Fr Jack Finucane, a giant of a man

An excerpt from Dominic MacSorley’s eulogy at Fr. Jack’s funeral on June 12, 2017.

A life of extraordinary achievement

Fr. Finucane was a lifetime humanitarian and a leading figure in the growth of Concern Worldwide, guiding the organization in reaching millions of vulnerable people across the world. His character and determination is woven into the fabric of Concern and his life reminds us of the power of one person and the great impact we all can have on others. We lament his passing but we also celebrate his life and his extraordinary achievements, some of which are shared below. In doing so we are reflect on the importance of every individual’s role within Concern. Thank you for being a leading member of the Concern community as together we follow in the footsteps of Fr. Jack.

A eulogy from Dominic MacSorley

How do you sum up a life of such extraordinary achievement? I think the best way to capture Jack is by looking through the lens of some of the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. Biafra, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia, the tsunami. This is where he could be found — these are the places he called home and this is where his leadership shone.

Jack Finucane

Fr Jack and his late brother Fr Aengus Finucane earned world recognition for their famine relief work in the late 60s.

Jack’s story with Concern began in Biafra, as part of the Irish response to the world’s first televised famine, when the young John & Kay O’Loughlin Kennedy tapped into the conscience of a nation and channeled the generosity of the Irish people into the strong and assured hands of young priests such as Jack and his older brother Aengus who had brought to their parishes in Nigeria both the grit and grace of a Limerick upbringing.

Unchartered territory in Biafra

For both these brothers saving souls and saving lives was indivisible and they swung into action. Jack was responsible for coordinating the distribution of food and medicine that was flown in 20 times a night to a make-shift landing strip under the cover of darkness. As Donald Byrne, journalist for the Irish Times recalled “I had never dealt with priest like these guys, they were a different breed.”

It was dangerous and dramatic work, the stuff that Hollywood movies are made of, which might be where Jack got his nickname — the John Wayne of the developing world — a comparison that in his own modest way, he never fully warmed to.

For as we know, Jack was an unassuming man, quieter than his elder brother but no less compassionate or courageous, and no less resourceful.

This was real frontier humanitarianism. There was no blueprint for how to respond to a crisis, no lessons learnt. This was unchartered territory. It was about instinct, compassion and the courage to engage in complex, humanitarian crisis, in Biafra, later Bangladesh and then Ethiopia. It is this work that changed the paradigm — bringing the long tradition of missionary work into what was to become modern humanitarian action and at the center of this pioneering spirit was Jack Finucane.

Building Ireland’s version of the Peace Corps in Bangladesh

When Jack went as Country Director to the newly independent Bangladesh in Jan. 1973 he recognized there were massive shortages of skills often citing that there were less nurses for a population of 74 million than in any one hospital in Ireland.  

Mobilizing young nurses, teachers, engineers from Ireland and the US, UK and Canada, within a year he had under his management 76 volunteers, supporting the rebuilding of the country and creating what was essentially Ireland’s own version of Peace Corps. Ground-breaking work.

Jack always took care of his volunteers, he understood that responsibility. He also knew the importance of keeping people fit, healthy and focused on the work. Everything was thought through. It wasn’t about comfort. It was about creating a highly functioning humanitarian machine.

Jack Finucane in Bangladesh.

Saving lives in Ethiopia

But it was the 1984 famine in Ethiopia where Jack’s leadership really came to the fore and by the time the famine received worldwide attention, Jack already had a team of 46 international volunteers and almost 1,000 Ethiopian staff on the ground.   For many nonprofits and the diplomatic community he was the first port of call for his extensive knowledge of the country. He was an early advisor to Bob Geldof on how and where Live Aid money should be distributed and of course ensured that a good percentage went to Concern. Jack was also a business man after all. When U2’s Bono & his wife Ali visited Ethiopia he took them to Wollo, one of the areas worst affected by the famine, which made a lifelong impression on them both.

Ethiopia was also where Jack took on one of his most controversial stands – to work with the 650,000 people who had been forcibly resettled from the north to west of the country.

Every organization said no, they would not get involved but Jack, who believed always in walking the walk first, got into his car, drove west, and spent two weeks in the resettlement villages where he saw people already dying and recognized the potential for this to be a massive humanitarian disaster. He decided Concern had to respond.

It was an enormous decision, Jack was initially isolated by the aid agencies and most of the diplomats but he went on the offensive going onto the media, something he didn’t do with ease but did well, traveling to Canada and Europe to tell the world that non engagement with resettlement would only punish the victims. It worked, he got the funding.

Years later an evaluation concluded that Concern’s program had been effective and saved the lives of many. Jack’s response to the findings “I knew 20 years ago it was the right decision. I don’t need an evaluation to tell me that.”

Confronting man’s inhumanity in Rwanda

It was Jack’s humanity that gave him clarity and the confidence in his response to resettlement. He was fundamentally offended by injustice and it was this that informed and drove his decisions.

I saw this first hand in Rwanda after the genocide. I was Country Director and Jack was my boss. We had one the largest relief operations mounted by Concern at the time, Jack would say on the phone every day “What do you need? What more can we do?” I remember at one point saying “Jack we are already at full throttle here, we can’t do any more.” There was simply silence on the other end of the phone. I never used that line again.

Jack Finucane in 2015

Jack Finucane (far right) attending the launch of his bother’s biography “Aengus Finucane In the Heart of Concern.” With Dominic MacSorley (far left), author Deirdre Purcell (middle left), and guest speaker Mrs. Mary Robinson. Photo: Liam Burke

We were struggling with a decision about whether we should work in the prisons, which at that time were overwhelmed, bursting to capacity with those accused of committing genocide. When Jack and I visited the notorious Kigali prison, he insisted in going to the underground dungeon or cave as it was known, where there were thousands of men crushed into a tiny space. The conditions were horrific. Jack didn’t say much but his own experience of being in a Nigerian prison must have been very much on his mind. Jack sat up and the next morning I found his note pad on the table.

In it was a letter to the Irish Times that opened with the following line “In my 30 years of working in Africa I have been never so ashamed of man’s inhumanity to man.”

There was a second note to me. “Dominic start work in the prisons immediately. I’ll be back to see progress in a few weeks.”

Continuing to change lives long after retirement

Jack formally retired in 2002, but never stopped working for Concern. In 2004, without hesitation, he abandoned all plans for the summer and flew to Sudan to lead Concern’s response to the Darfur crisis and later went on to oversee our operations in tsunami-affected Sri Lanka. Up to the end he remained passionate and engaged in everything to do with Concern including actively serving on the board of Concern Worldwide US.

His stature and presence was evident to all. In every local government office he would go in with a big handshake. I think everyone thought Jack was a visiting head of state or an international diplomat. At every checkpoint or border crossing, we would all get stopped. Jack just got waived through.

A Nation’s Hero

They say the character of a nation is closely defined by the heroes it chooses. In Ireland we have created a special place for writers, sports stars, and politicians,  but surely the humanitarian giants such as Jack and Aengus, whose impact extends far beyond these shores, deserve to sit right at the top of that table.

The late Seamus Heaney described the history of concern, from which Jack’s life was inseparable, as a window onto the times we have lived through, heart lifting as often heartbreaking, a testimony to those who have chosen to live at that high level where they are bound to keep facing the challenge — clear, noble and exhausting — that WB Yeats formulated as holding reality and justice in a single thought.

Justice, humanity and action were what defined this giant of a man who helped carve out the path of professional humanitarian response that we all follow today. What he achieved may never be fully quantified, but it has saved and improved the lives of millions of people bringing compassion to chaos, humanity to the most inhuman situations. In doing so he shaped us all and our responsibility is to ensure that his legacy lives on.