The words Catholic and anarchist aren’t used in the same sentence too often – but for Ciaron O’Reilly, they fit together like a glove. For him, the message of Jesus is one of community service, of challenging injustice, and of returning to the origins of the word ‘radical’.
Now in his late fifties, the veteran Irish-Australian peace campaigner has been called a “personal hero” by Hollywood legend and activist Martin Sheen. From living among refugees and homeless people, serving time in prison, getting deported from the US, acting as Julian Assange’s bodyguard and campaigning for Chelsea Manning’s freedom, O’Reilly has lived a life more adventurous than most can imagine.
“My anarchism and my pacifism are rooted in my attempts to follow Jesus,” O’Reilly told me during a recent interview for my Love and Courage podcast.
“I believe all human life is sacred, because it’s created in the image of God. You love God by loving humans – and that’s the expression of God in the world for me,” Ciaron said, outlining the inspiration for joining the Catholic Worker movement, which was founded by the renowned American journalist Dorothy Day in the 1930s. At one stage he was mentored by the Berrigan brothers, the famous priests who were leaders in the Vietnam draft resistance movement.
O’Reilly grew up in Queensland, in a house that shared a back fence with the second-largest army barracks in Australia. But despite their close physical proximity to Australia’s involvement in foreign wars – including Vietnam – it was events on the other side of the world, in Ireland, that took on greater significance for the family.
“By the end of my schooling, I thought that pacifism was implicit in Christianity. And eventually, I concluded that anarchism was, too.
Ciaron’s father had emigrated to Australia from Clara, Co. Offaly, and his Irish heritage was a huge influence on him growing up.
“The first demonstration I was taken to was a week after Bloody Sunday,” O’Reilly recalled, of the 1972 shooting of 28 unarmed civilians by British soldiers in Derry.
“So what was happening in the north of Ireland had a much bigger impact in our house than what was happening in Vietnam – even though people were shipping out [through the barracks next to our house].”
But it was witnessing what was going on in his own community, and the inhuman treatment of his indigenous peers, that really shook O’Reilly awake, and that would set him on the path to a lifetime of anti-establishment activism.
“I became engaged with Aboriginal people when I was at high school, and that was a real eye-opener – because they were in the same space as me, but living a totally different reality in terms of state oppression.
“When I was eight, Aboriginals still didn’t have the vote. They weren’t counted in the census, they didn’t have citizenship. In my state, until I was 11, it was illegal to co-habit with an Aboriginal.
“So, it was pretty intense to engage with that reality.”
The injustice he was witnessing hit home with even more force thanks to the family history of engagement with the struggle for Irish independence (his paternal grandparents had been members of the IRA).
“My father was also an Irish republican, and could see that what the Aboriginal people were going through was quite similar to what Irish people had gone through. Not a lot of Irish made that connection – I think many Irish people feel they have a monopoly on human suffering. But he did make that link.”
This early engagement would lead him towards a life much less ordinary, that would see him arrested at gunpoint after disabling a B-52 bomber, for which he spent nine months in a rural Texas prison that consisted of 6 metal cages, each containing 24 men, welded together in one room.
Ciaron faced prison again in 2003, just before the second war on Iraq started, when he joined four others as part of the ‘Pitstop Ploughshares’ to disable a US war plane that was refueling at Shannon Airport. This was documented in Harry Browne’s book ‘Hammered by the Irish‘, which was published by Counterpunch in 2008.
The group were looking at 10 years in prison, and faced three separate trials. The second collapsed when they discovered that the judge was a personal friend of George W Bush. Eventually, on their third trial, the jury acquitted the group on the grounds that they had been acting to save lives and property in Iraq and Ireland, in a historic judgement.
In more recent years, solidarity for Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning have been particularly important causes for him.
“There’s not much resistance because there’s not much solidarity. So, I think solidarity work is very, very important.
“I’ve been the recipient of a lot of solidarity in my jail time, and I felt it was my time to focus on Chelsea and Julian.”
Given this strong views on whistleblowers and privacy, it is perhaps no surprise that Manning and Assange would attract his attention. O’Reilly himself is currently part of an investigation into the alleged hacking of email accounts by the British Special Branch using Indian secret police and hackers.
“The demand is that there should be transparency of the state, and privacy for the individual. But, at the moment, we’ve got total surveillance of the individual and cover-ups for the state.
Throughout his life, his actions have been guided by three themes: community building, acts of mercy and non-violent resistance.
“Each of these themes gives the others an authenticity,” he explained. “If all you did was community, it’d become very self-indulgent and therapeutic. If all you did was acts of mercy, it’d be like mopping up after capitalism. And if all you did was resistance, you’d be like a disembodied voice. So, those three things give each other integrity.”
And O’Reilly, a man to whom many labels have been ascribed, says that those he chooses for himself – “radical,” “pacifist,” “anarchist” – are not answers that define his identity, but questions that drive him on in his quest for social justice.
“I’m a radical, Christian disciple. And radical is not a scary word. It’s a Latin word – it means ‘to return to the roots.’
And after decades working in social justice and solidarity movements, O’Reilly shows no signs of slowing down – partly thanks to the inspiration he draws from those around him.
“I’m struck by the beauty of humanity, some days. But we’ve got to find the hopeful stories, and share them, and celebrate them,” he said, citing the little-known story of a group of Scottish train drivers who attempted to derail the war in Afghanistan by refusing to transport arms along their single-track line.
“There’s some beautiful signs of hope – and they’re not celebrated.”