THE Irish community in Coatbridge said a fond farewell to an iconic figure in the history of the Irish in Scotland as Fr Eamonn Sweeney retired as parish priest of St Patrick’s, Coatbridge after 25 years of priestly service in the town.
Originally from County Mayo, Fr Sweeney made a terrific impact in his adopted home upon his arrival in Scotland, and in addition to his ministry as a priest of the Diocese of Motherwell, he was active in the Irish community in Scotland. Most notably, Fr Sweeney was at the heart of the revival of the GAA in Scotland and central to the establishment and success of the St Patrick’s Day Festival in Coatbridge.
The annual celebration is now one of the largest of its kind among the diaspora and sees thousands gather in the town each March. His association with the GAA has continued for many years beyond the days in which he played Gaelic football in Scotland, and in recent years has continued to support the GAA in whichever way he can, hosting local clubs Sands MacSwineys and Coatbridge Davitts in St Patrick’s Hall as well as making the facilities available for county board meetings.
Though restrictions prevented a celebration to mark Fr Sweeney’s retirement, parishioners nevertheless gave him their best wishes and many stopped to cheer him as he emerged at the steps of the church having celebrated his final Mass in the parish.
Speaking directly to his parishioners he outlined his feelings at leaving the parish after a quarter of a century of service there.
“My retirement comes at a very difficult time for the church, indeed for the entire world,” he said. “I leave the parish with serious mixed feelings. I have regrets as I go. Firstly that I have been unable to minister to the sick and housebound parishioners as I would wish to. While we can now at least provide Requiem Masses for the dead, for long periods it was burial services only—very distressing for families of the deceased and, I must say, for myself as well.
“I regret that this weekend I cannot say a proper goodbye with a shake of the hand or a farewell hug. [It is] truly a terrible way to leave a parish. Although I leave with a heavy heart and some regrets, I have a store of lovely memories to draw on. I regard it as a great honour to lead St Patrick’s community for 25 years.”
Having celebrated over 2000 baptisms, nearly 700 marriages and over 1200 funerals, many families in Coatbridge have been touched by his ministry and in recognition of his work in the town a special motion was lodged in the Scottish Parliament by Elaine Smith MSP and supported by her fellow MSPs Monica Lennon, Bill Kidd, Margaret Mitchell, Stewart Stevenson and Richard Lyle.
The motion praised Fr Sweeney as well as Sister Moira Stewart, who also retires as Pastoral Assistant from St Patrick’s, and Fr Colin Hughes from the nearby parish of St Stephen’s.
“That the Parliament congratulates Father Eamon Sweeney, Sister Moira Duffy and Father Colin Hughes on decades of service to the Coatbridge community in St Patrick’s, Holy Trinity and All Saints, and St Stephen’s Roman Catholic Churches,” read the motion. “Notes that Fr Sweeney served for 25 years as parish priest in St Patrick’s supported by Sr Moira, while Father Hughes served 22 years as parish priest for Holy Trinity and All Saints, latterly combining this role with parish priest of St Stephen’s; commends Sr Moira, Fr Hughes and Fr Sweeney for their contribution to the Coatbridge community by assisting and improving the lives of local people, not only spiritually but physically in their efforts in helping to tackle issues of loneliness and poverty, especially for the most vulnerable people in society, and wishes each of them well as they leave Coatbridge, either to enter retirement or move on to serve the Catholic Church elsewhere.”
Having worked closely with Fr Sweeney, the Coatbridge Irish Heritage Committee praised him for his tireless efforts in the parish and in the town.
“It’s hard to sum up Father Sweeney’s contribution to this community in just a few lines,” they told The Irish Voice. “The motto of Coatbridge is ‘Laborare est orare’ which means, ‘To work is to pray.’ A fitting tribute to a man who has never stopped in finding new ways to serve the town and indeed, far beyond. We at the Coatbridge Irish Heritage Committee would like to thank Fr Sweeney for his continual support in our work.
“This in assisting greatly in providing a social and cultural space for the expression and celebration of Irish ethnicity, history, heritage and the local, multi-generational Irish community’s place in modern inclusive Scottish society. As one of our founding members he was key to driving the festival’s growth over the past 17 years. We wish him all the best in his future endeavours. If a key to the town existed, it would be his. To Fr Sweeney, our undying appreciation and love. Gum beannaicheadh Dia thu.”
Fr Sweeney’s successor at St Patrick’s is Fr Kevin McGoldrick, while Fr Sweeney takes up residence in St Brigid’s, Newmains, as he continues to offer his services to the Diocese of Motherwell as a supply priest.