Relics to be offered for sale by Whyte’s auctioneers consist of a lock of Fr John O’Brien’s hair and a fragment of his cassock contained in a carved ivory box.
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Relics of a Roscommon priest murdered by North Korean Communist troops 66 years ago have unexpectedly come to light in a Dublin saleroom.
The relics pertain to Fr John O’Brien, a Columban Fathers missionary priest who was stationed in Korea when the war, between US-backed South Korea and China-backed Communist North Korea, broke out in June 1950.
He was captured by North Korean forces and imprisoned at Taejong, also known as Daejong, and then murdered with 1,000 other prisoners in a massacre in September 1950. His body was never recovered.
The relics consist of a lock of Fr O’Brien’s hair and a fragment of his cassock contained in a carved ivory box to be offered in Whyte’s auction of historical collectibles in Dublin on Saturday with an estimate of €200-€300.
Whyte’s said the relics were being sold by “a private collector who acquired them from a relative of Fr O’Brien’s about 20 years ago”. Fr John O’Brien was 31 when he died. He was born in Donamon, Co Roscommon in 1918, was educated at St Nathy’s College, Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon and joined the Columban Fathers (officially known as the Missionary Society of St Columban) in 1936 aged 18.
Royal Ulster Rifles
Because missionaries could not be posted to Asia during the second World War, Fr O’Brien joined the British Army as a chaplain and was assigned to the Royal Ulster Rifles regiment during the D-Day landings in Normandy. After the war, he resumed his life as a missionary priest and was posted to Korea. It is not known how the relics were preserved but one possible explanation is they were retained by a fellow prisoner at Taejong who survived the massacre.
Fr O’Brien was one of seven Columban missionary priests, five Irish and two Irish-American, who died in the Korean War. There had been speculation that the seven were to be beatified by Pope Francis in 2014. Referring to such speculation, Fr Sean McDonagh – who has served as a missionary priest in the Philippines, and is now at the Columban Fathers’ headquarters in Navan, Co Meath – said: “Columbans don’t go in for that sort of thing” but that “if [Fr O’Brien] had been a Jesuit he’d already have been a saint.”