40 Years Later

Jul 10, 2024

To mark the 40th anniversary of the release of the Negros Nine and the 20th anniversary of the death of Fr Niall O’Brien, Fr Donal Hogan recalls a miscarriage of justice in the Philippines and the RTE reporter that made the Columban missionary a household name.

On 3rd of July 1984 Frs Niall O’Brien, Brian Gore, Vicente Dangan and six lay leaders walked free from prison in Bacolod City on the island of Negros in the Philippines. They became known as the Negros Nine who had sided with the sugar cane workers in their struggle to get better conditions. It suited some local ‘sugar barons’ to accuse them of murder despite the fact that it was common knowledge that a rebel group, the New People’s Army, was responsible for the killing.

As the late Charlie Bird of RTE wrote in the Far East magazine on the 30th anniversary of the Negros Nine’s release in 2014: “The Marcos regime was clearly sensitive to pressure coming from the governments of the US, Australia and Ireland. But that was not the only pressure. Tens of thousands of ordinary people wrote letters and campaigned tirelessly for their release.”

Fr Niall O’Brien is welcomed back to Ireland with garland. Cover of the Far East magazine September/October 1984.

Thanks to all of this pressure from abroad the Marcos government ordered the case to be dismissed. There was a condition, however, that Columbans Frs Niall O’Brien and Brian Gore had to leave the Philippines. They reluctantly agreed to this in order to secure the release and safety of their Filipino co-accused.

Two years later in 1986, President Reagan withdrew his support for the Marcos regime which immediately led to Marcos and his family fleeing the Philippines. Fr Niall returned to Negros that year and Fr Brian followed two years later.

Fr Niall with sugar cane workers on the island of Negros in the Philippines.

In 1984, I was present in Tabugon parish in the mountains of Negros, where Niall was parish priest, when the Negros Nine were welcomed on their release. A huge crowd accompanied them as they walked the last kilometre to the parish house. The mood was euphoric. It was truly a triumphant return as they were greeted with great joy. Later these scenes were repeated in Ireland and Australia.

I mentioned Charlie Bird above. In 1984, as a young reporter for RTE, he was assigned to cover the court case in Bacolod City. He reported almost nightly from the prison and remained in the Philippines for over a month. He became a close friend of Niall.

He wrote, “I can vividly recall sitting in that prison cell on St Patrick’s Day 1984 with Niall as he sifted through thousands of cards he had received from all over Ireland, Britain and Australia.” This was due in large part to Charlie himself for his dramatic on-the-scene coverage for RTE.

Frs Niall O’Brien, Brian Gore, Vicente Dangan and six lay leaders in prison in Bacolod City.

Charlie Bird died on 11th March this year. At his memorial Service in the Mansion House, Dublin, one of the keynote speakers, broadcaster Sean O’Rourke said that covering of the case of Fr Niall O’Brien and his companions was a significant moment at the beginning of Charlie’s reporting career.

Fr Niall O’Brien, Bishop Myles McKeon, Fr Brian Gore and Fr Vicente Dangan at Mass in jail. Photo: Fr Shay Cullen.

This year too we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the death of Niall on 27th April 2004 in the Italian city of Pisa, where he was undergoing treatment for a rare blood disease. His funeral Mass took place a few days later in Dalgan. His ashes were taken for burial by his brother, Fergus, to his beloved Island of Negros, in the Philippines.

On the morning of Niall’s funeral, I went into the chapel in Dalgan thirty minutes before the Mass to check all was ready. I saw a man sitting alone on one of the chairs brought in for the expected overflow crowd. It was Charlie Bird. I went over to greet him – it was 20 years since we had met each other in Negros. That morning he wasn’t on duty for RTE, he was just there to say a final farewell to his friend. Joe Little, another friend and neighbour of Niall’s, was covering the funeral for RTE.

RTE reporter Charlie Bird in jail beside Fr Niall. Photo: RTE.

I remember visiting Niall and his companions in 1984 in that overcrowded cell. One of the first things that caught my eye was the large white stole hanging from a six-inch nail in the wall. Written on this stole in large letters were the words in Ilongo, the local language in Negros, “Indi kamo magkahadluk. Ako ini.”

Another stole had the English version, “Do not be afraid. It is I.” In prison they continued to bear witness to the presence of the Lord. It reminded me of the words of the Lord to Paul in prison in Jerusalem, “Take courage … for you must bear witness to me also in Rome.” (Acts 23:11)

Homecoming of (l-r) Fr Brian Gore, Fr Niall O’Brien and Fr Vicente Dangan in Origao. Photo: Far East magazine.

Just before Niall left Negros we held a Mass in our Columban headquarters in Batang. One of the readings that day was also from the Acts of the Apostles (20:13-38), when Paul was saying farewell to the community at Ephesus as he departed for Jerusalem. He said, “Now I know that none of you will ever see my face again… There was much weeping among them all. They embraced Paul and kissed him. Then they led him to the ship.” That final Mass with Niall was very moving for all present.

Fr Niall O’Brien waves as he leaves the provincial jail in Bacolod City on the island of Negros in the Philippines on 3rd of July 1984 along with Frs Brian Gore and Vicente Dangan and six lay leaders. Photo: Fr Donal Hogan.

Columban Fr Donal Hogan was ordained in 1969. He spent 30 years on mission in the Philippines for 30 years. He is now based in Dalgan.

This article was first published in the July/August 2024 issue of the Far East magazine. A subscription to the Far East supports our missionaries and Columban projects with the most disadvantaged. See: https://columbans.ie/far-east-magazine/

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