Fr Tony Coote: ‘I am the guest of honour at my own funeral’

Last Updated: Thursday, December 6, 2018, 18:57

They say pride comes before a fall, but in the case of Fr Tony Coote , it may have been the opposite. Diagnosed in April with motor neurone disease, a rapid, terminal and indiscriminate illness, the charismatic priest later collapsed while visiting a school and broke his ribs.

Surveying this accumulation of misery, his nurse returned an unsentimental explanation. “Life’s shite,” she told him.

Like many of his stories in Walking the Walk ( RTÉ One, Thursday, 10.15pm), told with Coote’s characteristic good humour and alertness to human nature (he also studied psychotherapy), you wonder whether this is intended as a parable.

Because although he was soon dependent on a wheelchair, Coote decided to lead a pilgrimage called Walk While You Can (a rather sardonic title that cuts through the glibly inspirational and the excessively maudlin), stretching from Letterkenny to Ballydehob in aid of motor neurone research.

It says much about the place of religion in Irish society today that Coote is one of few priests to command such a gathering. “What happened to respect in the community for the priest and the doctor?” jokes Orla Hardiman , professor of neuroscience, when Coote again resists her advice on the trail. “It’s long gone,” he grins. Yet that is not true of Coote.

A former chaplain of UCD and the founder of UCD Volunteers Overseas, he has many followers, offering the documentary memories and photographs like sacred relics, joining the walk like apostles.

Coote, interviewed along the way, is given to contemplations of decline: of his own physical deterioration and that of the priesthood. He makes those struggles visibly, affectingly human: candid about his anger, but secure in his faith.

Assisting in this uniquely Catholic act of mortification (nobody could call the walk itself much fun), the community provides its own succour. Coote knows it, and the reason for his good regard is because he offers his parishioners guidance rather than instruction.

That some of them hope for a miracle en route to Knock, perhaps not entirely in jest, is something he bats away. As his brother points out, the long, dry summer is miraculous – or “jammy” – enough.

Tributes and words of appreciation are heaped on Coote along the path. “In a quirky way, I am the guest of honour at my own funeral,” he says. That makes it tempting to see this as another parable, retracing the steps of divine martyrs.

But Coote is not waiting for a miracle, nor praying for a cure. He is asking for funding, from the Government, towards research and care for Motor Neuron Disease. With those earthly aims, such measures cannot come soon enough.

Heaven can wait.