Martin O’Brien meets Fr Edward O’Donnell, a priest happy in his ministry and his own skin (2018) Irish Catholic.

Fr Edward O’Donnell, first ever Catholic ecumenical canon in Belfast’s Protestant cathedral, parish priest in one of the North’ s most well to do areas, former private secretary to the late Bishop Cahal Daly, noted homilist, and proud native of Heaney country in south Derry looks younger than most 67-year old men. It may have something to do with his sunny disposition.

Despite the scandals that have engulfed the Church in Ireland and his disappointment at the “grumbles” of some brother priests in the media he is upbeat while not being complacent.

“Of course, there are things that are not right and could be done better. However, I am not disgruntled with the Church, sometimes disappointed, just as I am disappointed with myself, but I am happy, and I hope I communicate that. I am happy in my own skin and with what I do.”


Eddie O’Donnell is grateful that he has been blessed with good health, still not requiring any medication, yet mindful of life’s fragility, reminding me that his father died of an aneurism at the age he is now.

We’re in his presbytery outside St Brigid’s Church in south Belfast, where he has been parish priest for seven years.

He’s grateful that the attendance at Sunday Mass has remained stable in that period, at around 2,000. According to the Down and Connor directory the estimated Catholic population of the parish is 13,500, making it numerically the biggest in the diocese.

It is one of the wealthiest parts of the region but Fr O’Donnell stresses that financial wealth and spiritual wealth do not always go together.

He says that the economic downturn had a more severe effect on his parish than is realised and that parts of it experience “great poverty”.

“There are more ‘newcomers’, immigrants and refugees in a particular ‘end’ of our parish area than anywhere else in the diocese. Many of those people in a very poor situation are not Catholics at all where our parish St Vincent de Paul Society go and minister to those in need and the need is great.”

He considers the biggest challenge facing his parish – and parishes all over Ireland –  one that he poses to the parish pastoral council: “How will you preserve the faith in St Brigid’s when there is no priest?”


Yes wee Eddie was Cahal’s secretary and after a while he began looking and talking like Cahal.

What an awful thing for a PP to say.

That he is preparing his parish for eventual priestlessness.

Not much of the virtue of hope there.

Of course, priests are disappearing fast.

But that does not mean there cannot be priests.

There can be part time married and women priests.

But the clerics will be gone.

There is a difference between being a priest and being a cleric.

I always though that Little Eddie would be a monsignor. But he is not part of the Treanor Court and had to be satisfied with being made a Protestant canon.