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Speech by President Michael D. Higgins Ceremony to Recognise Irish Missionaries

Embassy of Chile in Ireland, Wednesday, 28th June 2023

Embajador Hernández, Distinguidos invitados, Queridos amigos,

May I say how delighted I am to be here today at the Embassy of Chile on the occasion of a ceremony of recognition of the Irish missionaries Fr Brendan Forde, Fr Desmond McGillycuddy, and Fr Liam Holohan. 

May I thank Ambassador Hernández for the kind invitation to be with you all today on this special occasion as we honour the humanitarian work of these three Irish missionaries while they lived and worked in Chile in the 1970s and 1980s under the military dictatorship of General Pinochet.

I am so pleased that Fr Liam Holohan’s sister Kay and other family members are here today. Fr Holohan, from Kilkenny, was only 29 years’ old when he was arrested and placed in a Santiago jail in December 1984 having arrived in Chile three years prior. The New York Times at the time reported that he was arrested “for distributing holiday greeting cards outside Santiago churches that wished Chileans a new year ‘without torture’”. 

Fr Holohan, who belonged to the London-based Mill Hill Fathers, had been running soup kitchens to feed the poorest in Santiago, assisted in the creation of health interventions, youth organisations and groups for the elderly at a time when poverty was severe and widespread. Today we remember him for his tireless and courageous work. 

Also of Mill Hill Fathers, Fr Desmond McGillycuddy was just 26 years’ old when he arrived in Chile and also helped with the running of the soup kitchens. He took part in the 1983 hunger strike and distributed material on the violations of human rights at the time in Chile before being forcibly expelled by the military in 1983.

Fr Brendan Forde, also a Columban Father, had opted out of living in a traditional friary in downtown Santiago and instead built a cardboard and timber hut at the city’s edge, sharing the lifestyle of his shantytown neighbours while helping the poorest Santiago citizens before being expelled to Buenos Aires, with  Fr McGillycuddy, in March 1983.

I am so pleased that both Fr Forde and Fr McGillycuddy are here today so that we can honour them and recall their great humanitarianism.

What these three men had in common was a profound compassion and solidarity, a deep-seated sense of social justice, and a yearning to help and serve the poorest and most vulnerable people in Chile who were experiencing the most appalling poverty and living under fearful conditions of authoritarian military rule. 

During Pinochet’s first three years of power alone, we now know that approximately 130,000 were arrested, and throughout his reign more than 3,000 were murdered, a further 3,000 disappeared, and tens of thousands were tortured, raped and sadistically abused. 

Among those brutally murdered include Chilean theatre director, poet, singer-songwriter and political activist Victor Jara arrested by the Chilean military shortly after the 1973 coup led by Pinochet. While in custody, Jara was tortured and shot dead before his body was thrown onto the street of a shantytown in Santiago.

The ‘diploma of honour’ that is being awarded today is a recognition of the humanitarian assistance that these three individuals provided who themselves suffered persecution by the dictatorship from 1973 to 1989. I commend Chile for honouring these men and, in the case of Fr Holohan, the Chilean memory of his work and sacrifices. Who among us can afford to forget our humanity, to forget the open doors that were ours to walk through to sanctuary when we or those of our people needed it? 

Theirs was extraordinary work carried out during the darkest years of military dictatorship. I was delighted to have the opportunity to pay tribute to their work when I was honoured with an Award from the Republic of Chile by Minister for Foreign Affairs Heraldo Muñoz at a ceremony in Trinity College Dublin in January 2016 for which I remain so deeply grateful. 

Throughout the 17 years of military dictatorship, the Columban Fathers coordinated their efforts with the Vicariate of Solidarity which was set up by the then Cardinal Archbishop of Santiago, Raúl Silva Henriquez, to offer refuge and support to victims of human rights violations. They also participated actively in the anti-torture movement named after Sebastián Acevedo who burned himself alive in front of the Cathedral of the Most Holy Conception, in the town of Concepción, to protest the torture of his children by secret police.

Tragically, the Columban Fathers suffered terrorism themselves, and very directly, when their house was stormed in 1975, resulting in the murder of their housekeeper, Henriquetta Reyes, and the detention and torture of Dr Sheila Cassidy, before the later expulsion of Fr Forde and Fr McGillicuddy by the junta in 1983.

The actions of those courageous Irish priests in Chile, whom today we honour, are emblematic of the selfless work of Irish missionaries around the world as they seek to protect the dispossessed and underprivileged. 

Mr Ambassador, during the years which have passed since that momentous day on 5th October 1988, when the people of Chile, in enormous numbers, affirmed in full voice their deeply held commitment to political freedom and brought about the beginning of the end of over 15 years of military dictatorship, we in Ireland, like others around the world, view Chile as a beacon of hope for democracy.

Chile is an old democracy that had its democracy torn from it by a dictator with assistance overt and covert from the outside. 

It was my immense privilege to bear witness to the decisive vote of the Chilean people in October 1988. I, along with my then political colleagues – TD Pat McCartan, Senators Shane Ross and Joe O’Toole – travelled in our different ways to Chile (I travelled two weeks in advance). We were among hundreds of international election observers invited by the Association of International Parliamentarians for Democracy in Chile. Secretary-General De Pree had invited us.

In Punto Arenas where I was located, where one-in-four of those employed worked for the military, the vote was delivered at 6:50am: Sí – 3,879, No – 4,892. Nationally, of over 7 million votes cast, almost 4 million voted ‘No’ (54.7 percent), while almost 3 million voted ‘Yes’ (43 percent). 

I had the privilege of witnessing a people choosing a path based on an old respect for values of decency, democracy and human rights and the future emancipatory possibilities it created. We in Ireland have followed, with interest and admiration, your country’s progress as a truly democratic republic grounded in a deep respect for human rights and a set of political choices that place the common good at their heart. That Chile recently became the first cabinet in the Americas where more than half of its members were women is a testament to its commitment to the deepening of human rights.

Chile’s defence and development of democracy is important for its own people, but it also has a resonance beyond its borders. In that spirit I express my gratitude to Chile for the example it gives the world of respect for human rights, promotion of sustainable human development and a socially inclusive model of economic governance.

May I commend, too, the Chilean government’s new plan to find and identify all those who tragically disappeared during Pinochet’s dictatorship.

I had the happy opportunity to return to Chile in 2012, as President of Ireland, 24 years after the plebiscite of 1988, and I am very pleased to have received an invitation from President Boric, which I am honoured to accept, to return to Chile in September this year to attend an event marking the   50th anniversary of the vicious military coup that destroyed the progressive and democratically elected government of Unidad Popular, and resulted in then President Salvador Allende’s death, along with thousands of Chilean supporters, tortured, murdered, disappeared or forced into exile. It also marked the beginning of the first experiment in neoliberal economics, imposed in Chile at the barrel of the gun.

Ambassador Hernández, we find ourselves at a crucial moment in world history, when we are confronted with many great challenges – climate change, biodiversity loss, the urgency of sustainable development, rising global poverty and hunger, new conflicts and historical levels of human displacement – all of which demand urgent and comprehensive solutions.  

Chile and Ireland have shared so much and must continue to do so. Your capacity to speak from the heart in honouring our citizen heroes on human rights indicates an unbreakable bond. Solutions to the issues I have mentioned will only be found if we have the courage to seek out new methods of scholarship and policymaking, new ways of working together, and new models of political economy. 

In so many of these areas, the most exciting and necessary ideas are emerging currently from South America. In an increasingly interdependent world, we have much to learn from each other, and everything to gain from closer and deeper cooperation.

May I take this opportunity to wish Fr Forde, Fr McGillycuddy and the relatives of Fr Holohan my very best wishes for the future, and may I express, both on behalf of the Irish people and myself, a profound gratitude for their heroic work which improved the lives of so many vulnerable Chilean citizens.

Muchísima gracias.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh agus beir beannacht.