The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Phil Berrigan is Dead

Larry Kirwan

So, Phil Berrigan is dead. Who would have thought there'd come the day. Once he strode these streets like a colossus. He was a mighty man, totally fearless. One friend likened him to "bloody St. Paul." I don't know about the "bloody." For Father Phil was a pacifist above everything else. But if you were to employ the word in its old Irish form as obdurate, stubborn - well, that would have summed up some of the man's characteristics. (Oddly enough, when I once asked a relative of James Connolly how his family saw him, the answer was: "oh, he was a total pain in the arse, always getting you to do things that you weren't really up for.") Perhaps, all visionaries who want to change the world behave so.

Father Berrigan was an exemplary man. He could also be a frustrating one. A Christian and a Catholic, he totally believed in Jesus Christ's Sermon on the Mount. Many people do, I suppose, but he refused to just pay lip service and acted out this wonderful, but trying, philosophy in his life. He was a child of the Depression. His Father was a radical union organizer, a harsh man who demanded much from his children (too much, some would say). Phil became an artilleryman and an officer in World War Two. Sickened by the carnage he witnessed, he resolved to offer up his life for peace and justice. He followed his brother, Dan, into the priesthood. He was never a popular man with the Catholic Hierarchy. He expected others to put their Christian beliefs into practice, and not just keep them locked up within pietistic words. He may have known of the word "pragmatism" but he certainly never practiced it. In the 50's, he spoke out fearlessly against segregation to congregations unused to hearing such radicalism. He worked amongst the poor Black communities both in the South and the North. In the early 60's, he became a towering figure in the movement to end the the Vietnam War. (A non-Catholic friend once told me that at Antiwar rallies in Baltimore, he would always search for Father Phil, and march a couple of steps behind, reassured by his height and conviction, and certain that no one would dare do violence to this mighty man.) The truth was Father Phil shunned all violence and made that a pillar of his beliefs.

After the Vietnam War ended and McDonald's began its slow but inexorable journey to Ho Chi Minh City, Father Phil and his brother, Father Dan, a fine poet, turned their attention to the protest against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Heeding the biblical injunction to turn swords into plowshares, they undertook Plowshare Actions - pouring blood on and taking hammers to missile parts. With time and a change in fashion, he began to seem like a crank. It never seemed to bother him. He was a Christian and, to his mind, was following Jesus Christ's teachings and example. He spent eleven of his last thirty-one years in prison.

Although the Catholic Church gave up on him, he never gave up on the Church. "Where else am I to go? My roots are in Catholicism." Like the great majority of Catholic priests, he was a very decent, charitable and idealistic man. One has to wonder just what he was thinking in his last painful months, when scandal after scandal was being exposed - predatory priests protected by their bishops - while he, for marrying the woman he loved, had been pushed outside the fold. One wonders too, what were his thoughts regarding the proposed invasion of Iraq. I can only imagine that he was despondent at lacking the strength and health to make his voice heard one more time, his towering presence felt on some protest line or other.

I hadn't seen the man for a long, long time. I never spoke to him. Never confessed my admiration for him and his brother, my pride in the fact that they were Irish and stood up for their beliefs no matter how unpopular. But he is one of those characters who stays with you, prickles even. Phil Berrigan was like a conscience to many people, not necessarily a comfortable one either. He had a way of making you measure yourself, and your commitment to any kind of ideals, against his own massive, unflagging faith. Regrettably, you were always found wanting. Though his towering physique has been laid to dust, I have a feeling that the strength of his spirit will continue to grow through the years, still prickly, forever demanding, and always reminding us that we can be better than we are.




Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
- Thomas J. Watson

Index: Current Articles

14 February 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Anti War March Tomorrow
Davy Carlin


A Tale of Two Writers
Anthony McIntyre


Phil Berrigan is Dead
Larry Kirwan


8 Mile Worth the Trip
Mick Hall


A Letter of Protest
Orlaith Dillon


London Arrests Update


9 February 2003


Orange Terror in America
Karen Lyden Cox


Street Traders
Anthony McIntyre


West Belfast: Memories of a childhood voyage of conflict
Davy Carlin


Planned Nationhood
Brian Mór


Breaking the Connection With England

Mary Ward


When I hear the word "gun", I reach for my culture

Jimmy Sands


Where Are The Incubators?
Paul de Rooij




The Blanket



Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices

To contact the Blanket project with a comment, to contribute an article, or to make a donation, write to: