Tribute to Fr Nial O'Brien

It is with great sadness that we report on the death of Fr Niall O'Brien, a member of the Missionary Society of St Columban, who died in Pisa, Italy, on 28th April 2004. He was there undergoing experimental treatment for a rare blood disease. While trying to rise from his wheelchair, he fell and hit his forehead. He underwent emergency treatment in hospital but lapsed into a coma. Fr Niall, who helped found Pax Christi in the Philippines in 1995 and took part in several Pax Christi International Council meetings, was well known for his commitment to active nonviolence. Here we present part of an obituary to Niall from fellow Columban, Father Seán Coyle editor of Misyon.

Father O'Brien was born in Dublin, Ireland, on August 2, 1939. He entered the Columban seminary in Ireland in 1957 and was ordained priest in December 1963. He came to the Philippines the following year and spent most of the rest of his life in the Diocese of Bacolod.

Father O'Brien had a passion for language as the expression of a people's culture and rejected the description of the Hiligaynon language, which he spoke fluently, as a 'dialect.' The Samaria retreats, given by a team of laymen and a priest, were entirely in that language. Out of the experience of working with men who were natural leaders in their communities he produced books and pamphlets in Hiligaynon for Sunday services in distant barrios that couldn't have Mass on a regular basis.

A totally different legacy is the kibbutz he set up in the early 70s in a mountain area of Tabugon, Negros Occidental, to enable poor farmers to enjoy the fruits of their labour as a cooperative. It was typical of Father Niall to take a model from elsewhere, this time from modern Israel, and adapt it to local needs and to the local culture. This venture, though Father O'Brien hadn't been directly involved for some years, is still going.

All this was before the event that made Niall O'Brien an international figure for a while and a national hero in Ireland, something reflected by the wide coverage given by the Irish media to his death 20 years later. The 'Negros Nine' were three priests - the other two being Australian Columban Brian Gore and diocesan priest Father Vicente Dangan - and six parish workers falsely charged with the murder of Mayor Pablo Sola of Kabankalan and four companions. The three priests were under house arrest for eight months, the last three weeks of that in the Police constabulary camp in Bacolod City, before they 'broke out' of it and 'broke into' Bacolod City Jail where the others were. They spent six months in jail before the case was dropped. The late Senator Jose Diokno helped greatly towards the end. Bishop Fortich of Bacolod, who died last year, appointed the three priests as chaplains while they were in jail, a real blessings for many prisoners who had been forgotten. Lawyers whom the priests knew followed up their cases.

The death penalty was on the books during those years and the possibility of being sentenced though innocent did trouble Father O'Brien. He had always opposed this punishment but never dreamed of the possibility that this sentence might be passed down on him some day. However, the international coverage given the case made that a remote possibility.

Father O'Brien became a national figure in Ireland that time because RTÉ, the national radio and TV network gave extensive coverage to the case, sending out a reporter to Bacolod, Charlie Bird, who himself became a celebrity as a result. People in Ireland could not believe that a prisoner could be interviewed live on radio and TV from his cell.

Father O'Brien kept a diary during his imprisonment and later wrote two books based on this. The first, Seeds of Injustice, was published in Ireland and was basically an account of the experience of the Negros Nine. Revolution from the Heart, a spiritual/theological reflection on the Negros Nine experience and on the more than 20 years that he had by then spent in Negros, was published in Ireland, the USA and the Philippines. Cardinal Vidal of Cebu launched the Philippine edition. The book has been translated into many languages, including German, Spanish, Korean and Japanese.

A later book was Island of Tears, Island of Hope, a further reflection on the Church's mission in Negros that highlights the role of Bishop Antonio Fortich, for whom Father Niall had great respect, admiration and affection.

His experience of violence in Negros, especially during the Martial Law years, was an influence on his passionate commitment to active non-violence, which he saw as a demand of the Gospel. He had contacts in the peace movement throughout the world and was a speaker at a number of international gatherings.

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