December 1967

Irish Catholics begin campaign to send money and support to Biafra

Catholicism first arrived in Nigeria via the Portuguese in the, 15th century, and. by the middle of the 20th century. the number of Catholic missions surpassed that of the Anglican Church. The Catholic Church also played an important and influential role in the Nigeria-Biafra war. At the start of the conflict in 1967, more than half of the Catholic missions within Nigeria were in the southeast region, many of them staffed by Irish missionaries. Throughout the war, many Catholic missionaries followed their Igbo congregations as they migrated and fled to safer parts of Nigeria after the violence against Igbo people in 1966.

Nigeria had long been seen as “the showpiece of Ireland’s religious empire” (Bateman), and many Irish Catholics were familiar with the country from missionary reports. After the war started, Catholic missionaries also helped disseminate awareness of the plight of the Igbo people to international media outlets and the global Christian community. Catholics in Ireland were particularly involved in pro-Biafran activities. (The official government policy in Ireland, as with most states, was in favor of “one Nigeria.”) In March 1968, Irish activists founded Africa Concern, which soon raised £3.5 million for Biafra (65 million euro in today’s terms).

Given that Catholics in Europe were perceived as being strongly supportive of Biafra, after the war, the Catholic Church had a difficult time continuing to operate within parts of Nigeria. For example, the state seized control of all schools managed by private groups, including Catholic missionaries, in December 1970. In addition, Irish missionaries were also expelled from the eastern region in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Peter Lemass of Irish RTÉ television reporting on Caritas (Catholic aid organization) in Biafra in the special “Night Flight to Uli,” 1969.
See Also:

Bateman, Fiona. “Ireland and the Nigeria-Biafra War.” New Hibernia Review 16: 1 (Spring 2012).

Horgan, John. “How Ireland Got Involved in a Nigerian Civil War.” The Irish Times. May 20, 2017.

Nwaka, Jacinta Chiamaka. “Reactions of the Governments of Nigeria and Biafra to the Role of the Catholic Church in the Nigeria-Biafra War.” War & Society 34 (2015): 65-83.

Omenka, Nicholas Ibeawuchi. “Blaming the Gods: Christian Religious Propaganda in the Nigeria-Biafra War.” Journal of African History 51 (2010): 367-89.

O’Sullivan, Kevin. “Humanitarian encounters: Biafra, NGOs and Imaginings of the Third World in Britain and Ireland, 1967–70.” Journal of Genocide Research 16:2-3 (2014): 299-315.

Yancho, Paul. “Catholic Humanitarian Aid and the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War.” In Religion, History, and Politics in Nigeria: Essays in Honor of Ogbu Kalu. Edited by Chima Korieh and G. Ugo Nwokeji. Mitchellville, MD: UPA of Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. 

Sources: https://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/faq/catholicism-nigeria and additional sources in “See also” list.