BACK AT HOME Fr Peter Hughes is pictured on Abbey Street in Ballinrobe recently. Pic: John Corless
Name: Fr Peter Hughes
Lives: Lima, Peru
Occupation: Colomban Missionary Priest
Did you know? Fr Peter is the co-ordinator of indigenous and human rights for REPAM, a Catholic Church network that promotes the right and dignity of people living in the Amazon.
IMAGINE becoming a Colomban Missionary Priest at the age of 17 in the Ireland of the early 1960s. Then, imagine a short time later leaving for Latin America and staying there for almost 60 years. Helping the people who live there in any way you can.
This is Fr Peter Hughes’ story. A story of how a young boy who was born and bred in Ballinrobe has spent his entire adult life trying to educate, and listening to, some of the indigenous people in one of the poorest places on the planet.
And, in more recent years, trying to highlight the ‘climate change emergency’ through a project which works towards the defence and protection of the Amazon rainforests and eco-system, which produces 20 percent of the world’s oxygen and 20 percent of the world’s drinking water.
When you meet him, Fr Peter insists he’s ‘nothing special by any means’.
“I don’t think of myself as doing good things for everybody else, it’s not like that.
“I have a job to do and I’m trying to do it as best I can.”
But, as one family member puts it, ‘He’s the Erin Brokovich of the Amazon’.
He’s an environmental activist and a man who tries to help those who cannot help themselves.
Or as Fr Peter puts it himself, ‘I’m a kind of an educator, in the widest sense, just not in the classroom’.
“Ideas and values. Values are terribly important,” he explains.
“And going for it, doing it, not just telling people, having the answer.
“Trying to accompany people, like on the stuff we do with indigenous people.
“People we work with, like lawyers, they’re not allowed to just give a class.
“What they do is listen to the people who are already involved in conflict and help them to be able to see the point and organise their struggle in a more effective way to bring about results. “‘Effect’ is very important. As well as ‘affect’. ‘Affect’ is love, relationships.
“But ‘effect’ is delivering the goods. Scoring the goals, and the few points!” he smiles.
IT’S a beautiful summer’s day in Ballinrobe when we meet.
Fr Peter has travelled back to Ireland for the first time in five years and he doesn’t need to think for long when you ask him what he’s missed most about home.
“To tell you the truth, the thing I came home for this time, and I have absolutely enjoyed it, and felt it, is to be able to walk on green grass. To be able to look at the beautiful countryside.
“To be able to look at mountains, to be able to see Lough Mask and Lough Corrib. To go for a day’s fishing.
“To be able to put your face up to the rain. Because where I live, there’s no rain. I live in a coastal desert. And obviously things like family and friends. These are the things that you miss.
“Now with GAAGO, we’re able to keep in touch with football and I get to watch Mayo play. I hope I get to see them win the All-Ireland before I die.
“I’ve had a great life, I’ve had a wonderful life, and great friends,” he continues. “You get to see so many people and you get to meet so many places.”
We have been talking for almost an hour, and having heard about the trials and tribulations faced by the people of Peru and the indigenous tribes in the Amazon Basin, and the challenges he helps them to try and face on a daily basis, you wonder what his definition of ‘a good life’ is?
Especially when many people reading this would feel that living and working in a third world country for six decades — in a city that is located on a desert coast, where it hasn’t rained heavily since 1969 — would represent anything but ‘a good life’.
“It’s about bringing about change and witnessing change,” he replies.
“Looking at people, changing their attitudes, growing into a different way of thinking, and having the power to be able to do something about it.
“That’s the most wonderful thing that can happen. It’s all about life. Life as against death.
“We’re just passing through. And there’s a unity in creation, there’s seasons.
“We’re all going to die. The thing is, what can we contribute? How can we make a little mark, even in the tiniest way, it doesn’t have to be great or spectacular.
“Do something small, do something important.”
Remembering the past and looking to the future
GROWING up on Abbey Street in Ballinrobe in the 1940s and 1950s, Fr Peter recalls ‘playing football and handball, getting into trouble and out of trouble’.
“Doing the best you could,” he smiled.
Then, at the age of 17, he decided to join the Colombans who were based in Dalgan Park in Shrule, and where 333 missionaries were ordained between 1920 and 1940.
He takes up the story.
“I didn’t like the idea of being a priest because I thought I’d never be holy enough,” he smiles. “I thought that was for people that were very, very special and could understand things like praying and things like that. “I ran away from that sort of thing.
“But I remember a missionary coming around to the school and he was talking about the Foreign Missions. And he was saying things like, ‘if you become a missionary, you could go to a place where there were pagans. And you could convert one or two pagans, and they’d go to heaven, and you’d go on the strength of that’.
And I said, ‘That’s a decent sort of an insurance policy’.
“It was pure nonsense, as a religious motivation, and I don’t think that it had anything to do with my own case,” he adds.
“But I think, at the time, we were a generation here in Ireland where we were beginning to realise that people had fought and died for us.
“To put it bluntly, Ireland is after celebrating 100 years since 1916, and this year, the foundation of the State. It’s now 50 or 60 years ago since my generation were growing up.
“That thing, that perspective, was there in a different type of way.
“When I think of lads that went to school with me here in the Christian Brothers, that cycled 15 and 16 miles to go to school and learn; bad bikes, bad roads, poor clothes, and a fellow like me here from the town, all I had to do was walk up the street.
“That made you think and you got a sense as well that people in other parts of the world hadn’t got the same chance as we did.
“So there was a bit of ‘pay back stuff’ that was very important for for me and the likes of me.
“I was nothing special by any means.”
BUT it doesn’t take long in Fr Peter’s company to realise he is an extraordinary man.
He is a natural communicator who has a gift for getting his message across.
You wonder if he hadn’t been a Missionary Priest, would he have made a good politician?
He laughs at the idea, but it does remind him of an important point he’d like to make.
“I’d have been too outspoken,” he said. “But politicians are absolutely important.
“We need good politicians, men and women. We need we need them all over the world. Honest politicians. We need political leadership in things like ecology, integral ecology, human rights, peace building, saving the earth, as well as jobs and looking after public life.
“The terrible stuff that’s happening here in Ireland as regards the health situation, people on trolleys in the hospital, that shouldn’t be. The terrible housing crisis that’s here, where young people just don’t have the money to get a decent house.
“In a country like this, with so much going for it, that just shouldn’t be like that. It has to change and should change and can change.
“That’s the importance of politicians.”
AS for the future, Fr Peter (or ‘Padre Pedro’ as he’s known in Peru) intends to keep doing what he’s doing ‘for as long as I have the health, with the help of God ’.
“And that’s going to be the deciding factor about what’s going to happen,” he said. “If I get some more years to live, that decides everything. For me, I wouldn’t understand, or appreciate, retiring. . Maybe keep on doing something in a smaller way would be would be something more like it.
“I hardly noticed turning 80,” he said. “Age is totally unimportant, it’s irrelevant. It’s about how you feel, about how you how you are. And there’s no such thing as perfection. That’s a bad word. Everybody has his or her own struggles. Good days, bad days, not so good days. “Life is like that. And when we’re down, we have to try and get up again and begin again.
“Use the talents that we have. Every person has gifts. Every person has amazing things to contribute. And I think leadership is allowing people to have gifts.
“Leadership is trying to create situations where people can use and grow into their own gifts, whatever they are.
“I’m the co-ordinator of indigenous and human rights for REPAM, this network that is in vogue for the last number of years,” he adds.
“It’s a going concern, but it has to expand and grow and help people so it’s important. And I’ll try and keep contributing my tuppence-haepenny worth with that.”
We have only scratched the surface of his remarkable life and times, there is so much more to for him to say and for this listener to hear, but we are getting ready to go our separate ways.
You wonder how he’d like to be remembered?
“I’d like to be remembered as another person from here. From Ballinrobe. From Mayo, you know. Another person, who grew up here, has friends here.
“Nothing more than that.
“That’s more than enough.”