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Turbulent priest with a social mission

May 1, 2004 ·  , Published in The Irish Times

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Father Niall O’Brien, who has died aged 64, became known internationally in the early 1980s during a 17-month Philippines trial on a trumped-up murder charge. He was one of the “Negros Nine” accused under the Marcos dictatorship of shooting a mayor on the southern sugar island of Negros.

A Columban missionary, who worked for nearly 40 years in the Philippines, his life was driven by a simple biblical principle that the human being should be the subject of his own destiny and not the object of others’ greed. O’Brien believed in “active non-violence” in an era dominated by often bloody struggle for a new post-colonial social and economic contact.

The label of “turbulent priest” soon attached to a man with a moral simplicity and boyish smile. Colleagues recall an energetic, imaginative, “fierce idealistic”, joyful and humorous companion “who did not cary the world on his shoulders”.

In a Cold War global atmosphere O’Brien and the “liberation theology” he embraced sialed close to political winds. One fellow priest says he had no agenda except as an enabler – “one of the learners” – making gospel values present in the culture in which he worked, for life enhancement. This he did by building “basic Christian communities”, training natural local leaders in the social aspects of the Gospels, applying the kibbutz model of co-operatives, by education and advocacy.

In Ireland O’Brien can be seen as a founding exemplar of the anti-globalization movement. Complaining of “too much cash crop and not enough food”, he argued that profligate lending to Marcos created “more coffins outside our churches” and that “the weight of repayment falls on the poor”.

O’Brien’s superior in the early 1980s, Father Desmond Quinn, recalls how the totalitarian martial law regime of Marcos looked askance at engendering self-awareness among poor sugar workers. The crowd came down to “Get rid of those priests”. Colleagues say Marcos saw the priests as more subversive than the (apparently communist) New People’s Army guerillas.

In 1983, with an Australian colleague, Father Brian Gore, a Filipino priest, Father Vicente Dangan, and six Filipino lay workers, O’Brien was charged with the murder of the mayor of Kabankalan, Pablo Sola. (Infact the guerillas shot him.)

At he time it was sensational to arrest foreign priests. After three days he priests were offered house arrest wile the lay workers were left in Bacolod City’s foetid jail. Seeing tht this rendered them more vulnerable O’Brien and Gore “broke back into prison” several months later. it was O’Brien’s idea, They visited the others and then refused to leave. There was a phone there, affording extraordinary access to media abroad.

As an international campaign for their release gained strength Marcos offered the foreigners a pardon, with parole for the others. The group spurned this as it implied guilt. Eventually there was a deal: charges against all “Negros Nine” dropped in return for the foreigners leaving the country.

During an AfrI campaign a powerful image had emerged of O’Brien’s Cork mother, Olivia, behind mock bars in a “cell” outside the US embassy in Dublin while President Ronald Reagan was visiting Ireland. The image embarrassed Reagan, and pressure was put on Marcos.

Politicians, aid agencies, lawyers and church leaders led by Bishop Eamonn Casey, who visited O’Brien in prison, joined the protests. In Negros thousands had risked marching 100 miles in torrid heat.

After the departure of Marcos in a “people power” revolution and O’Brien return “home” to Negros here were still ongoing army threats to priest. Charlie Bird, whose first foreign assignment to RTE was to visit the jail, sys O’Brien “symbolizes the courage of huge numbers of Irish missionary priests and nuns” who do “fantastic things and not for publicity”.

Niall O’Brien, from Blackrock, Co Dublin, was the youngest of four children. His father, Niall, was a senior civil servant. His mother, Olivia (nee Crowley) died last year in her 90s. O’Brien attended Sion Hill, Willow Park and Blackrock College, where a classmate recalls him as very intelligent and “full of impish jokes”, especially about pomposity.

In 1957 he studied for the priesthood at the Society of St Columban, Dalgan Park, Co Meath, graduating in 1963. He went to the Philippines in 1964. Later, during his absence from there, postgraduate peace studies was his choice.

Widely read, O’Brien was inspired by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Daniel Berrigan and Thomas Merton. An accomplished linguist, he quickly mastered the local Negros language, Ilongo. He translated liturgy and wrote in Ilongo. He had French, Italian and Irish. His ordination coincided with Vatican II, and he was enthusiastically ready for its encouragement of lay involvement. He was after all, one priest to 30,000 parishoners.

A founder of Pax Christi in the Philippines, O’Brien also used a fair for communication by editing a successful mission magazine, Misyon. He had recently started a review for diocesan priests.

He wrote here books: Seeds of Injustice, Revolution from the Heart and Island of Tears, Island of Hope which won a Pax Christi Peace Award in the US. In 1991 he was awarded the Philippines Aurora-Aragon-Quezon peace prize for advocacy and conflict resolution.

O’Brien died in Pisa, Italy, during experimental treatment for a rare bone-marrow disease. After his funeral at Dalgan Park his ashes will be buried in Negros, as he wished. His brothers, Fergus and Terence, survive him. His sister, Niamh, predeceased him.

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