Priest-hero of the Biafran war has vivid memories writes Louise McCarthy
Cabra-based priest Fr Tony Byrne left a secure job as an engineer to work in the developing world where he risked life and limb to bring relief to dying African children.
He was a Spiritan missionary in eastern Nigeria in 1967 when locals decided to declare independence as the Republic of Biafra. A bloody civil war that tore the region apart followed.
The conflict was the result of tensions mainly between the Hausas of north and the Igbo of the southeast of Nigeria.
Over the two and half years of the war, one million civilians died from famine and fighting. The war became notorious for the starvation of some of the besieged regions during the war, and consequent claims of genocide by the largely Igbo people of the region.
It was the first mass-starvation of men, women and children to reach Western Europe and North America through television screens.
Any aid reaching the dying was not supported by government officials in the West or Soviet Bloc, as the Biafrans were seen as rebels. Freelance pilots flying from offshore islands transported thousands of tons of baby milk and food by night to a secret airstrip cut from the bush. Fr Byrne pleaded the case for the dying children in an international campaign including the Vatican, Rome, Paris, London, Dublin and Washington.
Fr Byrne told The Irish Catholic how Biafran children were suffering from protein deficiencies that caused symptoms such as swollen stomachs. He sourced protein foods for the starving children in Cameroon and was a key player in the airlifts from 1967 until the end of the war in 1970. He was only 32 when he defied official international authorities to save children.
“A good few planes were shot down, I had a few lucky escapes,” he recalls.
“The Nigerians wanted to pressure the Biafrans into surrendering. At that time, oil supplies in the world were supposed to be dwindling and the Biafrans had copious supplies of oil.
“It is unbelievable how much the children suffered, they were sacrificed on the altar of oil,” according to Fr Byrne. While one million people starved, another million were saved as a result of the vital aid.
Despite his defiance of the world’s powers, Fr Byrne is utterly unrepentant: “I would do the same again. We broke the law, if you saw people dying, you would risk your life.”
Recently, Fr Byrne was honoured by Nigerian Archbishop Valerian Okeke, Archbishop of Onitsha, to give thanks for establishing the airlifts and a social training centre.
Because Fr Byrne was unable to attend the ceremony in Nigeria, the archbishop’s representative, Fr Jerome Ezenwelu, recently paid tribute to Fr Byrne at a ceremony in Dublin’s Skylon Hotel.
Captain Addi Arngrimur Johannsson who flew 146 relief flights to Biafra under fire from the Nigerian military attended the ceremony. He was joined by Gordon Cowan-Meade, whose father, Captain Jess Meade, lost his life in the airlift.
Departing Nigeria in 1970, Fr Byrne went to Pakistan and later travelled throughout Africa. His missionary work also brought him to the West Indies, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Describing the life of a missionary as “nomadic”, Fr Byrne said the years assisting Africans to become more self-sufficient were “very rewarding”, in stark contrast to the feelings experienced returning to Ireland in 1997.
“It is much more difficult to work as a priest in Ireland than in a developing country.
“I felt a strong anti-clerical feeling [in society], people were blaming the Church for everything,” he said.
Fr Byrne believes that “priests working in parishes are having a very tough time”.
Acknowledging that some anti-clerical sentiment stems from the sex-abuse revelations, Fr Byrne also believes that some Irish priests are lacking creativity in their homilies and this turns people off.
“The liturgy should be more interesting, the Gospel is full of richness relating to peoples’ problems”, he said.
However, he believes too many people regard Mass as “an obligation, not a celebration… it can be boring.
“I think some priests are not thinking creatively,” Fr Byrne adds.
However, he is realistic about the different cultures: “The only problem with Masses in developing countries is that they can be too long.”
Despite the difficulties the Church is experiencing, Fr Byrne has unshakable faith in Ireland’s young people. He believes they are “very Christian-minded” in their attitude towards life, but are “missing out” by not being involved in the life of the Church.
He is upbeat about Pope Francis and expressed the hope that the Pontiff may make a move on relaxing the Church’s rule on mandatory celibacy for priests. “I could not have done what I did in Biafra if I had been married, it would have been very tough on a wife. But I see Anglican married priests converting to Catholicism and serving as priests, so why can’t priests be allowed marry.”
He also thinks that the Church needs to move away from some of the harsh language that has alienated many homosexuals from Catholicism. “It would be much better if there was more compassion shown for gay people, Pope Francis is trying.”
Like many returned missionaries, Fr Byrne is making a vital contribution to the life of the Church in Ireland. Along with Presentation sister Kathleen Maguire, he has established the charity Awareness Education Service which provides information and support for suicide prevention, grief, bullying, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
Fr Byrne first met Sr Kathleen in Pakistan. Now, the pair work together to offer support to vulnerable people across the country.
The charity focuses mainly on the root causes of suicide, which Fr Byrne says is often a symptom of other problems, including bullying and depression.
It was a personal experience of bullying as a 72-year-old while working on a suicide prevention programme which impelled Fr Byrne to devote his ministry to tackling the harm caused by bullying.
A year of what he describes as “ridicule and painful put-downs in front of other people” caused him stomach pain and sleepless nights. He had not suffered post-traumatic stress after the harrowing Biafran airlifts, but was deeply affected by this first experience of bullying.
“I was feeling lousy, a clinical psychologist saw this woman in action. Confronting the bully gave me inner strength, if you confront a bully, it gives you strength. Bullies are very jealous, they think they are the centre of the world,” according to Fr Byrne.
Additionally the Awareness charity assists survivors and families affected by sexual abuse as a child. He is alarmed at the high prevalence of child sexual abuse in Ireland. But, despite the challenges facing Ireland, Fr Byrne is hopeful for the future.
“The culture of silence is breaking down. I am amazed by the amount of people who have asked for prayer, the power of prayer is very important. If there is no religion, what is the meaning of life,” said Fr Byrne.
It’s a piercing question for a culture struggling for meaning.