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Saying farewell to an old Irish humanitarian

is a columnist for the Boston Globe Three thousand miles is a long way to come for a funeral, but John O'Shea was already on this side of the pond for something else, so it was no bother.

is a columnist for

the Boston Globe

Three thousand miles is a long way to come for a funeral, but John O'Shea was already on this side of the pond for something else, so it was no bother.

O'Shea is an Irishman and a humanitarian, and so was the man he came to say good-bye to Wednesday, the man lying in the casket at the foot of the altar at St. Agatha's in Milton, the man they called Tom Flatley.

The Irish are a notoriously sentimental tribe, and you would think O'Shea would have been thinking about the lush green fields of the County Mayo, where he and Tom Flatley grew up.

Instead, O'Shea was thinking of a putrid landfill on the outskirts of Nairobi in Kenya.

For 30 years, O'Shea has run an organization called GOAL. It is based in Dublin, and it works all over the Third World, helping the poorest of the poor.

Flatley was one of its benefactors. Not that you would know it, because he did everything quietly. He amassed millions without drawing attention to himself, and he gave away millions just as anonymously.

O'Shea has seen some painful things. He wept in Uganda, watching hungry children, their ribs almost bursting through their skin.

In Calcutta, he met an 11-year-old girl whose face was a Halloween mask ravaged by cancer. In Ethiopia, he watched helplessly as children drained by famine took their last breaths on the side of the road.

But nothing prepared him for the dump in Nairobi.

"There are children there, boys of 3 and 4, and they fight with the rats over scraps of food," John O'Shea was saying. "And the smell. The smell is ..." He paused.

"It smells," he said. "Like hell must smell."

Flatley was 76 years old, and he was not just an Irishman. He was a Mayo man.

And the injustice of people scrounging for food and going to sleep with their stomachs howling was written into his DNA.

As a boy, Tom Flatley played in fields where, a century before, people starved, the corners of their mouths stained by the grass they ate in one final, futile attempt to live.

"Tom was a culchie," O'Shea said, using the Irish word for hick. "He understood what it was to be poor more than he understood what it was to be rich."

When O'Shea told him he was thinking about building something for the street kids of Nairobi, Flatley said he would pay for it.

They were talking, and O'Shea asked him what he considered his greatest honor, and Flatley told him it was being grand marshal of the St. Patrick's Day parade in his small, native village of Kiltimagh a few years back.

"You're serious?" O'Shea asked.

The look Tom Flatley gave made John O'Shea not repeat the question.

The festivities in Kiltimagh on the 17th of March are considerably different than what goes on in South Boston or New York. Tom Flatley stood on the back of a flatbed truck, and old women waved to the wee boy from Kiltimagh who went off to America and made something of himself.

O'Shea took Flatley's money and built a home for boys who used to dine at the Nairobi dump. He asked Flatley to join him next month to dedicate the place they call the Kiltimagh Centre. But Flatley was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, that terrible illness named for that wonderful baseball player.

Wednesday, as we dispatched Tom Flatley from this world, John O'Shea bowed his head, said a prayer, and smiled because he remembered the last exchange he had with his old friend.

It was an e-mail, because the disease had robbed Flatley of the ability to speak, and it was a response to O'Shea telling him that 130 boys who used to eat garbage and live on the street in Nairobi were eating good food and sleeping in clean beds in a building named after a village in the west of Ireland.

"Not bad," Tom Flatley wrote back. "For a pair of culchies."