By Lydia O’Kane
On the 1 February the Church celebrates the feast of St Brigid of Ireland. She is the country’s second patron saint, after St Patrick, but perhaps because of his timeless popularity, St. Brigid’s own story has been somewhat overshadowed. Brigid lived around the time of St. Patrick, and it was he who inspired her to convert to Christianity. She became known as Brigid of Kildare and founded many convents including the Abbey of Kildare. As time passed, the saint’s generosity, courage, and compassion for the poor became legendary as Irish missionaries spread her story on their travels.
To mark the feast of this beloved patron of Ireland, the Voluntary CEO of Chernobyl Children International (CCI), Adi Roche was the guest speaker at this year’s St. Brigid’s Day event organized by the Irish Embassy to the Holy See on Thursday evening at St Isidore’s Church in Rome, which is under the auspices of the Irish Franciscans.
Adi, who hails from Co.Tipperary began working on Chernobyl in 1986 in the immediate aftermath of the disaster and set up Chernobyl Children International in 1991 after a desperate appeal, made by Belarusian and Ukrainian doctors, to take the children away from Chernobyl’s highly toxic and radioactive environment so that they had some chance of recovery.
St. Brigid, a formidable force
Speaking to Vatican News, she describes St. Brigid as the “ultimate trailblazer” who was one of her icons growing up. “She was a formidable force”, Adi says. “And for those of us who are working on issues of human rights, on justice... we draw on Brigid for the energy, because we have such a resonance with her story.”
The CEO’s own story with Chernobyl has its roots in Ireland’s peace movement where she was working as a full time volunteer when the accident happened in 1986. “I remember vividly where I was in a school in Middleton, in Co. Cork…” From that moment, Roche says, she felt a calling to become involved in the unfolding catastrophe.
Adi notes that “Chernobyl is forever, because it remains what we would call an unfolding disaster, because of genetic damage, that is to the air, the land, the water.”
“One of things we’re trying to get the message out on is the cross-generational aspect. While the accident was 1986 which sounds like a generation, a lifetime ago… and certainly in the media it has disappeared from the headlines... because they see it as an historic event, but nothing could be further from the truth, particularly for those who are eating, sleeping and breathing in what has been declared the world’s most radioactive environment”, she says.
Telling the story for a new generation
Over 33 years on from the events of Chernobyl, a new generation is learning about the accident through the HBO and Sky television mini-series entitled “Chernobyl”. Adi came on board as a consultant and describes it as a series with “integrity and authenticity” which honours the people who risked their lives at the time. Among those were the men known as the “Liquidators” who quite literally put their lives on the line to stop the disaster from escalating.
Needs and programmes
Chernobyl Children International continues to provide support and care decades on from the disaster in the form of specific programmes, such as, a child cardiac surgery programme in Belarus and Ukraine to combat the marked increase in cardiac birth defects since Chernobyl.
Adi says that a lot of the programmes now are also geared to building infrastructure, training and education and CCI “works to support children in institutions across Belarus to regain their right to a family life and to end the institutionalisation of children in conjunction with Belarusian authorities.”
The message of Pope Francis
During a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan in November, Pope Francis affirmed that, “the use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possession of atomic weapons is immoral.” Asked about the importance of the Pope’s voice on issues such as these, Adi describes it as profound. It was “so important that he did it when he did it and where he did it, because you had the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then at the end of that same century we had the disaster of the nuclear accident in Fukushima. To have the leader of our Church giving a profound message of peace of justice… let me tell you for those of us on the ground, the foot soldiers, that is a message that is heartwarming.”
A word about Hope
For Adi, who has devoted over 40 years of her life campaigning for issues relating to the environment, peace and social justice, there is always hope.
Hope, she emphasizes, “is what sustains us because we have nothing else, and I often think of the words of the writer Victor Hugo when he said, ‘the word that God has written on the brow of every man is hope’, and for me hope is the most enabling gift of all.”