Wednesday 22 November 2017

The friar who made poverty headline news

Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

A friendly argument at a golf tournament over the existence of the Almighty may seem a strange place to trigger a vocation. But that is precisely what happened to Fr Donal O'Mahony (74), who subsequently abandoned his career in journalism to become a Capuchin friar.

Fr Donal -- the founder of the acclaimed housing organisation Threshold -- was buried on Tuesday in his native Cork after losing his brave fight against illness. He was 74.

The attendance at his Requiem Mass spoke volumes both for the high regard in which he was held and the personal relationships he had forged over the course of a remarkable life.

Born in Blackrock, Fr Donal initially opted for a career in journalism after completing his Leaving Cert.

Unusually for a Corkman, his career took him to the Irish Independent rather than the Cork Examiner. He worked for three years as a sports reporter.

One of his plum jobs was an assignment to cover an international golf tournament at St Andrew's in Scotland.

It was a marking back in the mid-1950s that would prove to be the turning point of his life.

The young reporter became involved in a friendly argument with another journalist, an atheist, over the existence of God. The discussion came to an end but the young Irishman couldn't shake it off.

His life-long friend, Fr Silvester O'Flynn, recalled that he was a "breezy, brash young journalist". But his deeply-held religious beliefs -- now more prominent post-St Andrew's -- gave him pause for thought, and over the coming months he decided his life was on the wrong course.

Having re-evaluated where he was going, he opted to leave the Irish Independent in 1958 and pursue a vocation as a Capuchin friar.

When he was eventually re-united with his old friend Fr Silvester, the latter admitted that he was shocked at the career change.

Fr O'Mahony was fiercely determined to use his vocation to help the poor and vulnerable in society. Ordained in 1966, he was based at Church Street in Dublin's inner city and it was there he witnessed the appalling that effect poverty had on the people.

A lack of access to decent housing was a primary problem.

Large numbers of young people from provincial Ireland were forced to rely on cheap, sub-standard accommodation in the city and many tenants had little legal protection against unscrupulous landlords.

In 1978, having worked for more than a decade to help people with their housing needs, Fr Donal founded the lobbying and support group Threshold.

Over the next three decades, Threshold grew in size and respect to become the National Housing Advisory Board.

"He was a man of great empathy," said Fr Flynn. "In Donal's presence, one was welcomed into a space of hospitality. He was a man of extraordinary wisdom. Donal was always very conscious that it is very easy to talk and give lectures about problems, but you must back it up with action.

"Threshold is now the recognised voice for flat dwellers with up to 20,000 calls a year. He planted the seed and handed it over to others to let it grow."

But the Cork friar's commitment to helping the vulnerable didn't stop there. In the 1980s, he spent some of the most dangerous years of the Northern Ireland conflict attempting to engage with both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries in a bid to persuade them to engage in peaceful political dialogue.

Many of his interventions were to help those under threat from paramilitaries.

This, in turn, led to him being used as a trusted intermediary in the resolution of a number of high-profile kidnapping cases.

One of the best-known of these was the kidnapping of Dutch industrialist Dr Tiede Herrema in 1975 from his home outside Limerick. Fr O'Mahony worked tirelessly to secure Dr Herrema's safe release from his kidnappers, Eddie Gallagher and Marion Coyle.

The Dutch businessman was eventually released, 36 days later -- and maintained his gratitude for Dr O'Mahony's actions for the rest of his life. They even played golf together several years later.

Fr Donal became national chaplain of Pax Christi in Ireland and, as respect for his role as a trusted intermediary grew, he was asked to undertake delicate negotiations in various countries behind the 'Iron Curtain' before the fall of Communism.

The Cork friar was also appointed to Rome as the secretary-general of the Capuchin Order for Peace, Justice and Equality -- a promotion that brought him into almost daily contact with senior Vatican officials.

That role also required him to travel the world to supervise and encourage Capuchins working in all parts of the globe.

In one seven-year period, Fr O'Mahony visited 94 different countries and was acknowledged for his work by the American Franciscan Journal, which awarded him the 'Franciscan Person of the Year' title.

With the South African peace process reaching its climax and apartheid being dismantled, Fr O'Mahony moved to Pretoria in 2003, where he helped found the Damietta Peace Initiative.

This, in turn, was endorsed in 2005 by the Capuchin Order and, in 2008, Fr O'Mahony was honoured with the South African Interfaith Foundation 'peace award'.

Capuchins travelled from all over the world to attend Fr O'Mahony's Requiem Mass and pay tribute to his life's work. Friars attended from Korea, Ethiopia, Spain, Italy, the UK and South Africa.

Fr Donal remained true to his Cork roots with a lifelong love of sailing, GAA and the Irish language.

He is survived by his sister, Mary, his brother-in-law, Dom, and his nieces, Colette, Jane and Lisa.

Irish Independent

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