good employee, and they know that people from Moyross or Southill are hard grafters. They will do an honest day’s work for an honest days pay. The addresses is not the issue. It is more the level of qualification, the level of confidence and the accumulation of personal problems which have been allowed to build up.”
Fr O’Riordan came to Moyross in 2010, initially on a six-month placement covering for the former priest, Fr Frank O’Dea.
After taking a break – where he went to Zambia – he returned to the northside in 2011.
Prior to this, the Oxford University-educated cleric worked in another area which required regeneration - Ballymun on Dublin’s northside.
Indeed, he was a board member of the Ballymun Regeneration Company, and worked closely with social justice campaigner Fr Peter McVerry, a man who has spoken in Corpus Christi Church on numerous occasions since.
When he was asked to become the parish priest of Moyross, he didn’t hesitate.
“Some people say ‘gosh, what did you do to get the regeneration areas’,” he laughs, recalling the story.
“I remember having a discussion on a Friday, and deciding instantly that I would come here. They asked me if I wanted to think about it to the Sunday, but I decided there and then to come. And I’m so glad I did, as it has been a really good time for me to be part of this community, and a privilege.”
In his years in Moyross, Fr O’Riordan has been outspoken on many issues, among other things, taking to task the estate’s drug dealers, suggesting “hell” will await them.
He has also spoken out against suicide, the education system and the stalled regeneration process in particular.
Asked if he regrets any of the statements made from the altar, he pauses for a second.
“Only that I wasn’t forceful enough. I think everything I said, I can stand over. I’m always open to dialogue and conversation if I get things wrong. But the things I have drawn attention to are the things I believe need attention.”
While Fr O’Riordan will travel to Melbourne this weekend for a 30-day period of reflection, he has sought an eventual transfer to Aleppo in Syria or to refugee camps in Syria or the Lebanon.
His New Year wish, however, would be to remain in Moyross, even though he acknowledges it is not a possibility.
While the Parish Priest took time to answer most of the Limerick Leader’s questions, there was one where he responded immediately.
“It would definitely be the people,” he said when asked what he will miss the most. “That nature, that raw honesty, that goodness, trying to make a good life often when the odds are really stacked against them. I would count that in all ages, from the older citizens to some of our youngest. I have transitioned before though – and you never really leave places, you leave people.”
The only thing he won’t miss about Limerick is the road network to Cork, saying it puts a “dampner” on proceedings both when he goes to visit his mother in the Rebel County, and en route back to the Treaty City.
There has been an outpouring of sadness at the news of Fr O’Riordan’s impending departure, with tributes being paid to his work from the political, community and religious spectrums.
He said: “It has been very moving to hear this. I have always felt I have got more from my time in Moyross. I love the people of Moyross. I have grown to love Limerick City.”
And would he like to return to Moyross some day? “The way of my life is that I have committed to other people making these decisions for me. I hope and pray though. If I had said ‘no’ to Moyross five years ago, I would have missed out on a huge opportunity for me. I hope I have left some mark and helped people while I have been here,” he said.
“It would be a privilege to some back – but that’s for others to make the call.”