Mary Clinton was one of the most talented parish organisers Derry and Donegal has ever seen.
In her 65-year association with the Derry Diocese, Mary managed priest houses in Castlefinn, Killygordon, Ardmore, Burt and Fahan. And, because of her kind and happy nature, she made friends wherever she went.
Indeed, hundreds of her former friends from all her previous homes gathered to celebrate her life at Nazareth House in Fahan, where she died, most peacefully, aged 84 in the early hours of August 9.
Born in Ardglass, County Down, on December 1, 1933 (making her four days older than her good friend Bishop Edward Daly), Mary’s family owned the successful Sheepland farm, which her parents, Francis and Kathleen, ran before passing it onto her brothers, Dominic and Vincent. Mary’s other (and only surviving) sibling Angela, became a Sister of Mercy, and was headmistress of St Michael’s in Lurgan before retiring.
Mary first met her lifelong mentor Fr Michael Conway in the early 1950s, when, as a teenager, she answered an advertisement in Ireland’s Own for a priest’s housekeeper. After a short time, Fr Conway, realising his new charge was exceptionally bright, suggested that she should train in nursing at Manchester Hope Hospital.
She then qualified as a theatre nurse (and became a lifelong Manchester United fan), before returning to Ireland to become theatre sister at Downshire Hospital.
While back in County Down, Mary was taught to drive by Cathal Curley the rally driver, a fact that no-one who sat in a car with her would ever doubt. (On one trip in from Burt to Derry, Mary the passenger confessed to her driver that she usually went around the roundabout ‘the shorter way’.)
After just a year at home, Mary returned to Donegal and Fr Conway’s side, where she remained, through his various transfers. Their last parish together was at Burt, where he died in 1993. She was a wonderful friend and helper to him and him to her.
For all her loyalty, Mary was never afraid of authority, no matter how great, and was no respecter of sacred cows. Shortly after they first arrived at Burt Chapel (St Aengus Church) – which was famously built in the style of Grianan Fort – Mary contacted the architect Liam McCormick to point out something that he, and the critics who named it Ireland’s building of the century, had missed. The chapel’s ceiling is very high – so high in fact that Mary couldn’t source a ladder long enough to change the burnt-out lightbulbs.
And the parishioners couldn’t read their missals. A compromise was reached, which exists to this day, whereby a portable scaffold is now brought in whenever the bulb count drops below a certain capacity.
After Fr Conway’s death, Mary worked with Fr Laurence O’Brien and later Fr Neil McGoldrick at Fahan, retiring only a couple of years ago, after a fall left her incapacitated. Fr McGoldrick, the lead celebrant at Mary’s Requiem Mass, gave a full and affectionate tribute to his friend, recalling how right up until she retired she regularly used her ‘sharp elbows’ to nudge him in the right direction - or protect him when the need arose.
Five priests in all concelebrated the funeral Mass – Fr McGoldrick, Fr George McLaughlin, Fr Jim McGonagle, Fr Neil Farren and Fr Brian Brady – which was a great tribute to Mary, but no surprise. She was loved and respected by all the clergy of the diocese, working as the most meticulous of sacristans into her eighties. Her fame as a chef, and as a most generous hostess, was the talk of half the Orders in the country.
As one might expect from the daughter of a farm, Mary was also a very skilled gardener and was a wildlife expert, stockpiling stacks of books and journals from the ceiling to the roof of her Fahan home.
She grew flowers, fruit, vegetables and trees – and was never happier than harvesting the products of her labours.
She was, throughout her life, invariably surrounded by pets; dogs, when she was fit to run alongside them, then cats as she became, reluctantly, a little more sedentary. Her last cat, a massive slouching creature, was named ‘Bestie’ – in honour of her favourite footballer, whose debut she actually witnessed at Old Trafford.
Mary was a very spiritual person, who drew great comfort from the ministrations she received in her final days at Nazareth House. Her great friends Bernie McKinney, Aine Downey, Ray McCabe, Kathleen Grant, Fr McGoldrick, and Fr Conway’s family, the staff at the home, and all the good friends she made down the years that are also thinking of her today, made sure that was she was kept up to speed with all the local craic and world affairs, when she was no longer able to read the newspapers.
Mary died almost 25 years to the day after Fr Michael Conway passed away, and she has now been buried in the grave adjoining his in Burt Cemetery. Her friends sang a spontaneous verse of ‘Bring Flowers of the Rarest’, as she was being laid to rest. It was completely fitting, done without asking permission, and Mary herself would have totally approved.
Ní críoch ach athfhás. Ar dheis Dé go raibh sí.