HE was one of Ireland's most heroic missionary priests. Taoiseach Brian Cowen yesterday led tributes to Fr Aengus Finucane, a former chief executive of the Third World charity Concern.
Mr Cowen described the 77-year-old Limerick-born Fr Finucane, who died yesterday from cancer at the Spiritan religious congregation's nursing home in Kimmage, Dublin, as "a great humanitarian".
Tom Arnold, chief executive of Concern Worldwide, said Fr Finucane inspired a whole generation of Concern overseas volunteers, and "there can be few Irish people, of his generation or of any other generation, who have contributed as much to improving the lives of so much of humanity".
Ordained a Holy Ghost priest in 1958, Fr Finucane took up a mission appointment to Nigeria the following year, but was on leave in Ireland when the southern province of Biafra seceded from Nigeria in 1967.
What is now Concern Worldwide began as Africa Concern in 1968 when a group including Aengus were centrally involved in chartering a ship to bring emergency supplies to Biafra.
Heartbreaking news stories of the sufferings of the famine-inflicted Ibo people captured the imagination of the Irish nation, and the new charity raised more than IR£3.5m from the Irish public -- a huge figure in 1970.
The MV Columcille set sail for Biafra, arriving on September 29, 1968, after a 26-day voyage from Dublin. It carried food, clothes and medicines. Three more ships followed in a two-year period.
Returning to his parish of Uli in the Onitsha archdiocese, Fr Finucane and other missionaries, including his brother Jack, ensured that the only good road there was converted into an airstrip with 50 flights a night bringing in much-needed relief supplies under cover of night.
Former colleague Fr Tony Byrne recalls Fr Finucane showing great courage under the threat of bomb raids as he unloaded cargo from the planes, and loaded starving children on board for medical treatment in Gabon and Guinea. "He helped save one million children," Fr Byrne said.
He was expelled from Nigeria in 1970 and moved to Gabon. In 1972 the expanding organisation, by then called Concern, sent him as field director to Bangladesh, Thailand and Uganda.
In 1981 he became Concern's chief executive, based in Dublin, and during his 16-year leadership, the agency moved into 11 new countries and multiplied its turnover 10-fold.
On his retirement in 1997 he became honorary president of Concern US.
On Concern's 40th birthday last year Fr Finucane attended a reception hosted by President Mary McAleese, who said: "Nothing you have done was ever done for thanks or recognition but on this anniversary it is only right that we stop for a moment and take time to acknowledge all that has been done, why it has been done, how it has been done and the wonderful people who, in a huge variety of ways, have been the hands of Concern's work."
Along with his brother, Fr Jack Finucane, and veteran RTE broadcaster and traditional musician Ciaran Mac Mathuna, Fr Gus was made a freeman of his native Limerick.
In a statement Taoiseach Brian Cowen said he was saddened to learn of the passing of Fr Finucane, whose life's work was to help alleviate the suffering of the poorest of the poor.
"His legacy is a proud one and it builds on the best traditions of Irish missionary work," Mr Cowen added.
In a joint statement, Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin and Minister of State for Overseas Development, Peter Power, said Fr Finucane had been "a tireless force for good across the globe for more than four decades".
Fr Eddie O'Farrell, the provincial secretary of the Spiritans, said that those who knew Fr Finucane well will always remember his recurring phrase "these nights never come back".
In his last interview, which is in the current issue of 'The Irish Echo', Fr Finucane coined his own epitaph when he said: "You need to have fire in your belly."