In the heart of Concern
NEW ISLAND 358 pp. For publication early February; e book €9.99
Aengus Finucane was a big man, not just physically. For decades a towering figure in Ireland’s aid and assistance efforts for the poor of the developing world, he died of cancer aged 76 in 2009. His name will forever be synonymous with Concern, the Irish aid organisation he headed for sixteen years.
This is his story, interwoven with that of his forty year association with Concern. Deirdre Purcell, prolific journalist and author, has compiled it from scores of interviews with those who knew and worked with Aengus, including many prominent political and business figures. Sadly, most of his personal papers and correspondence, painstakingly assembled and sorted by his brother and fellow priest, Jack, were destroyed by accident soon after Aengus passed away.
The story is remarkable. Aengus Finucane was ordained in 1959 in a different Ireland, where the Church was supreme and where hundreds of young Irish men and women flocked to the religious life and, within that life, to serve overseas in the “Missions.” Aengus and brother Jack were among around 900 Holy Ghost (now Spiritan) priests sent out as Missionaries, mostly to Africa, and Nigeria in particular, spending eight years in pastoral work. The job was learned on the hoof, nothing in their training having prepared the young Irish priests for their new life.
Then, in 1967 Nigeria’s oil –rich province of Biafra, where most of the estimated 300 Spiritans were located, attempted to secede. It proved a defining moment. The resulting civil war saw an increasingly severe encirclement and blockade of Biafra, leading to widespread malnutrition and starvation, particularly among children. The television images of starving Biafran children struck a chord in Ireland, with several ad hoc groups formed to supply aid. One such was “Africa Concern” formed in early 1968 by Fr Raymond Kennedy, another Spiritan priest, and members of his family.
A heroic aid operation was mounted by several Irish relief organisations , a ship acquired and supplies flown in to the embattled province. There to receive them at Uli airstrip were the Finucanes. The first legends about Aengus began. But it was to no avail. Despite international aid, after almost three years and a million civilians dead, chiefly from starvation, Biafra surrendered. The Spiritans were imprisoned briefly and then expelled.
Internationally, part of Biafra’s legacy was the formation of Medecins sans Frontieres. In Ireland Biafra proved a catalyst in terms of public awareness, via TV and the other media, of the poverty and suffering of hundreds of millions of their fellow humans elsewhere, whether from natural or man-made catastrophe. Concern widened its net, dropping “African” as it got involved elsewhere. Trocaire, Goal and an impressive Irish government development cooperation programme emerged as the years passed. In terms of total assistance Ireland moved steadily up the league table of donors.
Concern in particular has grown. It now has 3,000 staff deployed in twenty eight countries. Aengus Finucane was involved at every strategic moment. He spent the Seventies in Bangladesh, a new country wracked by war damage and natural catastrophe, moving on in 1978 to the Thai-Cambodian border where the refugees from Pol Pot had fled. His philosophy was simple: “Do as much as you can, as well as you can, for as many as you can, for as long as you can.”
The question he asked in debates about immediate welfare relief or sustainable development programmes was equally simple: How could the poorest, the most unfortunate, be assisted, a helpful reality check in terms of achieving results. He became the logical choice to succeed as Concern’s chief executive in 1981. Shortly afterwards his predecessor was found to have embezzled funds. Aengus Finucane went on the road, staking his personal reputation in a host of public appearances to regenerate belief in Concern. It worked. Trust was restored. The funds were ultimately recovered .
The Eighties and Nineties saw a succession of horrific international humanitarian crises – Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda. Concern and Aengus Finucane were to the fore throughout. There are harrowing chapters reliving the horrors of each one, recounted by those who were there. His acumen and awareness that publicity was the key to persuading the public to donate was reflected in his message, hammered home to visiting Irish journalists in Ethiopia in 1984: report back what is happening. In Somalia he seized upon the tremendous publicity value of a visit by President Robinson and worked with her to secure government approval for the trip.
Energetic, committed and gregarious, he was excellent at making friends in the right places. Under his stewardship, Concern acquired an international fund raising and leveraging capability. But his hectic lifestyle began to take its toll on his health. Bizarrely, it was a simple accident with a pen , which infected his arm with a necrotising water-borne bug , which caused most damage and enforced extended sick leave.
This proved a turning point. Methods and attitudes were changing and Aengus, at retirement age, moved on to become honorary president of Concern US. The role gave him a new lease of life as he mingled with, and opened the wallets of , numerous wealthy Americans. His final odyssey was to Haiti, where Concern is now heavily involved.
Purcell’s book is packed with fascinating anecdotes and extracts from interviews with journalists and others, including his successors in the job. Some are amusing, some make for grim reading but overall they contribute to a well-rounded portrait of someone who strove to make the world a better place.