Thursday, February 08, 2024

Fr Gabriel Dolan SPMS receives Presidential Award

Fr Gabriel Dolan SPMS receives Presidential Award | ICN

Fermanagh-born, Fr Gabriel Dolan, was recently presented with a Presidential Distinguished Service Award by the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, at a ceremony in Áras an Uachtaráin. Fr Dolan is a member of St Patrick's Missionary Society, commonly called the Kiltegan Fathers because of their founding base in Kiltegan, Co Wicklow.

The awards are presented each year in recognition of outstanding endeavour and achievements by Irish people living abroad. Fr Dolan's award was in the category of Peace, Reconciliation and Development, honouring his more than 40 years as a missionary in Kenya working to promote social justice and human rights.

Commenting on the award, Fr Dolan said: "I am both humbled and honoured to receive the Presidential Distinguished Service Award. Among this year's group, I am the only person serving in Africa and the only priest or religious person. It is a tribute also to the great colleagues and human rights defenders I have had the privilege of working alongside for the past four decades. I dedicate the award to those heroes, and to the suffering people of Palestine."

Fr Dolan was educated at Cashelnadrea Primary School, St Michael's College, Enniskillen, and University College Cork. He was ordained in 1982 and appointed to Kenya where he was posted initially to the remote arid northern region of Turkana that had endured severe famine during the previous three years. He was moved to the Diocese of Kitale where, with a vision of a people being free of poverty, violence, ignorance and oppression, he founded the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission which became an important vehicle through which the people of the region could voice their concerns about the dire conditions within the region.

Later he moved on to Mombasa where he has ministered since 2008. In Mombasa, he set up the human rights organisation Haki Yetu ('Our Rights' in Swahili), which advocates for the rights of marginalised communities living in informal settlements in the region. Haki Yetu is well known for defending vulnerable, landless people and victims of forced evictions and historical land injustices. It also advocates for gender inequality and works on behalf of the rights of survivors of gender-based violence, as well as older persons accused of witchcraft.

It is no surprise that much of Fr Dolan's work revolves around land and housing rights, which in Kenya are extremely volatile issues that have been festering beneath the surface for decades. Poverty and homelessness were ever-present threats during Dolan's childhood in Northern Ireland. His father worked as a farm labourer and the family lived in a house that lacked electricity and running water.

When the landlord sold the farm, the Dolan family couldn't find another home for months due to discriminatory housing policies that favoured the ruling elite. That heart-breaking childhood experience, he says, instilled in him a compassion for the thousands of people in Kenya who face the threat of demolition and eviction on a daily basis.

In 2021, Fr Dolan published a book - Undaunted: Stories of Freedom in a Shackled Society - which a scathing indictment of Kenyan society and its political leaders after colonisation. The book recalls his decades as a human rights defender and activist and chronicles his time and experiences working to advance rights to land, housing, shelter, and freedom of speech for marginalised communities in Kenya. It exposes his struggles with politicians, police, bureaucrats and church hierarchy, while also demonstrating that working for change takes time, patience, faith and commitment to empowering communities to find their voice and claim the struggles and successes for themselves.

He documents various cases of housing rights violations and outright theft of public land by politicians, including a heart-breaking case where the Kenyatta family callously evicted people in Taita Taveta to secure 20,000 acres of land. Not only were the people violently evicted but their water supply was also deliberately cut off.

John Moffett, CEO of Misean Cara that has been supporting his work since 2013 said: "He is a passionate human rights activist and advocate for justice, who believes that the poor and marginalised have the capacity to liberate themselves if given the space, time and opportunity to organise themselves into powerful change movements. During his more than 40 years in Kenya, he has worked to stimulate and support transformative change from the bottom up - intent on giving marginalised groups voice, dignity and hope as they strive for good governance, social justice, peaceful co-existence, and transformational change in their lives and communities."

Fr Dolan was the recipient of the annual Law Society of Kenya Fr Kaiser Human Rights Award in 2004 for his defence of the rule of law and human rights. On receiving that award from the Kenyan Vice President Moody Awori, he said: "To be recognised and honoured by the people whom I have been sent to serve as a missionary gives me a joy that cannot be adequately addressed". He also sits on the Kenyan Human Rights Commission.

When I met Fr Gabriel in Nairobi in 2014, I was very impressed by his enthusiasm and dedication to justice and human rights. His passion and drive were remarkable, so it was no surprise to see him being recognised with a Presidential Distinguished Service Award by the Irish Government. Readers wishing to support his vital work can contact him through: