In May 1989 Galway watched with some bemusement, as Michael Dee entertained Daniel Ortega and members of his junta. They had successfully overthrown the dictator Anastasio Somoza, and seized control of Nicaragua, the largest country in Central America. Both men are presidents of their respective countries today. But 28 years ago while Ortega’s hand had already reached out for the il presidente crown, Michael Dee had still some way to go.
I do not know how Michael and Daniel got to know each other; but between Bishop Eamonn Casey and Michael Dee Galway had to be unique in Ireland in our understanding of Third World countries. Both men lectured, wrote articles, and appealed on behalf of the wretchedness and misery which was heaped upon the poor by military dictatorships, and their powerful supporters. Both men were often criticised for their outspokenness, but most of us believed that Michael Dee and the bishop were justified in their anger.
Guided by a Garda escort, two large, dark limousines made their way to Casa Higgins in Newcastle. A curious crowd gathered. This was the real thing. Here we had genuine, cigarillo smoking revolutionaries in Galway. Were they planning a revolt against Charles Haughey? Would this be the end of politics as we knew it?
Sadly no. The men who got out of the cars had shed their green fatigues and kalashnikovs, and were all wearing suits. They smiled and waved at us. We waved back. Sabina had prepared lunch. They trooped into the house like schoolboys on a day out.
Things got a little more lively that evening. They were all guests of Bishop Casey at St Mary’s. After dinner revolutionary songs were sung in Spanish. Casey regaled the Sandinistas with a mighty version of ‘The West’s Awake’.
The Mass kit
As chairman of Trócaire, the Irish Catholic heirachy’s Third World development agency, Casey was always on the go. Sometimes at great personal risk. He headed delegations to El Salvador seven times; and to Nicaragua at least three times. In 1984 he flew to the Philippines in aid of two priests, Irishman Fr Niall O’Brien and Australian Fr Brian Gore. They were in prison on false charges of murder. TV cameras followed his visit to their prison, and later their release. In 1988 he was in South Africa and Mozambique fearlessly speaking out against apartheid.
He always travelled with his Mass kit. A tiny chalice and miniture candlesticks, and spotless altar linen. In any small town hotel, despite his extrovert behaviour, and his alert, nervous energy, he would say Mass. It was often his only pause in his busy day.
Bishop Eamonn Casey must have had many things that haunted him, and some were soon to catch up with him; but one of the most fearful had to be the funeral of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero.
Romero had fearlessly denounced the government of El Salvador for its social injustice, assassinations, and torture that went hand in hand with its rule. Romero’s protests were lost on the American supported militarist regime, who were so fearful of the popular guerrilla forces within its borders, that it had turned the country into a killing field. Yet someone detested Romero.
Casey and Romero were friends. A Franciscan priest wrote to Casey and told him that Romero felt isolated. He was afraid. Casey immediately wrote to him; and got a reply the morning Romero was killed.
He was shot dead while saying Mass on Palm Sunday, March 24 1980. It had all the fearful drama of the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 12th century.
Casey flew out to attend the funeral on behalf of the Catholic hierarchy. The body was in a coffin on top of the steps leading into the basilica. It was a sweltering hot day. The square was filled with an enormous crowd, all silent. Casey, who gave a press conference in Dublin Airport when he returned, said that he could not interpret why the crowd was silent. He was told: ‘because the people were afraid’.
During the Mass, when the main celebrant had just quoted Romero: ‘We cannot love by hating. We cannot defend life by killing,’ a shot ran out. Everyone looked up to the soldiers on the rooftops, when, incredibly, two grenades exploded in the crowd. Casey saw the flames erupt, and heard the screams. There was complete panic. Shouting in fear, people rushed for safety within the basilica, pushing past Casey and other bishops, and trampling on those who fell. As the basilica was filling up, two more grenades, this time inside the church itself, exploded, increasing the sense of despair, and hysteria.
More than 60 people were killed that morning, before the shooting stopped, and people calmed, but remained deeply traumatised and upset. The priests, bishops, and nuns began to appeal for water, to help the fainting crowds. Bodies were being piled up. Eventually Red Cross nurses began to arrive. Ambulances rushing away with the wounded, sirens blaring. The military appealed for everyone to go home. The people were still afraid. Someone asked the bishops to leave the square first. If they were allowed to pass through, then it was safe to follow. Slowly the crowd dispersed.
An unreal scene. It did however, receive worldwide TV coverage. Casey’s testimony provided vital evidence to counter the government’s version of what happened. Government reports from El Salvador announced that there was a ‘slight disturbance’ during the funeral Mass. The blame was placed on leftist elements. Casey maintained that it had been deliberately provoked by the military themselves.
Clearly still in a state of shock, Casey wept as he told journalists what had happened. I think everyone in Ireland was deeply moved by his story. People in Galway were proud of his compassion and bravery. Proud too that he was our bishop.
Next week: Galway’s loyalty to Bishop Casey would be tested during President Reagan’s visit June 2 1984.
NOTES: I am taking this week’s Diary from Fall from Grace - The Life of Eamonn Casey, by Joe Broderick, published by Brandon 1992, The Irish Times, and the National Catholic Reporter, USA.