Priest who stood behind H-Block hunger strikers

Piaras Ó Dúill obituary: 1931-2017

Fr Piaras Ó Duill became well-known among his contemporaries for his talent in directing plays. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Fr Piaras Ó Duill became well-known among his contemporaries for his talent in directing plays. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Prison cast a long shadow over the life of Fr Piaras Ó Dúill, OFM Cap (Order of Friars Minor Capuchin). Born in Dublin in 1931, his family home in Kilmainham looked on to the gaol where many of the leaders of the 1916 Rising were held and executed. He became more intimate with prison life in 1957 when he was incarcerated in Belfast’s Crumlin Road gaol for his part in the IRA’s Border campaign of that era. He was released in 1961 and, some 20 odd years later, he was elected chairman of the National H-Block/Armagh Committee as the republican hunger strikes of the early 1980s began.

He was unashamedly and unapologetically a republican. His father Ben had gathered intelligence for Michael Collins and his mother Caitlín had been a member of Cumann na mBan. He said in an interview in Irish with the monthly magazine Comhar in 1985 that he saw no difference between what the IRA of Collins’s era did and what the contemporary IRA were doing. That said, he greatly lamented the loss of innocent life.

He told The Irish Times in the immediate aftermath of the death of the first hunger striker, Bobby Sands, that he wanted those “standing behind H-Block prisoners to continue their campaign in a peaceful manner. There should be no violence either in the North or the South. It is possible to avert violence. Rallies have been dignified and there is even more reason in the aftermath of Bobby Sands’s death for the campaign to remain dignified and calm.”

‘Provo priest’

Nonetheless, his activism earned him the sobriquet of being a “Provo priest” – a characterisation he dismissed. He was not a member of Sinn Féin, he said, and saw his role as a priest to minister to prisoners wherever they were and to challenge injustice. His work on their behalf was not limited to the North. He also criticised and highlighted the treatment of prisoners in the Republic.

He was a man of deep culture. He entered the priesthood in 1963 and his training took him to Ards Friary in Co Donegal, a beautiful place on the coast and one that still attracts local people and visitors to prayer. There he became well-known among his contemporaries for his talent in directing plays, including Brian Friel’s The Enemy Within and Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. He also organised a concert in nearby Creeslough in 1966 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rising.

There was always music. An accomplished fiddler, he was to be found in the pubs of Ros Muc, playing a tune or two and enjoying a glass of whiskey about which he was also unapologetic. Indeed, the family was noted for its musical ability and his brother Breandán found fame as an actor, singer and radio presenter on RTÉ.

Ordained in 1971, he began a ministry that lasted 42 years in St Brendan’s Psychiatric Hospital in Grangegorman, Dublin. He enjoyed the work and liked helping people who had little support. Indeed, he told friends, his time in prison – which he never regretted – helped him greatly in his role. He understood loneliness better than most. He also kept and maintained the hospital’s records and artefacts and they have been passed on to the National Archive.

When Grangegorman was renovated as part of the new DIT campus, Ó Dúill spoke to The Irish Times about his life as chaplain: “One thing I am very much aware of is when the patients came in here because they were psychiatric patients they thought of their roots, they thought of their families, they thought of their religion, and very often they’d come looking for the priest . . . This was my first assignment and I never left it.”

He was steadfast in his support of the Irish language and the Gaeltacht. He married, baptised and buried many of Dublin’s Irish-speaking community and provided a vital spiritual and linguistic service in his own welcoming and diligent way. He spent more than 30 years as a chaplain in Coláiste na bhFiann, an organisation that teaches young people Irish. He mucked in with the work, drove the minibus west when needed and kept in touch with the plain people of Connemara and Ireland.

He was predeceased by his siblings – Brian, Andy, Breandán and Angela – but was loved and cared for by a wide circle of nephews, nieces, extended family, friends and fellow clergy. Despite being caught up in political rows on occasion, he did not seek the limelight. One friend noted: “Rinne sé gach aon rud go ciúin, gan aird a tharraingt air féin.”/“He did everything quietly, without drawing attention to himself.”