In Conversation • Father Kevin Keegan

Fr. Kevin Keegan is from Derry, Northern Ireland. Today he is based in the Church of the Sacred Heart in Galway City, but he has his heart split between Brazil and Ireland. The first time he went to Brazil was in 1987, for a mission that lasted two years, however, he could be living there until now if his destiny hadn’t taken him to another path. Even though he now lives in his home country, he still remains immersed in Brazilian culture by working as an honorary consul for the Brazilian Embassy and helping the community to pursue their “Irish dream life.”

He believes that the fusion of these two nationalities is going to have a significant impact on the future of Ireland. The young people who are graduating from college here and searching for a better quality of life are doing something good for themselves and also for the Irish society as a whole.

I confess, I was training my English skills before going to Galway and chatting with him but when I met Fr. Kevin, I found out that he speaks better Portuguese than I speak English, and he knows more about Brazil than I know about my own country, including stories of the “Dolphin’s Tale” in the city of Pará and the fact that some indigenous people speak more than 3 languages; these are some of Brazil’s wonders and vastness. 

Church of the Sacred Heart in Galway City

How and when did your connexion with Brazil start?

I first went to Brazil in 1987, for a two years mission. I lived in Pará, Belém from 1995 and came back to Ireland in 2000, that was when I first met the first Brazilians living in Roscommon. I was in a shop when I heard two guys speaking Portuguese and thought maybe I was going crazy, as I was already in Ireland but was still hearing Portuguese. Those two Brazilians had just arrived in Ireland to work, and they invited me for a coffee at their house, where they lived with other Brazilians.

There I found out about the problems they were facing; they were invited to come to Ireland to work with promises that they would have house, benefits, salary and that the flight tickets would be paid for but things weren’t going exactly as they were told. They had to pay for everything themselves. 

Their contract showed only the salary they would earn and the time they should work at, but it did not mention that money would be deducted from their payment to pay for those things. 

They started to enquire about their rights and from there the legal procedure against the slaughter houses that employed them began. By helping them to mediate their rights I learned a lot about the labor rights in Ireland. 

As the Brazilian people here didn’t speak English, I was writing down notes about the Brazilian worker’s rights so they could bring that to their employers.

So, you’ve learned Portuguese to help them?

I’ve learned Portuguese because I lived in Brazil and actually my wish was to live there forever. When I came back to Ireland in 2000 it was only for a holiday and other personal reasons, but when I saw the situation of those Brazilians in Roscommon I felt compelled to stay and help them out. Soon, it came to my knowledge that problems like the ones in Roscommon were happening also in other parts of Ireland (Donegal, Cork, Dublin, Kilbeggan). 

“If I wasn’t here to see it, I wouldn’t believe it was happening in this country.”

What kind of problems?

People living in bad conditions, such as houses with more than 20 men sharing three bedrooms, one shower, and one fridge. A precarious situation.

One of the slaughterhouses closed, a chicken slaughterhouse in Roscommon, as they had many complaints  and problems with health inspections. A reporter from RTÉ won a prize for social justice when he wrote the article about this situation.

It’s important that you can bring light to these situations since we are a big community here in Ireland we might not be able to be united.

No, it is not so united. I used to say that unfortunately, the biggest enemy of the Brazilians here in Ireland is the Brazilians themselves. There are many Brazilians who come here with a negative outlook and feel jealous of others’ growth.

It is hard for all of us, isn’t it?

Yes, it is hard for everyone. Everyone arrives in the same situation, some of them maybe with a bit more experience than others, but if the community comes together and organises itself, they can have power in this country since the number is huge. They could even become candidates for the Government, with an Irish passport, and improve the situation for the Brazilian community.

Before there was the Polish which was the second biggest community here in Ireland, but the last census we had [showed that] the Brazilian community increased, as many Polish went back to Poland because the financial situation there got better.

Now, it’s been 20 years that I’ve been here working with the Brazilian community and there are many children who came over and are growing up here and those who are being born here, this number is increasing, it is another generation. The ones who came when they were still toddlers don’t even know Brazil, and some of them are playing rugby very well and also Gaelic football.

You see that those children and teenagers are now in a better position than their parents were as they have better English and better relationships with people from everywhere and [as a consequence] are more integrated into the society here.

Working as an honorary consul for the Brazilian Embassy, you also help the Brazilian community a lot, how exactly do you help them and what are your recommendations for them?

Recently, part of my work is to support the ones who have no documents, some of them came to the country as tourists or students and ended up staying here. It’s a long and hard process, but it is not impossible. Of course, that depends on each case.

Ideally, they should not do anything that could catch the attention of the Garda or Immigration, nothing that could harm their reputation. They should be in the system with their PPS numbers and paying taxes. 

I always advise them to keep a record of what they do, like keeping receipts and also to use a diary to record the dates and times of their jobs and how much they made. All of this will help a lot.

When you were living in Brazil, what places did you go to?

I traveled from the North to the South. I’ve been to Manaus, Belém, Pará, Cuiabá, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Distrito Federal, Fortaleza, Recife, Olinda, Belo Horizonte and Florianópolis. 

I spent three years living and working on a boat in Pará.

Brazil has an interesting mixture.

The origin of a large part of the North and Northeast is indigenous. São Paulo has a mix of everything, it even has the biggest Japanese community outside of Japan.

What was your favorite place?

Alto do Chão, in Pará, is the most beautiful place I’ve been to.

How was your adaptation there?

It was easy because the Brazilians welcomed me well and this helped me to adapt. Some of them told me that it was because I was a good foreign, which for me was a way of welcoming me. Some places I stayed weren’t easy. I had to adapt to their habits, [for instance] when I was living on a boat in a very poor area, a community which was not traditionally into agriculture and livestock, we would be going up and down on the river Arapiuns, with a lot of fish, ray, and piranha. 

What were the difficulties, if you had any?

Once I was invited to a party in Pará when I was living on the boat. Arriving there, all the women ran away from me and the next day I asked them why they did that since they had invited me to dance in the first place, and they said they didn’t really know if I was a man or a “Boto” (pink river dolphin).

The tale of the “Boto” is very strong there and it is taken seriously. It is a story that the pink dolphin leaves the river and becomes a handsome white man at the first hour of a party to seduce the women and then becomes a dolphin again.

Another aspect of the tale is that some people there only say the name of a child being baptized when the “Boto” has passed by them. One of the seminarists at that time said this was silly and he had to apologise to everyone in the community or he wouldn’t leave the village alive.

It is part of their culture and everything that makes part of a certain culture is right, it comes from stories and this background has meaning to a community.

Did you face any other curious situation over there?

Few people have told me that indigenous people are not smart, but they are very intelligent and they know a lot of things.

I was once in Oriximiná chatting in English with other Seminarists about politics and one of the indigenous, of the Guaguai tribe, joined the conversation speaking perfect English.  They speak Tupi Guarani, Portuguese, English, and French. As they walk all around French Guiana and Suriname they learn it.

What is to be Brazilian, in your opinion?

Someone once told me that a Brazilian is a person who was born dancing ‘samba’ and playing football. Brazilian is the one who lives for today; to be happy and to have food on the table. They don’t think much about the future, they don’t make long-term plans. Brazilians enjoy life, are cheerful and friendly. Brazilians can be mixed with any other “race”. The word of a Brazilian person has value, as they say, if they say they will do [something] you can trust they will do it. They are hard-workers and not lazy. This is also my experience with Brazilians here in Ireland and many Irish people say the same thing.