Saturday 25 May 2019

Fr Larry - the man who built a nation

Hubert Murphy profiles Fr Larry McDonnell from Mell, the subject of a new book detailing his extraordinary life

"When I give people bread, they call me a Saint. When I ask why people do not have bread, they call me a terrorist." Fr Laurence 'Larry' McDonnell

A Drogheda priest has been hailed as the saviour of thousands of children in Swaziland over the last 48 years - but also a campaigner against apartheid, helping to harbour many teachers and boys from persecution.

Fr Larry McDonnell is now the subject of a compelling book, written by a former student, Elias Masilela.

'Larry, Simply Larry' centres on the life of the Mell native. He arrived in Manzini in 1962 following his ordination into the Salesian community.

He has seen everything in his time there, but his Manzini Youth Service has been a lifesaver.

Without the help of Fr. Larry and his team, many of the young boys and girls would have little chance of accessing education, health care, counselling, nutrition, a safe living environment, and shelter. Many of the children had histories of physical and sexual abuse. Others have suffered the mental anguish of losing family members to disease.

The centre began in very humble beginnings in 1978. One Christmas night he found 13 children asleep outside his home. He managed to secure a disused morgue for them to stay.

Fr. Larry's unit feeds 800 children daily and their educational and social programmes target 2,000 children each day. They have four residential homes in the Manzini area.

'My first, direct, encounter with Fr Larry, was when I started my Form I at the Salesian School in Manzini, which was in 1977. However, I had had an indirect encounter, at a distance, whilst I was at Primary, in the same School. I started my Grade I in 1970, when Larry arrived at the school for the first time to head up High School. Incidentally, the Headmaster at Primary School was one of the founders of the school, who happened to be his senior back in Drogheda, Fr Pat Fleming,' the author told the Drogheda Independent.

'He is an amazing leader, educationist, impeccable fundraiser, strict disciplinarian who never ever relied on corporal punishment to instil discipline and a self-styled missionary. More importantly, I write about him as if I am writing about my own biological father. He is proud of his Irish identity and describes himself as Irish, fiercely Irish.'

The essence of Fr Larry is hope and that he has displayed in his many roles, as a priest, teacher and community builder.

'The revelations during the interviews I had with him were rather compelling. He had a quiet contribution towards the liberation of three strategic countries in the region - South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

'He had a fearless stance in the face of apartheid in smaller countries in the region. He harboured many teachers and provided education to many boys from these countries. Many of those he influenced are now business, political and academic leaders across the world. He produced teachers, priests, prime ministers, bishops and many more. One of these who stands out is the one of the founders of Netflix,' Elias added.

Known affectionately as Inyoni by Swazis everywhere, the storyline of Larry is that of an Irish Priest who gave himself to the development of the Swazi boy child, where otherwise a bleak future lay menacingly in wait.

The book explores the parallels between the Irish, on the one hand, South African and Swazi histories, on the other, covering aspects of education, family, religion, culture, governance as well as politics. Both tribute and portrait, the book takes the form of a wide-ranging conversation, drawing on interviews with, and the recollection of, a range of participants - fellow Salesian Priests, former Teachers, Salesian Old Boys and Family members - to build a richly detailed mosaic that illustrates the foundational principles and themes by which Larry has lived his illustrious life. His influence respects no borders.

Fr Larry's legacy is enormous and will sustain the people for decades to come.

'He provided much sought after education to many rural Swazi boys, preparing them to be responsible young man in their communities. This is he did at a time when Swaziland had only one industry, an asbestos plant in the remote north of the country. His responsibility was not constrained to the school. He went on to build and develop a vocational system that spans all regions of Swaziland. He has literally left a legacy that will remain unchallenged for many decades to come,' Elias adds.

Now in his 80s, he has made the odd trip home to Mell, where he was one of a family of six.

Indeed, one trip had to be extended as he had to have open heart surgery!

AIDS has had a huge impact on life there, but what inspires Larry are the people. He once said, 'They live close to nature and the spirit world. They have a tremendously strong sense of family and community obligations. And they have a great respect for the 'grey haired ones',' said Fr Larry pointing to his own silver locks.

The book launched last week in Johannesburg with launches also planned in India, Pretoria, Cape Town, London, New York and Dublin.

Drogheda Independent