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‘Knowing there was someone to pray to made the hard times much easier’

March 5th, 2024 9:00 AM

By Emma Connolly

‘Knowing there was someone to pray to made the hard times much easier’ Image
Rev Suzie Gallagher studied food technology and catering systems in college. (Photo: Anne Minihane)

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Suzie Gallagher was raised as an atheist in Lancashire, but in 2007, while passing a Methodist church in Killarney, she felt a calling. Now she’s a minister serving three towns in West Cork

‘THERE was a time in my life when I found it difficult to stay living, but knowing Jesus was there and having a loving relationship with him changed all that for me.’

So says mum-of-three, Methodist minister Rev Suzie Gallagher, who has served in West Cork since her ordination last summer.

Born in Lancashire, Suzie was brought up in an atheist household. She studied food technology and catering systems in college in Yorkshire which is where she met her husband Sean. He has Irish roots and the couple moved to Ireland in 1990 when she was in her 20s, and their home for the past 26 years has been Scartaglen, Kerry.

Suzie worked initially as a chef, then for a Kerry-based medical claims company, and as an ECG technician in Tralee General and CUH. The couple had ultimately intended to work for themselves in the catering sector, but two of their sons were born with a rare genetic condition called Bardet-Biedl syndrome (BBS) which changed their plans.

Ross, now aged 36, was diagnosed when he was eight years old, not long after the birth of the couple’s second son Sean Michael, who also has BBS. Characteristics of the condition include challenges connecting the stomach and the brain.

‘It can be hard for them to register being full, but they’ve learned to manage that,’ said Suzie.

Sight issues are also part of the condition. Ross lost his sight at 16, but hasn’t let that get in the way of his passion for running, with Jimmy Tobin from Durrus one of his guide runners. Sean Michael lives with a visually impairment and is a third level student. The couple’s third son, Aaron, doesn’t have BBS, and works with a HR company.

‘He was actually a gifted child, which at times was harder to deal with,’ smiled Suzie.

She remembers those years, when the boys were diagnosed and the aftermath, as being an insular time for the family.

‘Besides one other family, we didn’t know anyone else like ourselves. We wanted Ross to experience as much as he could while he had sight so we travelled extensively, and we just got on with things really,’ she said.

In 2007, when Aaron was seven, Suzie remembers driving past the Methodist church in Killarney.

‘As a child I would have gone to Christian camps, and beach missions sort of as an act of rebellion, and a neighbour would have taken me to church. But driving past the church that day I decided I’d go there the following Sunday, and pretty much that was that.’

She started attending church, and enjoyed meeting people with faith.

‘I discovered that I had people around me with faith, that had been praying for me, that I hadn’t realised.’

And, she said, while the family’s circumstances didn’t change, their ability to cope did.

‘Knowing that there was someone to pray to made it easier, like a problem shared being a problem halved,’ she said.

How she became a minister unfolded slowly, by itself.

‘I was asked by someone in the church to help them through a course. There were 17 units in the course, and by unit four I felt a calling had been placed on my life,’ she said.

She began in 2014 as a lay preacher in Killarney, and later embarked on two years of study in Belfast that wasn’t without its own challenges. Sean suffered a heart attack in her second year, and then the pandemic hit.

‘But I think these things tested my calling,’ she said.

She served in Carlow and Kilkenny as a probationer minister, and was ordained last June, arriving in West Cork a few weeks later.

Living in Dunmanway, churches on her ‘circuit’ are in Ballineen, Skibbereen and Drimoleague.

‘I love being here,’ she said. The rest of the family have stayed in Kerry – she goes home once a week – and the family dog, a Welsh springer spaniel, Lorelai (named after the character in the Gilmore Girls) is with her.

‘She’s eight years old but thinks she’s six months,’ said Suzi. S

he’s not the first female Methodist vicar in West Cork – Daphne Twinem served some years before her – but Suzie feels completely settled into the role of vicar, and very much part of the community. ‘

What’s different about here is that the people of West Cork care about all their ministers, regardless of their church, and that’s really unique to here. The caring nature of West Cork people is really beautiful.’

Her week is a busy one, with at least two services, as numbers in the Methodist church are growing, and there’s also bible studies, and other meetings, as well as her work with the Drimoleague Food Bank.

‘This time last year the food bank was helping 22 families a week, it was 28 a few weeks back, and is now at 32, from Glengarriff, Bantry, Dunmanway and everywhere in between.’

They operate on Tuesday mornings and have a café too.

‘People can sit and chat about spiritual things, or if they want to talk about the state of the nation, that’s okay too,’ she said.

A typical length of time for a minister to stay in a location is eight years, so Suzie is looking forward to her work ahead here.

‘I’m passionate for people to get to know Jesus like I have, and have that personal relationship.

‘There was a time in my life that I found it difficult to stay living, just general life got me down, it would come in waves, but knowing Jesus was the thing that changed that.’

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