Monday 19 November 2018

How Irish missionaries fought fake news and risked their lives to save millions from starvation during Biafran war

New documentary, Biafra: Misean Dearmadta (Forgotten Mission), airing on TG4, charts media campaign ignited by Irish missionaries that led to the greatest humanitarian airlift since World War II

Kevin Doheny CSSp, Nigeria. Biafra Forgotton Mission, TG4, 9.30pm Wednesday May 23
Kevin Doheny CSSp, Nigeria. Biafra Forgotton Mission, TG4, 9.30pm Wednesday May 23
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

A new Irish documentary reveals how Irish missionaries risked their lives to save millions from starvation during the Nigerian Civil War.

Known as the Biafran War, it raged from 1967 to 1970 between the government of Nigeria and the eastern region of Nigerian that had broken away, which called itself the Republic of Biafra.

Guerre du Biafra. Umuosu, centre de nutrition. Distribution de gari, légumes, oranges et bois de feu.
Biafra conflict. Umuosu, feeding center. Gari, vegetables, oranges and firewood distribution.
septembre/octobre 1968.
Guerre du Biafra. Umuosu, centre de nutrition. Distribution de gari, légumes, oranges et bois de feu. Biafra conflict. Umuosu, feeding center. Gari, vegetables, oranges and firewood distribution. septembre/octobre 1968.

Assisted by Britain, the former colonial master, the Nigerian military government imposed a blockade to prevent supplies reaching the Biafran enclave.

The documentary Biafra: Misean Dearmadta (Forgotten Mission) reveals how Irish missionaries, who were working there, instigated relief efforts around the world, and how the Irish media and public rallied together to raise funds and send goods to save the innocent adults and children who were starving to death as a result of the blockade.

Biafra conflict. M. Baise province (Team 16). Distribution center. Biafra Forgotton Mission, TG4, 9.30pm Wednesday May 23
Biafra conflict. M. Baise province (Team 16). Distribution center. Biafra Forgotton Mission, TG4, 9.30pm Wednesday May 23

"We also discovered a new hero, who had never spoken about his role, a Holy Ghost priest called Dermot Doran, now in his 80s but going strong," says producer Brendan Culleton, who previously brought Congo - An Irish Affair, the story of the siege of Jadotville, to the small screen.

Speaking during the documentary, Dermot Doran, said, "All I wanted was to save the children.  They were the biggest victims of the war."

"He was the first to break the Nigerian blockade on Biafra and flew in with medical supplies, subsequently organising a world wide media campaign strongly supported by Independent newspapers," says Culleton.

"The Evening Herald played a massive part in the campaign in Ireland - they had their own fundraising campaign and one of the editors travelled to Biafra."

Nto-Edino, Sick Bay, Udo. Distribution de lait.
Nto-Edino, Sick Bay, Udo. Milk distribution.
Nto-Edino, Sick Bay, Udo. Distribution de lait. Nto-Edino, Sick Bay, Udo. Milk distribution.

The events of 50 years ago in Biafra have rarely been explored from Ireland's point of view. 

Despite the very real risk to their own lives the missionaries managed to save millions from starvation having highlighted their plight with a media campaign that took them everywhere from the Vatican to the White House.

Biafra conflict. In a nutrition center. Distributing milk and stockfish voucher. 1968. Biafra Forgotton Mission, TG4, 9.30pm Wednesday May 23
Biafra conflict. In a nutrition center. Distributing milk and stockfish voucher. 1968. Biafra Forgotton Mission, TG4, 9.30pm Wednesday May 23

That campaign was prompted by the fact that, at the time, the documentary claims "the BBC actively spread fake news about the events" and it resulted in the "greatest humanitarian airlift since World War II", which was managed by an Irish Holy Ghost missionary.

The fame subsequently became the world's first televised famine.

"It was the missionaries who first brought journalists to see the results of the famine and it was the missionaries who distributed thousands of tonnes of food and medicine, keeping millions alive for two years of famine," says Culleton.

However, once the war had ended, they were expelled from the country, accused of prolonging the war.

This fascinating film, by Irina Maldea and Brendan Culleton, features eyewitness accounts and a wealth of archive film to bring the story to vivid life. 

Biafra: Misean Dearmadta (Forgotten Mission) airs on TG4 on Wednesday at 9.30pm.

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