Belfast Telegraph

Cardinal Keith O'Brien: Surprise and sadness at fall from grace of town's honoured son

Chris Kilpatrick visits the seaside town of Ballycastle where Cardinal O'Brien grew up

There was a mixture of surprise and sadness in the small coastal town in Northern Ireland where Cardinal Keith O'Brien grew up.

But despite his high-profile resignation from the very top of the Catholic Church in the UK, residents who knew the cleric still recalled him with a sense of pride, saying he never forgot his roots.

"He was somebody we were all proud of – a leader, an achiever," said one Ballycastle resident.

The young O'Brien left the Co Antrim town in the heart of the Causeway Coast as an 11-year-old boy.

Little did his friends and neighbours in the town know back then that he would go on to become the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in the UK.

He moved to Scotland with his family when his father – a member of the Royal Navy – was transferred in 1949.

But some 64 years later, locals on Monday spoke fondly of the affable, engaging and warm clergyman.

One of Cardinal O'Brien's closest friends is from his hometown.

The pair speak regularly and have met up in Scotland and in Rome on several occasions.

The man, who lives in Ballycastle, has kept in contact regularly with the cardinal, and keeps a picture of him above his television.

He was too upset by Monday's revelations to talk about their friendship when the Belfast Telegraph contacted him at his home.

His shock and sadness was evident in the voices of many of those we spoke to.

Cardinal O'Brien's family was well-respected in the town. His mother Alice Moriarty's family had a large drapery business bearing their surname which was popular with locals as it allowed them to buy goods on credit.

"He was well-spoken, bright," said a former school friend of Cardinal O'Brien.

"His whole family were the same. They ran what was perhaps the most successful local business back then and people came from all over to shop there.

"They moved away when Keith was very young but a lot of people still know of him and the family and were delighted someone from our wee town was doing so well."

"This has come as a big shock to a lot of people," added the man, who asked not to be named.

Others echoed the positive sentiments.

"He was always very highly regarded and very much respected," said Donal Cunningham, who met Cardinal O'Brien in 2005 when he returned to Ballycastle for a short break.

As Archbishop of Edinburgh, Cardinal O'Brien travelled to Northern Ireland for the re-opening of Belfast's St Peter's Cathedral following a multi-million pound renovation.

He took the opportunity to return to his birthplace while in the country and spent two nights in Ballycastle in February of that year in the parochial house, hosted by the parish priest.

During that visit, Cardinal O'Brien was pictured looking out over the sea from the town's promenade – taking in a sight he had woken up to as a child at his parent's home at Bayview Road.

A homecoming reception was organised for Cardinal O'Brien, with classmates from his time at St Patrick's Boys Primary School, which has since been converted into a supermarket in the town's Fairhill Street.

Chris McCaughan – a former Independent councillor in the area – said people were "disappointed".

Cardinal O'Brien – one of two sons – initially attended St Stephen's Primary School, Dalmuir, before continuing to St Patrick's High School in Dumbarton. He studied at a number of prestigious universities and colleges until being employed as a teacher of mathematics and science by Fife County Council, and also served as chaplain at schools in Cowdenbeath and Dunfermline.

His first parish post came in 1972 in St Patrick's, Kilsyth.

In 1985 he was ordained archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh. Then, in 2003, he was created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II and became prominent for his colourful and strongly-voiced defence of conservative Catholic teaching.

His opposition to gay marriage earned him the Bigot of the Year award last year from the gay rights group Stonewall and in 2007 he caused controversy when, speaking on the 40th anniversary of the Abortion Act, he said the termination rate north of the border was equivalent to "two Dunblane massacres a day".

But last Friday, in an interview with the BBC, the cardinal surprised commentators by backing an end to the celibacy rule for the priesthood.

Belfast Telegraph


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