The Deployment Of Irish Troops In Liberia
- A Manifestation of Irish-Liberian Ties

By T. Nelson Williams, Sr.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

March 17, 2004

The arrival in Monrovia a fortnight ago, of the Irish Defense Minister, is sure to boost the morale of the more than 500 militia men from his native Ireland. The men had arrived a month earlier to join the multinational peace keeping force deployed in war torn Liberia, in order to alleviate the sufferings of the Liberian people. The Minister’s message to the local press and the BBC was clear and simple; that his men were in Liberia not only to keep and sustain the peace, but also to contain any eventuality that may erupt to undermine peace and stability in the country. It is clear that as a result of the prolong war in their own country, Ireland, the men have the ability to crush any disturbances that may be caused by the former unruly combatants in the almost fourteen years war of death and destruction. Their number may be small compared to other groups in the peace keeping force, but they have the experience to contribute to the establishment of lasting peace and stability in Liberia.

The peace keeping force during the first civil war between l989 and l997, comprised only of contingents from ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), led by Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria. The present 15,000 peace keeping force consists of not only contingents from ECOWAS, but also includes large contingents form Bangladash, Namiba, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine, Philipines, United States and Ireland, thus giving the peace keeping force a multinational coloration.

The involvement of the Irish troops in the current Liberian melee has come as no surprise to most Liberians who are familiar with the educational history of this oldest independent republic of almost three million people, founded for freed Black Americans following the abolition of slavery in their country. The Irish first came to this land in 1842 as missionaries and now they are here in 2004 as peacekeepers.

Catholic Missionary Expeditions To Liberia
As early as 1842, the Catholic missionary expedition began in Liberia by different missionary groups. Their purported mission was to evangelize “the poor pagans of the new found country”. The expedition gained impetus and inspiration from Bishop John England of Charleston, North Carolina, who was in search of chaplains for the members of his congregation who had migrated to Liberia.

Following the formation of the Maryland Colonization Society and the founding of Cape Palmas (formerly known as Maryland in Africa), Bishop England went to Rome in l833 to inform Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) about the predicament of the Catholic immigrants in Liberia and to solicit help for men and money urgently needed for the evangelization enterprise. His mission to Rome proved futile. However, the Vicar General of the diocese of Philadelphia, Father Edward Barron, volunteered to come to Liberia in l842 to fill the urgent need for missionary work. His arrival in the country marked the beginning of Irish Catholic missionary work in this country. However, after a brief period in Liberia, he made a quick retreat in 1846 and disappeared from the Liberian scene, due to unanticipated local problems as well as health reasons. Other missionary groups followed his footsteps but had to leave due to adverse climatic condition and the devastating effects of the deadly “Black Water Fever” that almost exterminated Dr. Barron and his brave comrades.

Monsignor Kyne Arrives in Liberia
Following the departure of Father Barron, the Society of African Missions (S.M.A.) from its head office in Lyons, France, appointed Monsignor Stephen Kyne who served as Prefect Apostolic of Liberia from l906 to l910. He was accompanied by a group of enthusiastic Irish missionaries who were anxious to fill the gap left behind by Father Barron and his comrades.

The new band of Irish missionaries received warm welcome from President Arthur Barclay and his Vice President Mr. H. Too Wesley, who promised the newcomers their unswerving support in any legal matters since both men were lawyers. Father Kyne wanted to first establish a firm foundation in Monrovia and then build a chain of outstations; an idea accepted by President Barclay but rejected by his superiors in France and Rome. As a further manifestation of the Liberian Government’s support, President Barclay urged the national Legislature to pass a bill granting the Catholic missionaries 150-acreas of farmland up the St. Paul River. They established at a place called Keykru and this was followed by the establishment of mission stations in Lower Buchanan, (Grand Bassa County), Gbarnga, Bong County, Kakata and Sanniquellie, Nimba County. Meanwhile, mission stations were simultaneously established in Betu, Sasstown, Grand Cess, Pleebo and Barclayville. By l910, mission stations including churches and elementary schools were mushrooming in areas southeast of Monrovia.

Despite the rapid progress being achieved by the Irish missionaries, Father Kyne was forced to resign in 1910 and return to Ireland following a dispute between France and Liberia when France laid claim on a large tract of land internationally recognized as belonging to Liberia before independence in l847. The land which had been given to the S.M.A. missionaries was taken away by France and given to a newly created Prefecture Apostolic of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction (French missionaries) in Guinea. This action infuriated Father Kyne and caused his resignation.

Bishop Oge Takes over from Father Kyne
Monsignor Jean Oge who succeeded Monsignor Kyne as Prefect Apostolic from l911 to l931, continued the expansion work of his predecessors with uninterrupted zeal, undaunted courage and determination.

However, the concentration of the Americo-Liberian population and several protestant groups in the Monrovia area, who were unhappy about the presence of the Catholic missionaries, compelled Monsignor Oge to settle down in the Kru Coast. Here, his predecessors had established strong foundations in Cape Palmas, Grand Cess, Sasstown, Pleebo, Barclayville and Betu.

Upon arrival in the Kru Coast, Monsignor Oge and Father John Collins of Cork, Ireland, found themselves in the midst of a politically volatile dilemma. The Irish missionaries were accused of aiding and abetting members of the Kru tribe in their revolt against the Liberian Government (l915-l918). Meanwhile, the Krus accused the C.D.B. King/Yancy government of resurrecting the slave trade by forcing the natives into virtual slavery on Spanish coffee plantations at Fernando Po. While this problem was looming over Liberia and the Catholic Church, Britain and France tried to use the League of Nations as a legal leverage to reduce Liberia to a mandated territory. They called for the dismantling of the Liberian government with a view to placing the infant republic under the League’s mandate having the semblance of Namibia in Southwest Africa. But the timely intervention of a prominent legal mind heading the Liberian delegation at the League of Nations Headquarters in Geneva, in person of Counsellor Louis Arthur Grimes, the French and British attempt was adverted.

Mr. Grimes on receiving the double accusation from the Kru people and the Liberian Government, wrote to the Catholic Missionaries in Liberia to look seriously into the allegations of the Kru against the Liberian Government on the one hand, and that of the Liberian Government against the Krus on the other. The findings of the missionaries could then be sent to the League of Nations and to the Pope for his intervention with the League on behalf of Liberia.

Assisting Monsignor Jean Oge at the time was a young Irish missionary priest in person of Father John Collins who had been appointed as Papal Charge d’Affairs in Liberia. With the help of several other Irish priests on the Kru Coast, the required document was prepared and sent to the Cardinal Pacelli, then papal Secretary of State at the Vatican. He later became Pope Pius XII. Rapidly going through the papal diplomatic channels to the League of Nations, Liberia’s case was dropped silently and the nation was spared the humiliation of being mandated to the French and the British. The only temper-quenching compromise that was accepted by the League was that the Government of Liberia of the C.D.B. King/Yancy administration should resign. This was accepted. Thus the young and brilliant Secretary of State for Liberia, Edwin Jerome Barclay, nephew of Liberia’s President-Patron for the S.M.A. Missionaries, was elected President to succeed President King. The exoneration of Liberia from the charges of being incapable of governing itself among the community of civilized nations, was the second time, through the intervention of the Irish Missionaries, that Liberia had challenged the imperial colonial powers of the century of their determination to erase the African Republic from the map. It was the second time that the Irish Missionaries had succeeded in reclaiming the territorial integrity of this nation, regardless of the fact that the nation did not get back the land it lost to British Sierra Leone, and to French Guinea and the Ivory Coast. After these problems, Bishop Oge retired and returned home due to ill-health.

Bishop Collins Takes Over
These developments did not deter the resilience of the Irish missionaries whose tenacity of purpose had been tried and tested. Bishop Oge’s resignation simply energized and inspired his successor, Bishop John Collins to continue the fight diplomatically. Following the departure of Bishop Jean Oge from Liberia, Bishop John Collins who succeeded him in l934 as Vicar Apostolic of Liberia, was quick to report to his superiors in Ireland and Rome that “the mission of the Kru Coast was to become the real foundation of the Catholic Church in Liberia”.

In those early days of Liberia, Collins and his predecessors traveled on foot and by surf- boats from Monrovia to the various mission stations along the coast, sometimes spending two to three weeks at sea to reach their destinations.

Their pioneering effort paid off against serious opposition from some protestant ministers who earlier in l884, petitioned the government to expel the Catholic Missionaries. But they were ignored by the government because the Catholics had demonstrated to the leaders their ability in liberal arts education. For instance, The Prefect Apostolic of Sierra Leone, Father Blanchet accompanied by Father Lober, visited Liberia College, during the presidency of Dr. Edward Wilmot Blyden and helped in restructuring the syllabus of the nation’s highest institution of learning. Their hard work and perseverance, won for the Catholics, the respect of the government and other Liberian educators especially, when they began building elementary schools not only in the Kru Coast, but also all over the country. The government saw the missionaries as partners in the development of education in Liberia. As a further manifestation of this approbation, most officials of the Liberian Government sent their children to catholic schools in the respective counties where schools had been established. In the Monrovia area where St. Patrick’s was the leading high school second only to the College of West Africa (CWA), owned and operated by the Methodist church, President Tubman was among several officials who sent his son Shad Jr. to this institution. Others included the Deshields, the Witherspoons, the Raileys, the Coopers, etc. In Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, the Brumskines, Harmons, Bensons, Woods, Martins and Johnsons sent their children to St. Peter Claver’s Teachers’ Training College. This nomenclature was initially given to the institution because of its purported mission of training teachers for all of the catholic schools in different part of Liberia and also for training young men who were desirous of becoming Catholic priests.

By l936, Bishop Collins had established 55 outstations with 57 Liberian teacher-catechists. Despite the immense difficulties encountered by the Irish missionaries, the SMA headquarters in Cork sent to Liberia, priests that were versatile in various fields of education, including administration, music and general education. Names like Father Murphy, Father O’Hea, Father Higgins, Father O’Mera, Father Duffy, FatherLove, Fr, Fergus, Father O’Regan , will go down in Catholic educational history of Liberia, not only for imparting knowledge, but also for instilling discipline in the future leaders of this country.

Bishop Collins’ next move was to train Liberians to assist the Irish priests and eventually take over from them. Hence several Liberian young men, mostly of the Kru tribe, were sent to Ghana to train for the priestly vocation. As a result in l946, Patrick Kla Juwle, a native of Grand Cess, was ordained as the first son of Liberia to become a Catholic priest. He later became Bishop of Cape Palmas. Also, in l961 a second Liberian, Robert G. Tikpor was ordained also following training in Cape Coast, Ghana. He is currently a Monsignor in Monrovia. Several other Liberians have been ordained since Archbishop Michael Francis took office as head of the Catholic church in Liberia.

Despite the scarcity of funds and opposition from his superiors in Rome and Cork, Bishop Collins succeeded in raising funds for the establishment of St. Theresa’s Convent in Monrovia in l931. Here again, most Liberians from all levels of the social and economic spectrum of Liberia send their daughters. Relationship between the Liberian Government and the Catholic church improved considerably and in some instances, some Catholic priests have taught special courses at Government schools.

Bishop Collins served as Vicar Apostolic of Liberia between l934 and l950 and Apostolic of Monrovia between l950 to 1961.

Bishop Carroll Succeeds Collins
Following the death of Bishop Collins in l961, another Irish priest, Father Francis J. Carroll who had served as principal of several catholic schools in different part of the Liberia, including Bassa, Monrovia and Cape Palmas, was consecrated Catholic Bishop of Liberia. He had earlier served as Prefect Apostolic of Cape Palmas between l950 and l960 and between l960 and l976 was Vicar Apostolic of Monrovia. Carroll was most fortunate, in that at this time, there were network of roads linking different parts of the country and people could travel and transport building materials either by road, plane or by sea.

Under Carroll, the first Catholic Institution of higher learning, Our Lady of Fatima College was established in Cape Palmas (Maryland County). The institution became a liberal arts collage as well as a teachers-training institution, replacing St. Peter Claver’s which for several decades had been the center for training catholic school teachers. Most of the teachers produced were versatile in the various disciplines like their Irish mentors. Because of the enormous work of the growing church and Carroll’s involvement with the number of Catholic schools all over Liberia, he petitioned Rome to assign a Papal Nuncio to handle Rome’s diplomatic activities. Consequently in l975 the first Italian Bishop was assigned to Monrovia as Papal Nuncio. Before a Papal Nuncio arrived in Liberia, Archbishop Carroll had served as dean of the Liberian diplomatic corps in Monrovia for a number of years. Another important contribution by Archbishop Carroll, was soliciting funds for the construction of the second degree granting institution, the A.M. Dogliotti Medical College. The medical college was to train doctors not only for the St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital which was under construction in Monrovia, but also doctors for other hospitals in Liberia. With all the medical institutions ransacked and damaged during the civil wars, including the J.F.K. Memorial Hospital, the St. Joseph’s Catholic hospital in Monrovia and the Phoebe hospital in Bong County were the only two medical facilities that remained operational in the entire country.

With the rapid growth of Roman Catholicism in Liberia, Archbishop Carroll appealed to Rome to appoint a bishop to assist with the work of the church. The response from Rome was positive and a progressive young priest, Michael Kpakala Francis was named and ordained in l976, as the second Liberian to become bishop. Following the retirement of Archbishop Carroll, in l975, Rome saw it fit to appoint Bishop Francis as Archbishop of Liberia

Francis as First Native Liberian Archbishop.
Although Michael Kpakala Francis is the first native Liberian to become Archbishop of the Catholic Church in Liberia, there have been five Liberian Catholic Bishops since the last Irish Bishop, Francis J. Carroll, retired in l975. The first Liberian Bishop was the late Patrick Kla Juwle; the second is Bishop Boniface Darliah of the Cape Palmas Diocease; the third is Michael K. Francis; the fourth, the late Bishop Benedict Sekey of the Gbarnga Diocease; and the fifth, is Rev. Father David Zeaglah who succeeded Bishop Sekey as Bishopof the Gbarnga Diocese.

Prior to becoming Archbishop of Liberia, Rev. Father Michael Kpakala Francis had served as Rector/President of St. Paul’s Regional Seminary established in Gbarnga, Bong County in l974. The establishment of this third degree granting school by the Catholic Church, was a joint effort of the Episcopal conferences of the Gambia, Sierra Leone and Liberia, who felt that it was time to train Catholic priests for the region in Liberia rather than sending prospective candidates to Ghana for training. Except for the civil war years in Liberia, (l980-l997) the seminary has been training native priests from the Gambia, Sierra Leone and Liberia, even some from Ghana.

Archbishop Francis continued the expansion work of the church with great enthusiasm. Prior to becoming Archbishop, Francis had established St. Mary’s High School and Church in Sannquellie, Nimba County, Cathedral High in Monrovia, St. Joseph Elementary school and church in Yekepa, Nimba County, St. Dominic’s Church and Elementary School in Bomi Hill; St. Michael’s, St. Kizito’s, St. Mary’s and Don Bosco’s Technical High, all in Monrovia.

By l988, Archbishop Francis embarked upon the most gigantic undertaking of his episcopacy, the establishment of the Don Bosco Polytechnic University in Monrovia, a project which was on the drawing board of his immediate predecessor. Although programs at the institution were disrupted many times during the civil war, a determined, unyielding and unrelenting Archbishop Francis has put things back in order and classes are continuing at the institution.

The Don Bosco Polytechnic has the following colleges: Mother Patern College of Health Sciences; Arthur Barclay Business College; Oge Agriculture College; John Collins Teachers College and Don Bosco Technical College.

As a development oriented church leader, Archbishop Francis established a network of socio-economic development activities in health, education and agriculture as well as vocational education centers in various parts of the country. Under his leadership the Catholic congregation in Liberia rose from 1,500 in l910 to more than a quarter million people in 2000. With such high enrollment, Rome decided to divide the Catholic Archdiocese into three dioceses as follows: The diocese of Cape Palmas, comprising Maryland, Sinoe, Grand Gedeh and Grand Kru counties; the Diocese of Gbarnga comprising Bong , Lofa and Nimba Counties, leaving Montserrado, Bomi, Cape Mount, Margibi, Grand Bassa and River Cess counties in the Archdiocese of Monrovia.

The Legacy of the Irish Missionaries
As their legacy, the Irish missionaries left behind a vibrant church with more than a quarter million members and dozens of educational and vocational institutions; they also left a corps of trained manpower to administer the schools and other institutions. Additionally, the Catholic education system can boast of producing men and women who are contributing resourcefully to the socio-economic development of Liberia. The sum total of these is the legacy left by our Irish benefactors. These institutions have been destroyed by rebels and Government troops during the past fourteen years of civil war.

The participation therefore, of the Irish soldiers in the multinational peace keeping force during this time of distress and dire need, signifies not only the magnitude of the Liberian problem but is the manifestation of the historic ties which Ireland has had with Liberia in the past 98 years (l906 to 2004)..

It is because of these ties and relationships, coupled with their gallantry, discipline and knowledge of wars that single the Irish out as a distinguishable unit within the peacekeeping force. Their records in Liberia, I hope, will inspire other peacekeeping units to emulate the techniques of professional peacekeeping.

We therefore look forward with anxiety to the continued presence of the Irish peacekeepers in Liberia when we celebrate, in 2006, the centenary of Irish missionary work in this country. The Irish presence in Liberia also reaffirms their faith in Liberia as a land of numerous possibilities, where peoples of various nationalities, creed and color, can live and work together for the total development of the human person.

As Liberians, we owe the Irish missionaries who preceded the Irish Peacekeepers, an immeasurable debt of gratitude for the Catholic faith they have instilled in the Liberian people and the educational heritage they have left for posterity unborn. We welcome you Irish boys with cheering rousing chorus.

About the Author: T. Nelson Williams, Sr. is Former National Development Coordinator and Director of Caritas/Liberia