9 May 2021 marks the centenary of the birth of US Jesuit peace activist and poet, Daniel Berrigan. Together with his brother Philip he achieved considerable notoriety in 1960s America for his radical commitment to peace and especially his opposition to the war in Vietnam. In May 1968 the two brothers and seven other peace activists seized hundred of draft files from a Local Draft Board office in Catonsville, Maryland, and burned them in the parking lot outside, using homemade napalm. For this action the ‘Catonsville Nine’ were tried and found guilty on a number of charges. Berrigan served 18 months of a three-year sentence.
Over the following years, Dan Berrigan became a highly visible and effective symbol of Christian opposition to war and injustice. He and Philip (still then a Josephite priest; he later left the order) appeared on the cover of Time magazine in January 1971, above the issue title, ‘Rebel priests: The curious case of the Berrigans’. In 1980 he, again with Philip, founded the Ploughshares movement, a pacifist movement that committed to taking direct action particularly against nuclear weapons. Plowshares activists were involved in a lengthy series of protests at military installations, factories, storage places and the like, mostly involving trespassing and damaging property connected to weapons production or deployment.
Fr Berrigan’s commitment to justice was wide-ranging. He believed passionately in what has been called a ‘consistent life-ethic’. He protested against the many ways in which he saw the Christian vision of human dignity being compromised, including through poverty, capital punishment, abortion, the ostracism of AIDS patients, and American intervention in the Gulf, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. These protests often involved civil disobedience, so Berrigan was frequently arrested. Between 1970 and 1995 he spent more than seven years in prison.
The father of the Berrigans was second-generation Irish, and Dan was well aware of his Irish roots. He visited the country on a number of occasions. In 1973 he stayed in the Jesuit community at Milltown Park in Dublin and gave talks at Liberty Hall (on ‘Priests and protests’) and at Trinity College. On various occasions he commented on Irish affairs, especially expressing concern about Ireland losing its neutrality and about Shannon Airport being made available to the US military as a pit-stop before continuing to the Gulf.
Dan Berrigan died on 30 April 2016.