The Philippines and Ireland enjoy strong bilateral relations with dynamic people-to-people linkages starting with the relationship between Josephine Bracken and Jose Rizal in the 19th Century. Migration experts may not consider this romantic event as significant enough to establish social and historic ties between Ireland and the Philippines, but to many Filipinos, nothing embodied our countries’ connection better than Josephine and Jose’s relationship.
Isagani R. Medina, a distinguished Filipino historian, wrote in Heritage magazine in 1997:
‘Josephine Bracken remains a shining star in Philippine history. Not only because she meant happiness to our hero, but also she was his clinical assistant, a ‘nurse’ so to speak, and later after his death, she joined the revolutionary Philippine army and served as a nurse on the battlefields. . .. I have featured Josephine as a forerunner of nurses and dental assistants in the Philippines.’
Josephine’s great-grandson and biographer Macario Ofilada pays tribute to her short but intense life in his book Errante Golondrina:
‘She has already entered into Philippine history as a major figure. Her association with Rizal in itself, their mutual love and what came out of this mutual love: the collaboration, the support, the encouragement, the battles, and even a stillborn son, placed Josephine in the map of Philippine historiography. Perhaps we can consider her as one of the unsung heroes of Philippine history.’
Until comparatively recent times the story of Ireland–Philippines relations was that of a flow of Irish Catholic missionaries to the Philippines. Irish Catholic orders such as the Sisters of Charity founded houses in the Philippines as early as 1862. The Maynooth mission to China was extended to the Philippines in 1929.
The beginning of the 20th century brought Irish missionaries who left Ireland to bring their skills, energy and entrepreneurial flair to the less fortunate throughout the world. In 1929, hundreds of them were deployed to the Philippines to fill in the pastoral void left by the departure of Spanish friars from the country during the American colonial era. Thousands of Filipinos were educated and spiritually nourished by the Irish. In the province of Zambales, the Columban Fathers built a school in every parish. The Redemptorists in Metro Manila built the famous shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baclaran where thousands of devotees seek solace in the weekly novena. The De La Salle Brothers set up schools in several towns and cities for poor and rich students alike. Out in the remote islands of Mindanao and the Visayas, the Presentation Sisters, the Columbans, the Divine Word Congregation, the Augustinians and the Good Shepherd Sisters and several others set up schools, pastoral centres, retreat houses and churches, all catering to large numbers of Filipino Catholics.
For two centuries, immigration flowed in one direction between Ireland and the Philippines. That is, until the 1970s when a trickle of Filipinas started arriving in Ireland. Armed with their marriage certificates, they visited the office of the Department of Justice in Dublin and in one week, they got their Irish citizenship. This romantic connection ushered a bilateral flow of people between Ireland and the Philippines.
In the 1980s, Martial Law under Ferdinand Marcos sparked an international controversy with the imprisonment of two Irish Columban Fathers.
On 6 May 1983, two Columban priests, the Irish Fr Niall O’Brien and Australian Fr Brian Gore, together with Filipino priest Fr Vicente Dangan and six lay workers, were wrongly accused of the murders of Mayor Pablo Sola of Kabancalan and his four companions. The trumped-up charges were the result of the group’s work with victims of the Marcos dictatorship in Negros. The group, whose trial and imprisonment earned them the name ‘Negros Nine’, were held under house arrest for eight months but ‘escaped’ to prison in Bacolod City, the provincial capital, where they felt they would be safer.
The case received widespread publicity in Ireland and Australia, especially when RTE TV journalist Charlie Bird interviewed Fr. O’Brien in his overcrowded prison cell. Irish government officials arrived in Manila to negotiate with senior officials in the Marcos government for the release of the Negros Nine. When then U.S. President Ronald Reagan visited Ireland in 1984, he was asked on Irish TV how he could help the missionary priests. The next day, Marcos allegedly received a phone call from the White House. Pressured by the international media and the U.S. government, Marcos relented and offered to pardon the priests and their companions. However, the group refused, as accepting a pardon would imply that they were guilty. Further negotiations between the Irish government eventually led to the charges against the group being dropped. Fr O’Brien and Fr Gore agreed to leave the country, but they made sure that the Philippine government would guarantee protection for the rest of the group. The Negros Nine were finally released on 3 July 1984.
Apart from shining a light on the horrors of the Marcos dictatorship, the incident also marked the beginning of a diplomatic relationship between the Philippines and Ireland.