Desmond Tutu in Ireland: Cheering the Dubs and . . . pints of plain

Humanitarian ‘was just a very engaging, conversational, good-humoured sort of man’

Archbishops were not the typical clientele of the Abbey Mooney pub on Dublin's north side in the 1980s; much less senior clerics leading the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Yet that's where Desmond Tutu, who died on Sunday at the age of 90, found himself in March 1984 after expressing a wish to try a pint of Guinness.

"It was unbelievable," recalls Joe Murray, founder of charity Afri, who invited Tutu to Dublin that year. "There was one young guy there who was about to go overseas to work as an aid worker . . . He came over and said, 'I cannot believe this; I came out for a drink on a Saturday night to my local pub and my hero is sitting here having a pint'."

Tutu was delighted to talk to the young man, says Murray. “He was so engaging . . . remarkable in that sense for the power of his personality . . . he was just a very engaging, conversational, good-humoured sort of a man.”


The main reason for Tutu’s visit was to address an event organised by Afri in nearby Seán MacDermott Street Church. He had first been invited over two years previously to address a conference on world peace and poverty but had been refused permission to travel by the apartheid regime.

The event in the church was packed, says Murray. “It was a very powerful address . . . the inside story of apartheid because he was a such articulate man. We soon understood why the regime tried to silence him and prevent him from travelling.”

As well as addressing the injustice of apartheid, which would not end for another eight years, Tutu also told the Dublin audience of the economic conditions black South African’s faced. “People die of starvation in South Africa, not because there is no food, but because of deliberate government policy,” he said.

Tutu and his wife Leah agreed to become patrons of the charity. It was the start of a long association between the archbishop and Ireland which would continue for the rest of his life.

Three months later a group of 11 Dunnes Stores staff went on strike after refusing to handle goods from South Africa in protest against apartheid.

Afri arranged for the archbishop to meet the strikers in London in August 1984 as he travelled to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

The meeting drew international attention to the Dunnes workers’ cause.

“The fact he met them in London was nearly more significant because it made it more international and they were invited on to [the] BBC,” says Murray.

In turn, Tutu invited the strikers to visit South Africa. However, when they travelled there they were prevented from leaving the airport by the authorities and were forced to take the next flight home.

The strike would continue for another three years until the Irish government banned the importation of South African goods as part of a global boycott.

Tutu and his wife returned to Ireland in 1991 to lead Afri's annual Famine Walk through the Doolough Valley in Co Mayo. "It was a brutally cold day with shocking wind and rain but he just stepped out and carried on as if it was normal," says Murray.

Regular visitor to Ireland

In 1994, Tutu invited Murray and his Afri colleague Don Mullan to South Africa to witness the swearing in of Nelson Mandela as president, marking an official end to apartheid.

“He was such a lovely character . . . he loved humour, he loved jokes. he was just that type of person who enjoyed company.”

Tutu returned to Ireland a third time in 2005 to mark Afri's 30th anniversary. This time, he wanted to see a Gaelic football match and was brought to the quarter-final of the Leinster Senior Football Championship in Croke Park where Dublin played Meath.

Some eyebrows were raised when Tutu opted to don a Dublin jersey. “He got really into the game and was very much supporting Dublin,” says Murray.

It was a tough game and at one stage Meath looked to be pulling away. Tutu remarked that it might not be their day, prompting an Afri staff member to respond, “oh ye of little faith”.

She suddenly realised this might not be the most appropriate thing to say to an Archbishop, says Murray. But in the end Dublin prevailed, recalls Murray. And what did the archbishop think of the Guinness? “He loved it”.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times