Former Attorney General pays tribute to Fr Rufus and Fr Des

Former Attorney General and president of the High Court, Harry Whelehan, launched ‘Murder in the Missions’ in Butlerstown parish, Co Waterford last weekend.

A friend of Fr Rufus Halley’s from their schooldays together in Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick, Harry Whelehan described Jean Harrington’s publication ‘Murder in the Missions’ as “an extraordinary book”.


In his address to the Halley and Hartford families as well as local parishioners, Mr Whelehan said it was not just a story about Fr Rufus Halley and Fr Des Hartford but it was also a story about how they “thought outside the box and devised a new way of reaching out” to their own parishioners in the Philippines and local Muslims, who were seen as enemies, to find the goodness in all the different groups and warring factions.


The two Columban missionaries had gone to Mindanao in the southern Philippines in their early 20s. He paid tribute to their approach in “getting down into the grassroots, learning the language, learning the culture, putting up with the climate, putting up with the logistical challenges like travelling rough terrain from island to island.”

In his address, Harry Whelehan said both Fr Des and Fr Rufus were “were teaching tolerance and showing tolerance”.


“This is not a religious or a preachy book, it is a factual story. Out of this emerges these two men who brought out the best in themselves; knowing that if they could show the best of themselves, others would find the best in themselves. Their belief was that there is good in everybody.”


He also paid tribute to the Missionary Society of St Columban who had “allowed extraordinary freedom” to the two missionaries “to do their own thing in a way that they found effective and relevant in the particular circumstances that they found themselves”.


He found this interesting because, he said, here in Ireland and other Christian jurisdictions which we are familiar with “the Church is very structured, very staid and it is very hard to get the liberty to do things outside the box.”

The Columban Fathers, Mr Whelehan said, saw the vision of allowing these men to find their own way to achieve this dialogue and the local bishop took on this approach and went to Rome and got not just the Vatican but also the Pope of the time to approve of the founding of a prelature to encourage this particular organic approach to ministry and mission. “That was a huge achievement,” Harry Whelehan said.


He told the packed parish hall, ‘Murder in the Missions’ deals with the various achievements of the two men and their tribulations.

Fr Des Hartford was captured, kidnapped and held for ransom for 11 days. “He had an awful time” but was able to keep notes of it and Jean Harrington had used these and interviewed Fr Des about how he came to be kidnapped, how he was held and how he was released and how he had coped with all that. “There is a book within a book on that subject,” he said.


He highlighted other things which the book revealed which those who knew Fr Rufus Halley may not be aware of. “Though all of us knew Rufus personally or through his family or by word of mouth, we may not know that he spent a great deal of time each day in contemplation and in prayer. He depended very heavily on that, it is quite clear. He had a lonely station because of the road he chose to travel, and he sought great solace and great inspiration by praying and meditating.”


“He also had the gift of being an immediate dedicated loyal friend and he developed friendships. This is documented and authenticated in the book through the many people with whom he corresponded – lay people, male, female, Muslims, Christians…”

Mr Whelehan highlighted the road Fr Rufus took in standing up to the military in the Philippines, which was largely Christian and relied on the support of the Church.

“Rufus was prepared, when he saw the undisciplined responses of the army in Muslim neighbourhoods, to take a stand against the army and that became quite an issue for him. It was a very uncomfortable position for him.”

He said one of the great achievements for which Fr Rufus is remembered and which is why he is a legend in the Philippines still to this day and his death is still commemorated by the Muslim community was his role as a peace mediator between two warring Muslim factions.


“They nominated him to broker peace and there is a wonderful account in the book of the very tense negotiations, back and forth, that went on in order to achieve a settlement. It was ultimately achieved.”

Turning to the work done by writer Jean Harrington, Harry Whelehan said, “The author deserves huge praise.”


He said she was generous in her praise and gratitude of those who had given her personal correspondence for the book and those who had brought her around the Philippines so that she could prepare the book.

“I think she is overgenerous in that she tries to put a lot of the credit for the book on the people who made bits of contributions. That’s very fair but the massive job of collating all the information and the travel that she undertook and the interviews she did – balancing of all that – was amazing achievement. She produced a most coherent, most riveting and wonderful book.”


“It has all the elements of a murder mystery. It is a true account based on verified fact and the mystery remains unsolved. The inspiration that comes from following the story will be very enriching for anybody who reads it.”

Butlerstown parish was the home parish of Fr Rufus Halley who was murdered by Muslim extremists in August 2001 in Mindanao.


Bishop Phonsie Cullinan of Waterford and Lismore came to the launch and paid tribute to Fr Halley for having “dedicated his life to the people of the Philippines and to relations between Christians and Muslims”.


The Bishop said that interpersonal relationships, friendships that build up and break down fears and barriers were important in creating the trust which builds bridges between communities and faiths.

“The efforts of Fr Rufus and the Columban missionaries are a sign to all of us that dialogue is absolutely necessary.”

‘Murder in the Missions’ is the true story of two Irish Columban missionaries whose lives were forever changed when they moved to Mindanao in the Philippines, an island devastated by corruption and interreligious strife.

It can be purchased here:



Follow us on Twitter @IrishColumbans