Putting the rev into reverend: clergymen on motorbikes

Three bike-loving clergymen find the pastime to be a good conversation starter and a way to unwind from a stressful job. In the words of one, ‘it’s just heaven’

Fr John Kearns at a memorial Mass for deceased bikers at the Sacred Heart Church in Clones, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Alan Betson

Fr John Kearns at a memorial Mass for deceased bikers at the Sacred Heart Church in Clones, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Alan Betson


According to the song, Jesus rode a Harley Davidson, but as for Rev John Kearns, “I’m a Honda man”.

The 56-year-old was introduced to motorcycling while growing up in Corcaghan, Co Monaghan. “I’ve been at it since I was knee high to a duck. Daddy was into motorbikes.”

His father, Michael, owned several bikes over the years, from a Triumph Tiger 500 to a 50cc. He and his younger brother Frank had bikes “long before we were supposed to”.

Fr Kearns’s bike of choice since 1997 has been a Honda ST1100. His biker friends at home bought it for him while he was working as a missionary in Zimbabwe.

“The lads I’d have rode the bikes with could never understand me becoming a priest and certainly never understand me going to the missions.”

Before entering the priesthood, he worked with An Garda Síochána, Aer Lingus, and as a trucker. He is a member of the Boardlords biker group and attends rallies whenever he gets the chance. He has been based in Brookeborough, Co Fermanagh, since last September.

Fr Kearns is also on the organising committee of Gone but Not Forgotten, an annual Mass held in Clones to remember bikers who have died in accidents. He says the Mass highlights “the family aspect of the biking world”. It was attended by a record 2,500 people in May.

“Any fool can get a bike from zero to 60, it takes an experienced man to get it from 60 back to zero. It’s important to be aware of that and to be aware of how vulnerable we are on the bike and how a moment of madness can cause so much pain to the family at home.”

While he thinks certain accidents are avoidable, he believes smaller ones are par for the course. “No one can say they’re a biker if they’ve never had a tumble.”

Conversation starter
His bike has proved useful to his work as it often acts as a conversation starter. “The young people could sometimes identify with you – the fact that you had a motorbike, you were a bit different from the normal Bible-under-your-arm priest.”

He believes people’s attitudes to biking have improved in recent times. “There are a lot more positive experiences of bikers now than there would have been, maybe, 30 years ago. They had a rebellious element to them back then, whereas now a lot of the clubs are involved in fundraising and charity work.

“People have met these lads face to face, so they’re beginning to realise that not every biker is the one that will tear the place apart.”

Favourite biking routes for the priest include the north Antrim coast, northwest Donegal and the Burren. For those travelling on the continent, he recommends Austria, Croatia and Italy.

Rev Andrew McCroskery’s dream stretch is Route 66 in the US. At home he favours Kerry and the Sally Gap in Co Wicklow, especially in the summer months. He is a member of Gaelic Chapter Ireland – a club for Harley Davidson owners – but rarely attends events as they often happen on Sunday mornings. “That’s a major clash,” he laughs.

The 39-year-old is originally from Belfast, but grew up in Bangor, Co Down. He has been the vicar at St Bartholomew’s Church of Ireland in Dublin’s Ballsbridge since 2008. He uses his Harley VRSC a lot for work. “This parish is very scattered – there are people as far away as Meath and Wicklow. Irish weather isn’t conducive to biking most of the time, but I still brave it.”

McCroskery knows “a good few” clergy bikers. “For some it’s an environmental thing because you’re on the road so much in terms of your work.”

Death of an uncle
In 1995 his uncle was killed instantly when his bike skid off the road due to an oil spillage. He initially did not tell his family when he returned to biking following the accident.

He thinks a campaign is needed to make car drivers more aware of bikers’ needs on the road. “I don’t want to knock [the RSA] too much, but a lot of their adverts . . . tend to show bikers going very fast and bikers crashing and dying on the road.” While he would agree there is a certain truth to this portrayal, he thinks drivers should also be made aware that bikers who are swerving may be doing so due to potholes or oil patches, as opposed to reckless behaviour.

However, he does understand why drivers might hold a negative view of bikers. “You’re a small and narrow object on a road, so you will always look like you’re speeding, even if you’re under the speed limit.”

Rev Tony Conlan, a chaplain at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, agrees that bikers are often prejudged by other road users. He feels a lot of this negativity is unwarranted, particularly since compulsory basic training for motorcyclists was introduced here a few year ago. Bikers now need to start off on vehicles with limited horse power and undergo training before they upgrade to a more powerful bike. He thinks a similar initiative should be introduced for cars.

He enjoyed watching road races such as the Tandragee 100 and North West 200 as a child, but only got his first motorbike about 13 years ago.

Fr Conlan has had a number of Suzukis over the years, but had to sell his V-Strom 650 following an accident that “smashed” his collarbone and did nerve damage to his hand and arm.

He has just bought a Fazer 600S, so his Nissan Micra will be getting less use over the summer. “You can’t enjoy a road in a car.” His inaugural voyage on the new bike will take him to Westport, Leenane and Galway.

The 54-year-old is known to his friends as Tony the Rev, and has covered more than 90,000 miles on bikes so far.

He says his work can be “very tough. The bike is the only way to relax. It’s a great de-stresser. You can forget everything and just have the road and the wind and the bike. It’s just heaven.

“People look at you as if you’ve two heads when you’re trying to describe how great biking is and the sense of freedom you have. They just don’t get it.”

He says his biking friends come from all walks of life and the fact he is a priest doesn’t matter to them. “Most of the lads who know me, they know what I do and it just doesn’t come up. You’re just a biker like the rest of them.”

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