Tribute to Rev. Father Dermot Doran

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Rev. Fr. Doran on the Biafran side of Nigeria

Today, we remember Rev. Father Dermot Doran, the distinguished Irish clergyman who sacrificed so much to save the lives of millions of young Nigerians on the side of Biafra during the Nigerian civil war. The transition of Rev. Fr. Doran came to us at ROLU Magazine as a huge surprise.

Father Doran worked in Nigeria as an education officer, the principal of a high school, before the start of the hostilities in 1966 that virtually culminated in the Nigerian civil war of between 1967 and 1970. Father Doran was one of 1,000 priests and nuns, mostly from Ireland, who worked in Eastern Nigeria just before fighting broke out. 

By 1968, Father Doran had become the most distinguished single facilitator of one of the largest civilian humanitarian efforts in history. Nigeria was in the middle of a fratricidal and ferocious civil war. After nearly a decade of pogroms against the Igbo people of the country’s southeast, the Igbo seceded to form the independent Republic of Biafra. 

The Nigerian Army struck immediately and blockaded the eastern region all around, leaving 14 million residents to starve. Between 500,000 and two million noncombatants died because of the blockade — but an estimated one million more survived because of the airlift by Fr. Doran and his group. The Biafran airlift brought 60,000 tons of aid to the region. At the time, it was the largest mobilization of aid by civilians in history. 

The effects of the blockade were immediate and devastating, especially after Nigeria captured Biafra’s oil-rich coast in early 1968. Residents of Biafra got most of their protein from dried fish. Without it, children quickly developed kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency that caused their bellies to swell. At the worst part of the crisis, in late 1968, some 10,000 people a day were dying, according to Red Cross estimates. “It’s something you don’t expect to meet in your life,” Father Doran said in the documentary. Instantly, the God-sent priests and nuns moved from their professional roles as educators to become aid workers during what has come to be regarded as one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 20th century.

Father Doran was its main facilitator.  He would normally sneak in and out of Biafra to locate the first planes and hire the first pilots. He would then go up to New York City to arrange the first aid shipments. He mapped out logistics for the movement of thousands of tons of supplies from Europe and North America to airfields in Gabon and Sao Tome, an island south of Nigeria that was under Portuguese rule at the time. He accompanied many of the flights from there into Biafra, coordinated supply distribution, caught up with locals and other priests, then left to tell the world what he had learned. He had a way with the news media, befriending among others, the BBC correspondent Frederick Forsyth, whose experience in Biafra helped inspire his writing of political thrillers.

Father Doran testified before the United States Senate and left a lasting impression on Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who became a leading advocate for Biafra in Congress. “He never did anything halfway,” Frank Carlin, a retired overseas director for Catholic Relief Services, said in a phone interview. “He was always programming and planning, and then he went back and told the story.”

Father Doran arrived in Nigeria in 1961, not long after being ordained into the Congregation of the Holy Ghost Fathers, a Roman Catholic priesthood also known as the Spiritans. The congregation had a strong presence in Nigeria, especially in the southeast, where the Igbo population was mostly Christian. He had worked in developing countries before, spending several years as a teacher in Trinidad — but he fell in love with Nigeria, and especially the Igbo culture, which, with its rich storytelling traditions and its history of intense suffering under English rule, appeared to have tallied its narrative with the Irish experience. “I was sent there, and they became my people,” he said in an interview for “Biafra: Forgotten Mission,” a 2018 documentary directed by Brendan Culleton and Irina Maldea.

Nigeria was supported in the war by Britain, which had once ruled it as a colony, and the two countries tried to maintain a news blackout. But by the end of 1967 Father Doran had made several trips to Lisbon and New York, and he and others managed to smuggle journalists into the region to report on the unfolding crisis. Biafra became an international rallying cry. Thousands took part in protest marches in London and Paris. In June 1969, a Columbia University student named Bruce Mayrock set himself on fire in front of the United Nations building. He died the next day. In Britain, John Lennon returned his M.B.E. medal to Queen Elizabeth II, also in protest over his country’s role in the blockade.

As more aid organizations arrived, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish groups, including Catholic Relief Services, gathered under an umbrella effort called Joint Church Aid. They collected supplies for transit through the airlift. Father Doran was its relief organizer. The pilots nicknamed it Jesus Christ Airlines. The Biafran airlift was widely considered a watershed moment in international humanitarianism. It was the first time nonprofits and private citizens led the response to a crisis. Though several countries quietly supported the airlift, including the United States and Israel, it received no official government approval. In New York, Ireland’s ambassador to the United Nations told Father Doran to stay out of Nigeria’s business. And the world stood by while the Nigerian air force attacked the airlift, bombing the airfield and destroying several planes, killing 25 crew members.

Michael Dermot Doran was born on 22 September 1934, in Athboy, a town 35 miles northwest of Dublin. His parents, Thomas and Mary Anne Doran, ran a pub. Father Doran entered the Spiritans Novitiate in 1952 and graduated with a degree in philosophy from University College Dublin in 1955. He spent three years as a prefect at St. Mary’s College in Port of Spain, Trinidad, before returning to Ireland to complete his religious studies. He was ordained in 1961. The Biafran war ended in 1970 when the breakaway region surrendered to Nigeria in order to save their women and children from further hardship from the economic blockade and as Nigeria expelled most of the European missionaries who worked to save Biafrans.

In the early 1970s, when he was sent to Bangladesh and India, he became close with Mother Teresa, who invited him to deliver mass to her sisters in Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Father Doran died in Dublin on 19 May 2023. His niece Cathy Doran said the cause of his demise was myelodysplastic syndromes, a rare form of blood cancer.

Today, and every day we at ROLU Magazine will remember Fr. Doran for the great works God used him and his group to do for the Igbo in Nigeria. We pray that his gentle soul rests in perfect peace. Amen.


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