In 1983-84 Don Mullan spent six months in the diocese of Recife and Olinda in Brazil’s north-east, then under the leadership of Dom Helder Camara, a world figure renowned for advocating social justice and change through non-violence. Mullan had been deeply influenced by two books written by Camara: The Desert is Fertile (1976) and Spiral of Violence(1971). These small volumes deeply influenced his work with AFrI and remain sources of inspiration to this day.
While in Brazil Mullan learned of an area north of Recife known as the Seca region where drought had raged for over a decade, causing famine and mass migration. Working with his AFrI colleagues, and Irish missionaries in the region, he helped organize relief to the area.
In December 2016 Mullan returned to the diocese of Recife and Olinda to testify before an Ecclesial Commission investigating the sanctity of Dom Helder Camara.
Mullan’s favourite quotations of Helder Camara are the following:
“Without justice and love, peace will always be the great illusion.”
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
“Become an expert in the art of discovering the good in every person.
No one is entirely bad.
Become an expert in finding the truthful core in views of every kind.
The human mind abhors total error.”
Rev. Denis Holtschneider, President, DePaul University
As president of DePaul University in Chicago, the largest Catholic university in the United States, I can give Don Mullan my strongest recommendation. My conversations and interactions with him reveal him to be a man of great principle, insight, collaboration and forgiveness. He proved his effectiveness to bring about positive change and reconciliation through his book “Eyewitness Bloody Sunday: The Truth,” … [which contributed to an] historic government apology.
Don is a spellbinding storyteller who brings a passion for justice to the fight. He is tireless and generous…
Don has served many roles throughout his life: witness, historian, writer, educator and human rights crusader. He has used nonviolence to correct historical errors and deliver justice to those denied. He is a determined person and has the ability to overcome personal hurdles, like his struggle with dyslexia. He commands respect and has demonstrated his ability to bring people together around a cause. Perhaps his best contribution is his imagination and the capacity to put unusual ideas together and dream of a different future.
“The protest by Mary Manning and her colleagues was exceptional—they were joined only by a single worker at another store—and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions withheld even rhetorical backing for over a year. Nor at first did their actions appear to engender much sympathy among members of the public… Public perceptions of the strike were to change, however. There was growing support for the movement, partly as a consequence of a meeting in London in December between the strikers and Archbishop Desmond Tutu while he was on his way to collect the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.”
In the summer of 1984 Bishop Desmond Tutu, then Secretary–General of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), accepted Don Mullan’s invitation to visit Ireland as the guest of AFrI. It was the beginning of an enduring friendship between both men.
Shortly after Tutu’s visit to Ireland, Christine Mulvey, an AFrI colleague, informed Mullan that an anti-apartheid strike had begun at the Henry Street branch of Dunnes Stores in Dublin, and recommended he investigate. After visiting the picket line and meeting with Mary Manning, Karen Gearon and other strikers Mullan recommended that AFrI should support the young strikers in whatever way possible.
Fortuitously, that same year, Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize. Mullan informed him about the strike and Tutu, who had already begun to call for economic sanctions against the apartheid state, agreed to publicly back the young shop workers. At Mullan’s suggestion, Tutu agreed to meet
In 1985 Mullan negotiated with the SACC and Bishop Tutu, then the 1st black Bishop of Johannesburg, to invite the Dunnes Strikers to South Africa for the first anniversary of their strike. Along with the strikers he was detained at Jan Smuts Airport and refused entry. The strikers, their trade union representative, Brendan Archbald, and Mullan, were all handed a legal document before being escorted onto a London bound flight. The document informed them that the non-visa privilege, available to Irish and British citizens, had been withdrawn by the apartheid regime.
Mullan raised the funding for the majority of the strikers to travel to South Africa.
Later in 1985 Principle Management called Mullan and asked him to bring the Dunnes Stores Strikers to Windmill Studios as U2’s Bono wished to record with them his contribution to the Artists Against Apartheid song, I ain’t gonna play Sun City. Don collected some half dozen strikers from the picket-line on Henry Street and brought them to the studio where Bono welcomed them.
In April 1987, the same month the strike ended, Don Mullan’s first child, Therese, was born. The Dunnes Stores Strikers, despite their hardship, bought her a baby high-chair, which all of the Mullan’s three children enjoyed.
At Mullan’s invitation, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, Leah, became joint patrons of AFrI.
Woody Kerkeslager, former Mayor of Madison, New Jersey
Don Mullan’s association with our town of Madison New Jersey has been brief but spectacular…
Don is able to reimagine Madison, the Rose City, precisely because he brings an outsider’s fresh and keen eye to a town that many of us think we know so well. But it is his humanitarian focus and his soaring imagination and creativity that allow him to see an opportunity to reinvigorate our beautiful town without changing the things we love so well.
1984: Fr Niall O’Brien and The Negros Nine Campaign
Don Mullan returned to Ireland from Brazil in March 1984. By then the case of an Irish missionary Fr. Niall O’Brian, who had been imprisoned in the Philippines together with eight companions on trumped-up charges, was making headlines. AFrI was actively engaged in the campaign to have them released, primarily through the involvement of a member of the AFrI Executive Committee, Jack Hynes, a former missionary, who had spent most of his adult life supporting the struggle for human rights on Negros Island, the Philippines, the same island where O’Brien had been imprisoned. Hynes and Mullan had become friends during the summer of 1978 while Mullan was a volunteer with the Catholic Agency for World Development, Trócaire.
Fr. O’Brien was working on the sugar-rich along with an Australian missionary, Fr. Brian Gore, Filipino priest Fr. Vincente Dangan, and six Filipino co-workers: Geronimo Perez, Lydio Mangao, Jesus Arzaga, Ernesto Tajones, Peter Cuales and Conrado Muhal, when they were imprisoned in May 1983. They were accused of the murder of Mayor Pablo Sola and four companions, on the outskirts of the town of Kabankalan, 88 kilometers south of the capital, Bacolod City.
The accusations were a fabrication and an attempt to undermine their work for justice on behalf of peasant labourers
and their families – virtual slaves to powerful sugar barons whose loyalty was with the Filipino dictator, Ferdinand Marcos and the Filipino military, including dedicated death squads, ruthlessly imposing martial law.
Working closely with other development agencies, including Trocaire, human rights groups, missionary orders and the Filipino Irish Group, Mullan joined Jack Hynes and his colleague Joe Murray in mobilizing popular and political support for the Negros Nine in the lead-up to the 1984 visit of President Ronald Reagan to Ireland. This included a hugely effective AFrI initiative, the brainchild of Murray, of placing Fr. O’Brien’s mother, Olivia, inside a makeshift prison cage outside the US Embassy in Dublin and, again, outside the Garden of Remembrance at the very moment President Regan’s Air Force One landed in the Irish capital. By then the profile of the Negros Nine was such in Ireland that President Regan was asked on Irish television to intervene. Shortly afterwards they were released and the charges dropped.
Upon his triumphant return home to Ireland, he was greeted by thousands of people at Dublin Airport, Whitehall Parish, Sean MacDermott Street Parish and the Mansion House, Dublin. Don Mullan was asked to travel with Fr O’Brien from Dublin Airport into the city in recognition of the seminal work done by AFrI and other Irish justice and human rights organisations. The visit to the inner-city parish of Sean MacDermott Street was particularly poignant as it was the location of AFrI’s headquarters and AFrI had engaged the local people in fighting for the freedom of the Negros Nine.
The 1984 RTE Report of Fr. O’Brien’s homecoming can be viewed by clicking here:
Don Mullan’s reputation is legendary as an indomitable and passionate campaigner for human rights, for truth, for reconciliation through commemoration and for peace-building.
I only have to think of the long journey to the truth about Bloody Sunday to be reminded of Don’s huge contribution to that long and unsatisfactory journey, through the mills of distortion to the final light of honesty and vindication. And yet it is only one part of Don’s remarkable story of championing causes others neglected, nursing them into public consciousness and helping us grow through their telling and retelling. From St Brigid’s fire, to the Famine, from Frederick Douglass to the Fields of Flanders, his never still mind insists on opening fresh navigation channels to be explored.
Don Mullan’s commitment to fundamental human rights which underpins everything, and unifies and strengthens each project, gives us all renewed faith in humanity and its capacity for good.
I am looking forward to seeing where Hope Initiatives International will take us.
Like millions of boys around the globe, Don Mullan’s ambition was to become a professional footballer like Gordon Banks and, one day, play for his country. And, like millions of such boys, that never happened for various reasons. But the friendships he made and the discipline he learned from the game ultimately helped to form Don’s character and make him a better person. And that is the greatest result sport can hope to achieve.
At all levels, sport should not be about winning at any cost. Its primary goal should be about helping young people to become better, more healthy and caring citizens. That goal is far more important than winning medals, even World Cup and Olympic medals. And, thankfully, that’s what sport did for Don.
(From the foreword to ‘The Boy Who Wanted to Fly’ by Don Mullan)
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 1953
Mullan created AFrI’s ‘Just a Second’Campaign. Its primary objective was to demonstrate the wastage of the Arms Race in a world of hunger and poverty. The campaign, working with schools in Ireland, raised the equivalent of ten-seconds of Arms Race expenditure (based on UN figures) 1980s to:
(i) fund small poverty projects in the developing world and
(ii) demonstrate how resources could be used for life-giving rather than death dealing purposes.
I’ve previously described Don Mullan as ‘a safe pair of hands’ and I’m confident that he will succeed in bringing these projects to fruition.
I have fond memories of when we worked together on the movies BLOODY SUNDAY which was inspired by his book ‘Eyewitness Bloody Sunday’, and also on the film OMAGH. Don’s commitment to helping to bring about peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland is unwavering and his achievements to date have been impressive.
Don’s interests range widely, and it is always stimulating to engage with someone who is so passionate and committed. I know if anyone can achieve the goals of Hope Initiatives International, it will be him.
“I went once to a so-called ‘Homeland’ – which are dumping grounds for the displaced people. I met there a little girl coming out of a hut where she lived with her widowed mother and sister. I asked her, “What do you do for food?” She answered, “We borrow food.” I looked around and wondered who even would have enough food to loan. I then asked her, “What do you do when you cannot borrow food?” She replied, “We drink water to fill our stomachs.”
“We drink water to fill our stomachs in a country that is a net-exporter of food to the world. People die of starvation in South Africa, not because there is no food, but because of deliberate Government policy.”
Bishop Desmond Tutu, Secretary-General, South African Council of Churches, Dublin, Ireland, 1984
Don Mullan was inspired to conceive and launch AFrI’s Great ‘Famine’ Project, based on the quotation above. It was delivered in Sean MacDermott Street Church during Bishop Desmond Tutu’s AFrI visit. Within it Mullan heard echoes of Ireland’s Great ‘Famine’ (1845-1852) during which a million people perished and another million fled Ireland as immigrants and refugees.
The Great ‘Famine’ Project was a multi-disciplined project that involved campaigning, lecture tours, theatre, publications and extensive news items, including three consecutive years of coast-to-coast coverage by the US networks ABC, NBC and CBS. Mullan was one of the first in the Irish world to recognise the approaching 150th anniversary as a ‘unique historical moment’.
Mullan consistently described its purpose as focusing on the moral imperative of harnessing the memory of a major injustice, not for bitterness or hatred, but as a catalyst to show solidarity with today’s marginalised and, inspired by Michael Davitt’s 1879 Land League, to work for systemic change.
The several initiatives and legacy ideas Mullan inspired are recorded in the following pages.
Don’s CV speaks for itself. He is, amongst many talents: an experienced justice campaigner who effectively helped us during the darkest days of South African apartheid; a bestselling author and an accomplished public speaker with three investigative books that contributed to the establishment of three inquiries (including the longest and most expensive Public Inquiry in British legal history); the co-producer of a trilogy of award-winning movies about the Irish conflict; a documentary filmmaker; creator of the first mobile/cell phone photographic exhibition in the world; the concept developer of three significant historical monuments and campaigns in Ireland, England, the USA and Belgium. In 1993 Don was diagnosed with dyslexia.
Don’s strength is in harnessing key historical moments through which he seeks to heal the hurts of history by arguing the moral imperative, and benefits, to be achieved by applying the lessons of yesterday to help mend and change the present.
1992 – 500th anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of America by Christopher Columbus
In response to the 500th anniversary of the so-called ‘discovery’ of America by Christopher Columbus, Mullan organised a one-month sponsored walk from Oklahoma, through Arkansas, to the sacred and ancient Choctaw mound of Ninih Waiya, Winston County, Mississippi. The walk had two purposes: (i) to emphasise that America was ‘discovered’ long before Christopher Columbus and (ii) to raise funds for the 1992 Somali Famine. Mullan travelled in advance to organise logistics.
The walk was led by veteran RTE personality Donncha Ó Dúlaing who said it was the best organised walk he had ever been asked to lead. The walk was covered by several local US networks, radio stations and newspapers, and was the subject of a special RTE documentary, broadcast on Christmas Day 1992, and a two-part RTE radio documentary.
Representatives from two Brazilian First Nations, Mauricio Guarani of the Guarani tribe, Sao Paulo region, and Gerson Baniwa of the Baniwa tribe from the Amazon, travelled to participate in the latter stages of the walk – and then to Ireland – to highlight threats they still faced to their ancestral homelands, 500 years after the arrival of European colonisers.
While in Ireland the Baniwa and Guarani representatives participated in a conference co-sponsored with Trocaire.
Mullan, on behalf of AFrI, also invited JoAnn Tall, representing the Oglala Lakota, for a ceremony organised at Killinkere, Co. Cavan, the ancestral homeland of General Philip Sheridan. The ceremony, which acknowledged the role Irish emigrants, and their offspring – including Sheridan – played in the brutal colonisation of the Plains Indians. The ceremony was attended by Irish descendants of General Sheridan. JoAnn Tall, and her three-year-old daughter, RayAnn, planted a tree of reconciliation during the ceremony at Killinkere, close to the ancestral homestead of General Sheridan’s parents.
VSO volunteers in Mornington, Co. Meath, on AFrI’s Great ‘Famine’ Project. Amongst those attending was Tom Hyland, a CIE bus driver from Ballyfermot, Dublin. Hyland was very taken by Don’s talk and asked if he could travel back with him to Dublin as he wished to continue a conversation Tom initiated at the end of Mullan’s presentation.
At the conclusion of their journey Don invited Tom to visit the AFrI office in Harold’s Cross the following Monday where he introduced Tom to his colleague, Joe Murray. It was to be the beginning of an enduring friendship between both men.
In 1993 Tom, by chance, saw a John Pilger documentary, “Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy.”  The documentary graphically exposed the brutality of the Indonesian occupation of the small island and the massacre of some 200,000 Timorese people. Tom was so incensed by the documentary that he began the East Timor Solidarity Campaign, with the enthusiastic support of AFrI. Don Mullan was interviewed, amongst others, in Tom’s Ballyfermot home by RTE journalist, Joe Duffy, then working on the Gay Byrne Radio Show, at the launch of the campaign. Tom excelled in the role and skilfully built the campaign into a major national human rights campaign and one that would later be recognised as amongst the most effective internationally by the new East Timor Government, following their independence from Indonesia.
In the immediate aftermath of the 30 August 1999 UN backed referendum, in which 78.5% of the population voted for independence, pro-Indonesian Islamic paramilitaries began to attack East Timorese pro-independence groups, including the Catholic diocese of Dili, whose Bishop, Carlos Filipe Belo, had won the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize along with political activist, José Ramos-Horta. Terrorised, tens of thousands of East Timorese fled to the mountains, while a tense stand-off ensued around a UN compound, within which civilians sought protection.
At the height of the crisis, Mullan travelled at the request of Tom Hyland to Washington DC to meet with bi-partisan Congressional committees, the State Department and representatives of the Clinton Administration, to ensure US pressure was brought to bear on the Indonesian Government to respect the results of the referendum and to end of violence against the Timorese people.
“Discovering that I am dyslexic… set me on a road to new and unimagined adventures”.
In 1993 Don Mullan discovered he is dyslexic, a discovery that opened up new possibilities heretofore he never thought possible.
From childhood Mullan harboured profound self-doubt because of his reading and writing difficulties and some traumatic memories from primary school. His essay, ‘Breaking Free from the Lie’, in which he writes about his experience, was published in 2009 by the Dyslexia Association of Ireland in a book entitled, ‘Living with Dyslexia – Information for adults with Dyslexia’. The cover of the book carried the quotation from Mullan’s essay: “Discovering that I am dyslexic… set me on a road to new and unimagined adventures”.
Mullan’s essay discusses the nobility of teaching, including the power of words to wound or heal. From his primary school days he recalls two teachers in particular. The one he recalls with deepest respect and affection is his first male teacher, in Primary 4, Master John Flood, then a young man in his mid-20s. Mullan’s most profound memory of Master Flood is that of a man of great kindness who always made him feel respected. Today they share a friendship.
Mullan attended the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela as the guest of Archbishop Desmond Tutu along with AFrI colleague, Joe Murray. Later they attended a symposium on Robben Island to discuss the future use of the former prison that incarcerated many of South Africa’s black leaders, including Nelson Mandela. Archbishop Tutu invited Mullan to address the gathering on the Great Famine Project, as a demonstration of remembering the past in an empowering way.
After 14 years, Don Mullan concluded it was time to leave AFrI. He left AFrI in the knowledge that the organisation was financially stable and he was leaving it with a positive legacy of ideas to build upon. Indeed, almost a quarter of a century after his departure, the Great Famine Project, the Doolough Famine Walk, the Choctaw/Ireland connection and St. Brigid’s Peace Cross Campaign remain solid bedrocks of AFrI’s annual activities.
Lecture tour of six major US cities: New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC and Chicago. His lecture in Chicago led to the setting up of a Concern Worldwide Group in the city which remains, outside of New York, Concern’s second most important hub; a fact acknowledged in the book ‘Aengus Finucane: In the Heart of Concern’ by Deirdre Purcell (Dublin 2015).
A joint lecture tour with Choctaw artist, Gary White Deer, throughout Ireland and Irish Centres in the UK;
A National Geographic documentary with actor Gabriel Byrne;
The support of Irish singer, Mary Black, for the annual Concern Christmas campaign;
During the first visit of President Bill Clinton to Ireland in 1995, Mullan surprised his colleagues when he calmly, and with good humour, worked with the Gardai and the US Secret Service to create an opportunity for a Concern volunteer to meet the US President who placed a US$20 bill in a Concern collection box, after visiting Cassidy’s Pub, just across from Concern’s headquarters on Camden Street, Dublin 2.
Mullan’s biggest undertaking was a major gathering at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, on 20 August 1995. On that day in 1845, the Gardens curator, David Moore, noted the presence of the blight bearing fungus within the vegetable plot. Moore knew that the fungus was present on mainland Europe and realised that if it reached Ireland, it could have devastating consequences, given the dependency on the potato by the majority of Ireland poor and dispossessed population. Mullan recognised that this date might be considered the actual beginning of the Great Famine. With colleagues in Concern he organised within the Gardens a moving ceremony, which included speeches, music, reflections and a performance by the Galloping Cat Theatre Company, whose enactment of a desolate funeral scene, silenced the large gathering of public and diplomats, including the British Ambassador, and made the front cover of the Irish Times the following day.
Donal Synott, then curator of the National Botanic Gardens, later stated that the Great ‘Famine’ Commemoration organised by Concern Worldwide, was the highlight to their bi-centenary year.
Mullan facilitated a residency in Ireland for Choctaw Artist, Waylon Gary White Deer, during which Waylon created an exhibition he called ‘The Carrigaholt Collection’, after the village in Co. Clare where he spent three months painting.
Mullan negotiated with the American Ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith, the hosting of the exhibition at the US Embassy. The exhibition was later welcomed to the Bank of Ireland Exhibition gallery on College Green, Dublin 2.
Mullan also arranged for Waylon to appear on the Late late Show with Gay Byrne. White Deer was later to state that it was the most successful exhibition of his career.
During the summer of 1996 the late Alo Donnelly, the first Chief Executive of Concern Universal, a UK-based World Development agency wishing to expand into Ireland, approached Don Mullan having been informed that he was now working freelance.
Over dinner at a Dublin restaurant, Donnelly offered Mullan the job of heading up the agency’s Irish operation. By then Mullan had begun his career in investigative journalism and declined. However, after some reflection and consideration of a number of possible candidates, Mullan recommended a Derry-based associate, Richard Moore.
Moore had participated in Mullan’s re-enactment of the Choctaw Nations ‘Trail of Tears’ walk from Oklahoma to Mississippi in 1992, during which Mullan spoke to him extensively about his humanitarian work with AFrI. During his meeting with Alo Donnelly, Mullan recalled Moore’s expressed wish to do similar work.
On Don’s recommendation, Richard Moore was interviewed for the position and subsequently employed and resourced by Concern Universal to set up the Irish section of the charity. As Concern Universal’s origins came from the same seed as Ireland’s leading humanitarian organisation, Concern Worldwide, to avoid confusion its UK counterpart needed to register under a different name. Moore suggested ‘Children in Crossfire‘, the name of a 1974 BBC documentary that he had featured in. In 2006 ‘Children in Crossfire’ separated from Concern Universal and is now an independent charity in Northern Ireland, whose Chief Executive is Richard Moore.
In the Autumn of 2016 Concern Universal rebranded itself as United Purpose.