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"Fr. Niall O'Brien"

May 2, 2003 · 

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Published in Sunday Tribune

He was educated by the Holy Ghost Fathers at Blackrock College, but it was the Columbans that Niall O’Brien arrived in 1957, to begin his journey towards ordination. He wanted little more than to be a priest: he would become a social campaigner; political philosopher and household name.

He was brought up in Blackrock on the southside of Dublin, one of Niall O’Brien and Olivia Croweley’s three sons. After school at Willow Park and later Blackrock, he entered the seminary at Dalgan Park, Navan, at the age of 18. He ordained on 22 December 1963 and immediately assigned to the island of Negros in the Philippines, where the Columban Fathers ran a busy mission. Sugar can farming was the principal industry on the island of O’Brien quickly became involved in addressing the injustices suffered by the plantation of workers.

In February 1983, he was arrested and charged, along with two other priests, and six workers, of the murder of the local mayor of Kabankalan, Pablito Pablo Sola.

The three priest where placed under house arrest but chose to go to prison along with there co-accused. The barbaric conditions under which they were held were highlighted by TV crews from around the world as of the case of the Negros Nine captured headlines and inspired a raft of humanitarian protests. A year later, all the charges were dropped.

Upon his release, O’Brien returned to Ireland to a hero’s welcome. Back in Blackrock, he wrote a book, Seeds of Injustice, about his time in prison. A follow-up book, Revolution form the heart, laid out his views on non-violent revolution. When the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown, he returned to the Philippines where he continued working on behalf of plantation labourers.

He was back home three years ago, suffering from a condition which was diagnosed as a rare blood disorder. He received treatment in Ireland and went back to the Philippines for a final time to help establish a magazine for local priests. In recent months, he traveled to Pisa in Italy for further medical treatment. He was in a local park last Sunday with his brother, Terry, a retired professor of economics at the University of Ulster, when he fell from his wheelchair and struck his head on the pavement. He underwent emergency but didn’t regain consciousness.

He died on Tuesday, aged 64. He is survived by his brothers, Terry and Fergus, and his community of Columban Fathers. “He was a man of tremendous imagination and had a new approach to preaching the gospel,” said Fr. Colm McKeating, regional director of the Philippines region of the society of St. Columban, ” We have lost a very talented man who has left quite a legacy.” His remains will be flown home to Dalgan Park early next week for his funeral and burial amongst his confreres.

Fiona Looney

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