From postwar Rome to Cape Canaveral to Troubles, Fr Michael Keaveney has seen it all

One of Ireland’s longest serving priests, ordained 72 years ago, believes the laity will play a key role in the Catholic Church

Fr Michael Keaveney has seen a lot since his ordination as a priest 72 years ago today. He watched on as an Apollo space mission took off at Cape Canaveral, was involved in the recovery of a Spanish Armada shipwreck and ministered to one of Derry’s most socially deprived parishes at the height of the Troubles.

One of Ireland’s longest-serving priests, the 96 year old has seen seven popes in office, the church being rocked by scandal and the number of priests, as well as attendances at Mass, declining sharply.

Fr Keaveney says he is thankful to God for the life he has lived and remains buoyant about the future of the church, believing that the ordination of women and married men as deacons and greater participation by the laity will be essential.

One of 12 children, he was born in Moville, Co Donegal, in 1927 and attended St Columb’s College in Derry, where he decided he wanted to enter the priesthood.


“I was ordained when I was aged 24 at the Irish College in Rome where I had been for four years, moving from Maynooth where I had been studying for the priesthood for three years,” he said, adding that he travelled to Italy when the college reopened after the second World War.

“It was quite an adventurous journey to Rome, traveling through Europe by train so soon after the war.”

Following his ordination on March 10th, 1951, he returned to the Derry diocese, where he was appointed to the teaching staff at St Columb’s. During his time working there, the then Bishop of Florida wrote asking if any priests would to come to the sunshine state for the summer months to provide holiday cover.

“I volunteered to go and I was placed in a parish close to Cape Canaveral, and quite a number of my parishioners were working in Nasa,” he said.

“I was invited out to Cape Canaveral for one of the launches… along with the bishop, I met all the staff in the control room. When it was time to launch the rocket, we were taken outside and we were around 200 yards from the rocket as it took off.

“It was a marvellous experience and I know it’s not something too many people can say they witnessed at such close quarters.”

Following 25 years teaching at St Columb’s, Fr Keaveney was appointed administrator of the new parish of St Joseph’s in Derry’s Galliagh area in 1975 “during the height of the Troubles”.

“Things were happening all the time around us, bombs were going off, there were shots being fired all the time,” he said.

“It was tough and I was called out at all times of the day or night. I never had to attend anyone who had been blown up or anything like that but there were things happening all around. I never really thought about how difficult it was or the dangers, I just kept going and did whatever I could to help out.”

Away from his work as a priest, Fr Keaveney was a member of the Derry sub aqua club and he was part of a team of divers that discovered the wreckage of La Trinidad Valencera, one of the ships of the Spanish Armada lost off the Co Donegal coast in 1588.

“We had been searching in one part of the bay and found nothing but one day decided to try around Kinnegoe. One fella came up and shouted ‘There’s a gun down there’,” he said.

“I went out about 100 yards and came across the butt of a gun which turned out to be a large cannon which bore the coat of arms of the king of Spain, Philip the Second. The search ended up being a large operation.”

Fr Keaveney retired from active ministry to Faughanvale parish, near Greysteel, Co Derry, in 2001. A recent stroke has limited his activities.

“There are fewer priests now, compared to when I was first ordained and there is more for the laity to do,” he said. “The church is very slow to move but I know they are moving towards ordaining men, including married men, as deacons but I was hoping to see women, married and single, being ordained as deacons too.

“That would be a starter. Whether or not they would do away with celibacy for priests, I don’t know, but I think there are immense changes ahead.”