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First Dates Ireland: Ex-trainee priest says celibacy was a ‘killer' for him

John Deacon (75) enjoyed his time in the seminary but wanted to find love.

John Deacon

Glamorous Bernie Penston

John Deacon

Eugene MastersonSunday World

A twice-married grandfather who studied to become a priest for five years insists he would now be saying Mass if celibacy had been done away with.

John Deacon (75) appears on RTÉ’s First Dates show hoping to find love once again, having been divorced from his first wife and then lost his second wife after she had an aneurysm.

The former building site contract manager grew up in Co. Kilkenny and attended Carlow technical school, but at the age of 16 went to the Jesuit Mundreg seminary in Limerick, where he studied from 1963 until 1968.

“I found it to be very good. Very few of the Jesuits were involved in this nonsense with the scandals.

"They consider themselves to be the intelligentsia of the Church,” John, who now lives in Slane, Co. Meath, says.

Glamorous Bernie Penston

“When I was there, I was over the moon with the experience I had there. I’d go back again and again if I had the opportunity, you know that kind of thing. They were fantastic people.”

He enjoyed his time in the seminary, where he learned one of his main passions, the guitar.

“I enjoyed every second of it and would have gone on,” he says. “I loved the whole idea of the priesthood. The killer for me was celibacy, I just couldn’t handle it, and that’s what brought me out.”

“We are all given different doses of nature. Some people live a celibate life in all walks of life, because that’s the cards they’ve been dealt.

John Deacon

"I was dealt a deck of cards that were fairly sexually charged and there was no way on earth I was going to be able to remain celibate.

"I reached that decision basically at 21, but had a hell of a job convincing superiors that I wanted to get out of celibacy.”

His elders in college tried to persuade him to stay on. “Their pet answer was ‘John, we all feel that, go and pray about it, you’ll come through it’,” he recollects

He is angry that celibacy is part of being a priest.

He pauses when asked if he’d go back if celibacy was done away with.

“I certainly would have stayed in if you could have married at the time. I loved the life. The answer would be yes, but would it be practical at this stage of my life, I don’t think so.”

John went to London as a young man, eventually becoming a contract manager on building sites.

He met his first wife, Moira, and they had a daughter, Sarah, who is now aged 46 and lives in Wimbledon with her five-year-old son Jack.

He then met his second wife Fiona, when they were neighbours in England. He knew her for 22 years and was married to her for 14 years, when Fiona died of an aneurysm aged 67.

John moved back to Ireland in 1997.His daughter Sarah applied for him to enter First Dates. His date on the show is glamorous granny Bernie Penston (65), from Ballinteer, Co. Dublin.

“I was taken back a bit. I thought she was a glamorous lady and though in a stranger way maybe outside my league,” he chuckles. “We had a good old chat and have a lot in common.”

Bernie, who has three children and five grandchildren, sings in a church folk group and also a choir.​

She left her husband after 30 years in 2009 and is now divorced.

“I had one or two relationships after, but nothing lasting and that’s why I went onto First Dates,” she tells us.

“My first impression was he was a beautiful gentleman and I could tell he was warm and engaging. He likes playing golf, I like tennis, we like outdoors, we also like music and both play the guitar, so it was a good match.”

Bernie found out on the date that John had once been studying for the priesthood. “I used to say on dates ‘tell me something that would shock me’ and John was happy to share his past, and it was a surprise,” she admits.

“He told me when he told his mother (he was leaving the seminary) she said it was the worst decision in his life.

"I felt sad for him, because you need confirming it was a life changing decision and need to be embraced.

“Celibacy would drive any priest out of the priesthood. It’s the most unnatural lifestyle. “

  • First Dates RTÉ 2 Thursday 9.30pm

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