Finucane, (Cornelius) Aengus (1932–2009), priest and international aid worker, was born in Limerick city on 26 April 1932, the eldest of four sons of John ('Jack') Finucane and his wife Delia (née Byrnes); he also had three sisters. His father was company secretary in a paper merchant's business in Limerick, and his mother had been a milliner before marriage. The family were devoutly catholic; several of Aengus's uncles were priests, including Aengus Byrnes, OP, for whom he was named. His brother Jack Finucane, five years younger, was also ordained a priest, and a sister became a nun.
Aengus (also known as 'Gus') was educated in the Christian Brothers' school in Sexton Street, Limerick. As a teenager, he was a member of the Society of St Vincent de Paul in Limerick, raising money for 'penny dinners', and from this time onwards felt a strong vocation to become a missionary priest and work for the poor. When he left school in 1949, he joined the Congregation of the Holy Ghost to train for the priesthood, and went to live in their seminary in Kimmage, Dublin. As part of his formation, he studied theology, education and philosophy in UCD, and was ordained at Holy Cross College, Clonliffe Road, Dublin, in 1958. The Holy Ghost Fathers supplied hundreds of priests to the work of missions, especially in Africa, where the catholic church was growing rapidly, and, after two years teaching in Rockwell College, Co. Tipperary, Finucane was sent in February 1960 to work in eastern Nigeria, among the Igbo people.
For seven years he carried out pastoral duties and chaplaincy work in a large area around Enugu, the main town in eastern Nigeria, where he was parish priest. In May 1967, eastern Nigeria broke away from the Federal Republic of Nigeria to establish the state known, for its brief existence, as Biafra. Finucane spent a year in Swansea University, Wales, from July 1967, doing a course in social studies. When he returned, he found civil war raging and his former parish completely destabilised by conflict, thousands of refugees, and food shortages. In order to force the Biafrans to rejoin the federation, the Nigerian government attempted to cut off all supplies by capturing Biafra's only port, and famine conditions were already being experienced in the region.
Because so many Irish priests were working in west Africa (2,500 in the early 1960s), and because folk memory of the Irish famine, along with nationalist sentiment, encouraged identification with the sufferings of Biafra, people in Ireland (despite lack of support from the Irish government) were sensitised to the situation from early on in the conflict. In 1968, an Irish Holy Ghost father back in Dublin, Raymond Kennedy, his brother John, and John's wife Kay Kennedy got together with friends to try to raise funds to buy food; an interdenominational group called Africa Concern grew out of their increasingly successful fund-raising activities. It was later renamed Concern, as the scope of its activities increased, and as it very rapidly became a major aid agency.
In Biafra, priests like Aengus Finucane found themselves in a war zone; with no relevant training, they had to become aid workers and local administrators, responsible for trying to keep thousands alive by providing food and emergency medical care in rudimentary hospitals and clinics. A section of a local highway at Uli was widened to form a 'damn narrow runway', and every night, often under heavy fire, Finucane helped unload food supplies brought in by small planes that had evaded the Nigerian blockade. A possibly apocryphal story claims that Finucane, in a Munster-style rugby tackle, brought down and incapacitated a would-be armed robber who held up a food convoy. He was assisted in his work by his brother Jack, whose organisational skills complemented Aengus's drive and charisma.
When Biafra lost the war and was reabsorbed into Nigeria in January 1970, the Holy Ghost Fathers and other religious were regarded as 'illegals' and were very unwelcome to the new authorities; the Finucane brothers were imprisoned for three weeks and then deported, first to Geneva and then back to the order's Irish headquarters in Kimmage. The order had no idea what to do with hundreds of its former missionaries to Nigeria, now expelled, but Aengus Finucane, for one, had no difficulty finding a new role. After recovering from typhoid fever, he ran a home for some of the thousands of refugee children in Gabon, helping repatriate and reunite them with family in the former war zones. He taught and studied for a time in Dublin, in 1972, but at the end of that year became field director for Concern in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, devastated by recent war and by natural disasters.
Finucane found the work immensely satisfying, developing views about development work that shaped the rest of his career, and that were to influence the whole pattern of work undertaken in later years by Concern. His successes in Bangladesh included the establishment of micro-finance schemes to enable women to earn money to support their families by setting up small craft or other enterprises.
He consolidated his practical experience of development work by undertaking study in Swansea University on NGOs and the effects of aid on developing countries. In 1979 he led an Irish-funded United Nations mission to investigate refugee camps in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, at the same time working for Concern in Thailand during the humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Cambodia. In 1980 he was sent to Uganda as field director to work among victims of one of the most devastating famines of the twentieth century, in Karamoja, where over 20 per cent of the population died.
In 1981, Concern's well-respected CEO, Alex Tarbett, announced his retirement, and Aengus Finucane, to the delight of the hundreds of Concern volunteers and staff with whom he had worked, was chosen to succeed Tarbett in head office. From September 1981, Finucane became responsible for the funding and organisation of projects that ensured the survival of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. For two months he travelled widely to meet staff on the ground, revelling in the opportunities to implement his vision for the organisation.
In November 1981, Concern's administrative officer, David O'Morchoe, and the auditors realised that the organisation's finances were in disarray. With the assistance of the expertise of Concern's board chairman, Michael Fingleton, it was discovered that Finucane's predecessor, Alex Tarbett, had been operating without proper financial controls, and £360,000 had ended up in his personal bank accounts or had disappeared. Finucane and Fingleton came under pressure from bishops and others to protect Tarbett and to shield the charity from adverse effects by keeping the matter secret, but Finucane handed the files over to the Gardaí. Tarbett was successfully prosecuted in 1983 and was jailed; Allied Irish Bank very reluctantly repaid the money that had been lodged improperly to Tarbett's accounts, but there was a real danger that the charity's future funding would be adversely affected by the scandal.
For more than a year after the court case, Finucane travelled round Ireland speaking to local committees and at events to rebuild trust by informing donors that Concern had put its house in order, and pleading for continued support for its programmes and projects. The tragedy of the famine in Ethiopia in 1984 was a real test for public sentiment, and it became clear that the threat to Concern's continued work had been averted, largely through Finucane's efforts; Concern saw donations rise from £1.2 million in 1983 to £5.6 million the next year.
Finucane became very much the public face of Concern, and, because of his larger-than-life persona and confident media skills, was often a spokesman for all aid work and aid workers. He travelled regularly to visit staff and volunteers, and was visiting the war zone in Somalia in February 1993 when his convoy came under fire; a Concern nurse, Valerie Place (qv), from Dublin, was killed. Fr Finucane gave her the last rites at the roadside, and travelled back to Ireland with her remains. She was the first Concern volunteer to die in the service of the charity.
Finucane had established lasting influence over a generation of aid workers, and his whole life was centred on Concern. He clearly felt that the organisation was centred on him, and equally clearly could not envisage retirement. He lived in a flat above the head office, and was involved day and night in all aspects of the work. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the world, the catholic church, and development work were all changing, and Finucane's style of leadership and vision was no longer so acceptable. People had been amused by his constant dictum, 'This is not a democracy', but a new generation of aid workers, trained in development studies in universities, began to take exception to his strategies and to his constant directives, based as they were on his own formative experiences in the seminary and in west Africa as a missionary priest so many years earlier.
Increasingly there were strains and dissensions in head office between Finucane and senior staff, and with the council of Concern; in 1996, the financial position was difficult. Finucane was increasingly absent on sick leave, suffering from back problems and after-effects of numerous tropical infections. On his return to work, he prepared a strategy document suggesting that the organisation should revert to a former management structure, so as to facilitate a major reform, and that he should be granted another three years as CEO, post-retirement-age, to oversee the changes.
For staff and council, the decision to reject his proposal was a very painful one; Finucane had embodied the spirit of Concern for thirty years, and had been mentor, leader, priest and friend to many who attended a special meeting in September 1996. In November 1996 he resigned and, with effect from June 1997, ceased to be CEO.
Despite his bitter sense of having been rejected, Finucane did not sever ties with Concern, and in fact spent several years setting up the Concern office in the United States, and successfully raising large amounts of funding, chiefly from Irish-American business donors.
He returned to Ireland as his health failed, and was cared for in Kimmage. He died there on 6 October 2009. His funeral was a huge event, re-uniting colleagues, confrères, family and devotees, including many public figures. Finucane had been made an honorary freeman of Limerick, and received an honorary doctorate from the National Council for Educational Awards (1995) and another from the University of Limerick (1999). The Fr Aengus Finucane Award for Services to Humanity was established by Concern in 2012; its first recipient was US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Fr Finucane's papers were collected and organised after his death by his brother Jack, but when he transferred the archive to Concern, all the thousands of items were shredded in error.