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Sunday 21 January 2018

Obituary: Fr Jack Finucane

The inspirational priest dedicated his life to aid work in countries torn apart by war and famine, writes Liam Collins

INFLUENCE: Fr Jack FinucaneKay
INFLUENCE: Fr Jack FinucaneKay

Fr Jack Finucane, who has died at the age of 80, was - along with his elder brother Aengus - an inspirational Irish missionary priest and aid worker who spent a lifetime in famine-hit and war-torn regions like Biafra, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

While 'Fr Gus' was a whirlwind of activity, Jack was described as "more reserved and reflective" and inspired singers Bob Geldof and Bono whom he escorted through Ethiopia in 1985. "I remember bringing Bob Geldof and also Bono to see the camps and influence them in overseas aid," he told Patrick Geoghegan of Newstalk some years ago. "I must say Live Aid (1985) was a huge support to us in one of the greatest famines of the last 50 years."

"Jack and his late brother were inspirational figures among the large group of people in Ireland who value and embody the importance of the humanitarian spirit," said President Michael D. Higgins last week, following Fr Jack Finucane's death at Kimmage Manor, Dublin, on Wednesday, June 7.

One of six children from the Shelbourne Road in Limerick, Jack Finucane and his twin brother Jim were born in 1937 and grew up deeply influenced by their elder brother by five years, Aengus, who had become a Holy Ghost (now The Spiritians) missionary.

In 1955, when he finished school at the Christian Brothers in Sexton Street, Limerick, the same year that he played minor hurling and football for Limerick, Jack went into the seminary to study for the priesthood. Ordained in 1963, he was assigned to Nigeria the following year, where his brother Aengus was a missionary and his twin Jim was working as a banker.

"I was in a very rural parish and I stayed there until the war broke out in 1966," he said. The province of Biafra had seceded from Nigeria, precipitating a civil war, which resulted in the region being cut-off from the outside and which led to the deaths of almost a million people from starvation.

With no way in or out of Biafra and a starving population, Fr Jack was appointed director of Caritas which was co-ordinating airlifts of supplies from aid agencies, much of which was brought in at night-time to avoid being shot down by the Nigerian military.

Some of those supplies came from the Irish aid agency, Concern, which was established by John O'Loughlin (Locky) Kennedy and his wife Kay in the kitchen of their home in Northumberland Road, Dublin, when his brother Fr Raymond returned from the region and told them of the horrific famine that was sweeping the country. They raised funds for several shiploads of aid to be sent to the region and also began helping to fund the airlift of aid from the island of Sao Tome.

In the years that followed, the Finucane brothers would play a huge part in the development of Concern, which is now one of Ireland's best known aid agencies.

When the war ended with the defeat of Biafra in 1970, Jack Finucane was captured and held for three weeks in a disease-ridden detention centre before being sentenced to six months in prison in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. He was released after three weeks, however, and deported home.

After spending some months in San Francisco, he was assigned to Rockwell College where he became Dean of the Catering School. He then went to the newly-independent Bangladesh where the population of 74m people were suffering from a lack of medical staff. He began influencing Concern not only to send aid, but to recruit young Irish nurses, engineers and others who would get directly involved in trying to get to grips with the lack of infrastructure in the region.

After eight years there, he went to Ethiopia in 1984 where what he later called a "secret famine" was afflicting the country at a time when the government was pouring vast sums of money into a series of commemorations to celebrate its decade of Communist-style rule.

When the government decided to re-settle 650,000 people, taking them from the north to the more fertile south, Fr Jack controversially agreed to help. He adopted the same policy of "who are we to judge?" when helping Hutu people who had fled to the Congo after slaughtering their Tutsi countrymen during the genocide of 1994.

Returning to Dublin in 1990, he became Concern's regional director for a number of countries in Africa, and even after his retirement in 2002, he had no hesitation in returning to help in the famine in Sudan. He also remained on the board of Concern USA for many years.

Fr Jack Finucane's funeral takes place tomorrow at Kimmage Manor, Dublin.

Sunday Independent

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