Great innovators have certain things in common. They possess a primal passion, enormous energy, a highly creative imagination and no patience. They ignore rules and are naturally autocratic, although this may be mediated through charm or the natural appeal of those with strong convictions.
In time it takes others to put structure on what they bring about, so it can survive them. Their baby grows up, and they are replaced by more predictable, mundane, bureaucratic leadership. It ensures that their legacy lives on to benefit more millions.
Here in Ireland we’ve had three such outstanding people working in the development area since the late 1960s. All devoted most of their adult lives to helping the most helpless among strangers in the poorest parts of the poor world. They were Fr Aengus Finucane, who helped found Concern in 1968; Bishop Eamon Casey, chairman of Trócaire from its foundation, in 1973, until 1992; and John O’Shea, who founded Goal in 1977.
Huge personalities all, rough-hewn, as life-and-death circumstances demanded. What these three men achieved will never be quantifiable, but it has saved and improved the lives of millions of people – people whom they accompanied through the most distressing circumstances.
They were with them through famine, earthquake, flood and war. And they did it for the best and simplest of reasons: they loved people, and they couldn’t bear to see them suffer.
Describing such men to Deirdre Purcell, President Michael D Higgins said they were “unstoppable forces, seeing no such thing as an unsolvable problem. Whether one was right or wrong, get on with it and do something, and do it now. There was a sense of immediacy, and a kind of raw humanity. People who aren’t like that don’t understand people who are.”
Speaking of Fr Finucane in particular, Higgins described him as a “natural-born leader who didn’t like bureaucracy”. Then, with that lopsided, mischievous smile, he added, “And wasn’t he right?”
Ravages of poverty
Some might trace the initiative behind the founding of Concern Africa, as it was then called, to Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI's 1967 encyclical. It said, "The progressive development of peoples is an object of deep interest and concern to the Church. This is particularly true in the case of those peoples who are trying to escape the ravages of hunger, poverty, endemic disease and ignorance."
Under the heading “The Church’s Concern” it continued, “With an even clearer awareness, since the Second Vatican Council, of the demands imposed by Christ’s Gospel in this area, the Church judges it her duty to help all men explore this serious problem in all its dimensions, and to impress upon them the need for concerted action at this critical juncture.”
It may or may not have been an influence on that December 1967 meeting at the Dublin home of Kay and John O’Loughlin Kennedy, on Northumberland Road. Also in attendance was the Holy Ghost Father Fr Raymond Kennedy, brother of John, who had recently returned from Nigeria with accounts of the brutal civil war as the province of Biafra sought to secede.
The meeting was prompted by the plight of the Biafrans, under blockade by the Nigerians, who were attempting to starve them into submission. Those there agreed to call themselves Africa Concern and set about raising awareness and funds for a mercy flight with supplies for the province’s starving children.
Unusually, and from the beginning, this new agency was multidenominational, involving a Methodist minister and a Freemason, as well as trade unionists.
In Biafra at the time were the two Finucane brothers, Fr Aengus and, younger by five years, Fr Jack. They were central to the mercy-flights aid effort.
The novelist Frederick Forsyth, who was then a journalist covering the Biafran war, knew both Finucanes and witnessed what happened. Aengus was “always travelling in and out in elderly aircraft – DC6s and 7s, old Constellations nearing the end of their lives – dodging the Nigerian MiGs supplied from East Germany over the Bight of Biafra,” Forsyth said. “He brought food in and always tried to take out seriously ill children on the return flights.”
These flights were particularly dangerous, as the Uli airstrip was a constant target for Nigerian bombing raids, especially when the aid aircraft were taking off and landing.
The Biafran war was the first involving mass starvation to be reported on television. The Nigerian blockade provoked worldwide outrage.
It was a pivotal experience for those involved. As recalled in a 2008 Irish Times supplement marking the 40th anniversary of Concern, "the crisis in Biafra changed the nature of the work of so many priests and missionaries from educators and managers to full-time aid workers".
And so it was for Fr Jack, who helped put shape on it all, and Aengus, the white tornado. For them it was the beginning of two brilliant vocations in serving the most destitute.
This wonderful book, so thoroughly researched and beautifully written, is about Aengus but was inspired by the more reserved Jack. In Purcell's painstaking pursuit of accuracy, In the Heart of Concern becomes a rock-solid tribute to both. It's a seminal work on the extraordinary contribution of Irish people, clerical and lay, to the developing world.
Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent