From 2011 edition By Eamonn McFadden
When the news a serious road traffic collision had taken place just outside of Creeslough village on an afternoon in September 2008, word filtered through across the local community that it was a serious one.
As the reality came to pass that it was a head-on collision between a passenger laden touring coach and a car, the signs were ominous.
When news emerged the driver was non-other than Fr Mark Coyle, the highly popular and deeply respected guardian of Ards Friary, hearts across the community sank fearing the worst.
The outlook was bleak as the severity of his injuries, including a broken neck, required a risky transfer to a Dublin Hospital, coupled with his advance age and a menacing respiratory condition, his family, friends, colleagues and congregation braced themselves for somber outcome.
But, as the old cliché goes – ‘you can’t keep a good man down’ – and, for some time at least, you couldn’t, until two years after the devastating road crash he was finally called home and passed away peacefully in the company of his close family.
Prior to his sad passing, I was invited to visit with Fr Mark in June 2009, who against all the odds, had won back a degree of health that allowed him back to his beloved Ards.
Despite the long road to recovery, he had recently even returned to the alter to celebrate mass and address the congregation with his thanks for all their support. His return even made front page news in the local paper!
Still, I thought to myself, I’d better expect to find Fr Mark giving whispered answers from his sick bed as by now, he only traveled the short distances around the Friary by electric wheelchair and the hour I had arrived was getting late, well past an aging clerics bed time I believed.
What I was greeted with couldn’t have been more different..
A bright smile, an out-stretched hand and warm welcome met me as I walked in the door. A relaxed and chatty Fr Mark, along with his nephew Brian McDaid from Letterkenny, and I spent the next couple of hours enjoying his company, imparting laughs, life lessons, wisdom, all interwoven in the unique personality that endeared him to so many .
The reason I was invited to talk with him, it became clear, was he wished to speak to a local newspaper reporter to help him express his deep gratitude to all who helped during his ordeal and recovery and have it published across the county for all to see.
As he began to express these sentiments he also began to describe the ordeal itself, his long road to recovery and also many stories from his remarkable life. He started by recalling his transfer back from hospital in Dublin to his native Letterkenny, which he believed would be his “final journey home.”
With serious neck, chest and arm injuries, among others, he was gravely ill and he says if it was not for good fortune from a passer by and the quick response of those at the scene he would not have made it past that day. Fr Mark says he was delighted to be back in the close knit local community and that he owes a debt of gratitude to the many people who have helped him get back to his life in the Friary.
“When they told me they were sending me back to Letterkenny I thought that is it, I’m going home to die, and I felt that if that was God’s will I’d accept it. It was when I got back to Letterkenny I began to realise there was what I call a ‘tsunami of prayer’ coming from all over the county. I felt it coming from all over the country and even outside the country,” Fr Mark said.
“It came from relatives in Australia and New Zealand. A woman told me I was prayed for at Mass in Philadelphia and I began to realise, there am I as a priest preaching to people about the power of prayer and that there is no such thing as a prayer God doesn’t answer and I needed my own faith to be strengthened. That really was when I realised, you know, this is not the end yet. The Lord isn’t ready for me or maybe I’m not ready for the Lord,” he said with a hearty laugh.
Recalling the day of the accident he was thankful for a number of factors that prevailed preventing further carnage. He expressed deep gratitude to all who attended with him in his hour of need and all who continued to play a role in his recovery through prayer, cards, letters and messages of goodwill.
“There is so many things that I am grateful for. I’m grateful firstly that there was nobody else injured in the accident except myself. I would have hated to have had to live with that. The other thing was the medical care I got. A doctor used to come up to me and say ‘you are the miracle man’. They had questioned whether I was going to survive or not, but I did with the massive work they did. We take so much for granted. When I came back to Letterkenny, the whole atmosphere and care of the General Hospital and the nursing care, and especially rehab, where it was nearly like being at home.
“It was a home from home and they are so human and very, very committed to their work. They were great and they always gave me little more exercise to do and I feel a great debt to them,” he added.
He also sincerely acknowledged the role his close family played, in his care. Recalling the accident, as he drifted in and out of consciousness there are only a few things he remembers.
Firstly was the “whomp”, the front of his car coming in on him, followed by futile efforts to move his feet, arms and then lift his head, the results of a broken neck, then the arrival of the first person on the scene of the carnage. He explains: “The lady who arrived first and came on the scene of the accident, she had just done a first aid course, something she always wanted to do, and she went in and held my head until the medical team came.”
Her efforts allowed the paramedic’s to stabilized their patient and due to her quick thinking, it was the last movements his neck was allowed to make for over two months later. “That was the presence of God, it was extraordinary that she should be there at that time,” he said.
He also praised the bus driver for taking evasive action which helped to avert one accident turning into something more serious, particularly for his passengers.
“I want to thank all of those people and my family and friends. And all the people, I don’t know how many, for the hundreds of letters and cards that have came from all over the place. I just wouldn’t be able to answer them all and I relish this opportunity to express in some public way, my gratitude to all those people because every one of them was like an act of affirmation, that every one of them is praying for you, and Lord it was great to know that,” he added.
Now, while he navigated the long corridors of the Friary in a high tech electric wheelchair, he was quick to his feet to demonstrate the physical progress he had made as he took four footsteps across the floor, turned and walked back, collapsing into his chair with a beaming smile. Progression he and many others thought impossible just a year ago. He said the injury to his left arm impacted on the great passion he had for fly fishing but he “wouldn’t rule anything out” for casting a line in the future.
Over the years he enjoyed nothing more than a day on the lake or river with his friends and surely the thoughts of landing one more sea trout or salmon on Lackagh was always alive and well in his mind right up to the end. Sadly, it was not to come to pass. He had cast his last line.
On Monday June 14 2010, hundreds attended Fr Mark’s funeral at the Friary.
Guardian, Fr. Eustice, spoke highly of the late cleric. “When you asked Fr. Mark for advice, he paused, he took a deep breath and then he pulled his beard and that seemed to release words of wisdom. They were always very practical words of wisdom – full of heart and full of compassion,” Fr. Eustice commented.
In his homily he said Fr. Mark was a hugely popular person with a special gift. “He struck me as being probably the best listener I have ever met,” he said. “The person in front of him was the person that mattered. His eyes and his face lit up when you met him and you really felt that he wanted to talk to you. He was happy in your company and you mattered.
Diocese spokesperson, Fr. Paddy Dunne said Fr. Mark was a spiritual father who had a kind and gentle presence. “For people who came from all over the country to Ards Friary, he was a source of great comfort and good fun. He had a great sense of humor,” he said.
“Other priests went to him not only for guidance and advice but for support and friendship. When you went to Mark, you were welcomed to Ards with open arms.
A former Army chaplain, Fr. Mark’s long association with the Army was marked by a military Guard of Honor at the funeral. He served a number of tours of duty in the Lebanon but Ards was home and his memory will live on there for many, many years to come.
Many thanks to Brian McDaid for the photographs.