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Missionary priest jailed in the Philippines

May 9, 2011 · 

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The death in Italy of Niall O’Brien, the Columban missionary priest brought back vivid memories of the drama of his imprisonment in the early 1980s as a member of the Negros Nine, whose frame-up on a false murder charge rallied world opinion against the corrupt Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.

Niall’s life serves as a timely reminder of a potent strand in the Irish missionary tradition of promoting justice through non-violent protest that provides a positive balance for Catholicism when weighed against scandals Perpetrated by rapist paedophile priests which have so blighted the home church in recent years.

O’Brien who was born in Blackrock, Co Dublin and began his studies for the priesthood in 1957, belonged to a remarkable generation of Irish Columbans who were imbued with the values of the social gospel during their seminary training in Dalgan, Co Meath, and after ordination applied these principles on the missions. O’Brien, a quiet spoken man with a boyish smile was to become the most. Well known of them, who from the mid-1960s onwards opposed at great personal risk the exploitation and oppression, of the poor by the big plantation owners in the Philippines.

It was the undertaking of a radical experiment in mobilizing workers to take more control of their lives by forming a kibbutz on the Negros Island that so enraged the planters that O’Brien found himself, along with Fr Brian Gore, an Australian Fr Vincente Dangan, a Philippine, and six lay workers, behind bars in Kabankalan Prison on the trumped-up charges of having murdered the local mayor.

Although conditions were brutal outsiders were able to communicate with the prisoners through telephone calls and by letter to highlight their plight. One caller, Tim Pat Coogan, recalled last week of how as they spoke, O’Brien became agitated about the appearance of armed men on the roof opposite his cell. When the line went dead, Coogan, then editor of the Irish Press, instructed his reporters to keep phoning the prison while he contacted influential figures in Ireland and the United States.

O’Brien wrote a vivid book, based on his prison diaries, that recalled how the Negros Nine feared that they were about to be assassinated but that almost as suddenly as the shadowy gunmen had arrived, they quickly disappeared. The book, Seeds of Injustice, a mini-classic which carried a foreword by the famous moral theologian, Bernard Haring, describes how visitors such as Bishop Eamonn Casey and journalists including RTE’s Charlie Bird helped bring about their release.

On his return to Dublin O’Brien was given a hei-o’s welcome at the airport, was feted in the Mansion House and said Mass at the Pro-Cathedral. He made a special pilgrimage to his mother’s home town of Dunmanaway, Co Cork, and met Tim Pat on the Aran Islands, where they adjourned to Steve’s pub, where Niall asked for milk, the first time anyone had asked for a half pint of milk in that hostelry.

Niall O’Brien could have become a cult figure but after writing two books – the second being Revolution from the Heart, (outlining the non-violent philosophy inspired by Ghandi and Martin Luther King) – he opted to continue his low-profile work, confronting the child sex industry and, more recently, pioneering new forms of evangelisation through a magazine which he edited.

Ironically, the man who had avoided being murdered in cold blood, died two decades later after falling off a wheel chair while being treated for a chronic blood disorder. Inspirational was how Fr Thomas Murphy so accurately summed up Niall’s ministry. END

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