Incredible story of Irish woman who married African prince, fled a bloody civil war to settle in Warrenpoint, returned to Nigeria, endured the brutal murders of her husband and son, and helped run a hospital for the needy
Olivia Ellah tells Ivan Little how her mother's marriage to a Nigerian doctor shocked both their families, why she had to flee back to Northern Ireland, but later returned to Africa only to be faced with family tragedies
A Nigerian woman has spoken publicly for the first time about her remarkable Irish mother who had to flee with her family to Warrenpoint to escape the bloody civil war in Biafra, but who later returned to her adopted homeland, where despite losing her husband, son and granddaughter in tragic circumstances, helped to run a hospital for needy people… and became a queen.
Olivia Ellah, who now lives in London, has joined with her siblings to pay emotional tributes to their inspirational mother Lilian Amobi, the daughter of a farmer from Longford who earned the respect and admiration of hundreds of people in Nigeria for her sacrifices on their behalf and who often refused to take money from patients who couldn't afford to pay.
Yet the former Lilian Wright's extraordinary life started in a very ordinary way in Longford in May 1925.
She was the last but one of seven children born to Robert and Charlotte Wright, and she described herself as "a very active and mischievous girl" who tried to get away with doing as little farm work as possible.
But her life changed dramatically when she moved to find work in Dublin, where she met a handsome young medical student, Ben Amobi, who had been sent by his family from Nigeria to study at University College Dublin.
Lilian soon discovered that her new beau was no run-of-the-mill student. Ben was in fact a prince from Ogidi, a large, bustling area near one of the biggest rivers in Eastern Nigeria, the Niger.
He and Lilian, who was five years younger, fell in love and Ben proposed to her.
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Says Olivia: "He'd been expected to return to Nigeria with a medical degree, not a beautiful Irish girl."
The sublimely happy couple braced themselves for the tensions they knew their interracial marriage would stir. Which it did in Nigeria and Ireland.
Olivia reckons the shocked responses to the union thousands of miles apart were caused by the fear of the unknown among both families.
But her steely mother was undaunted, and after the marriage she set up home in Nigeria, a world away from the life she'd known thousands of miles away in Ireland.
Ben's first posting as a junior doctor was to a remote area called Degema, which could only be accessed by canoe.
"But mum embraced the people and the culture in Nigeria," says Olivia's sister Noney.
"She loved living in Degema. She found that the way of life there was very peaceful."
The Amobis could never have imagined the turbulence that lay ahead for them.
Lilian later accompanied her husband when he was transferred to various parts of the east of Nigeria to places like Port Harcourt, Calabar and then Enugu, the future capital of the state of Biafra, where the Amobis settled and started to raise their family.
Their idyll was soon shattered, however. In July 1967 the Biafra war erupted, a conflict that made the world take notice after images of malnourished and starving children dominated the front pages and news bulletins.
The war, which was to last nearly three years, was fought between the government of Nigeria and Biafra, whose leaders wanted to break away from the federal authorities
Ben and Lilian quickly made up their minds that it would be best for her and their four children - Noney, Benny, Philip and Olivia - to leave Biafra as quickly as possible for their own safety.
"It was a difficult time," says Olivia. "Dad stayed behind to care for his people in Biafra, where he worked closely with the Red Cross."
But for his loved ones, leaving war-ravaged Biafra wasn't straightforward. Ben and Lilian relied on the help of nuns and the Red Cross to get the family out on a flight from a treacherous airstrip in the town of Uli.
What made the journey even more perilous was the fact that planes using the airstrip had to land and take off at night due to incessant bombing by the Nigerian Airforce.
But the Amobis did eventually manage to escape.
Says Olivia: "A Red Cross cargo plane took us to the island country of Sao Tome and then on to Lisbon, where the Portuguese government were supporting Biafra."
Saying farewell to Dr Amobi had been understandably traumatic, with the unspoken dread that Lilian and the children might never see him again. And they also feared for his well-being amid the turmoil of Biafra.
In Lisbon the next problem that had to be resolved was where the Amobis would live, and the answer was Northern Ireland.
Says Olivia: "My aunt Olive Trotter lived in Warrenpoint and she and her husband William, who had three daughters - June, Pamela and Cherry - opened their doors and their hearts to us"
The Amobi children started schools in Newry and Warrenpoint, where their mum eventually found the family a place of their own in St David's Flats.
But they needed more space. And they discovered it in Barcroft Park in Newry. It was a new house, but the Troubles were exploding and the Amobis, who'd fled a civil war in Nigeria, ended up in the middle of more unrest here.
Olivia, who was aged nine at the time of the move to Ireland, says; "The Troubles and the protests were extending to Newry. It was frightening."
But there were lighter moments, too. She says: "I remember travelling across the border to visit mum's family in Longford. The searches by the soldiers on the border used to wear her out.
"One Christmas she was taking a turkey to Longford and she unwisely told a soldier who was asking her what she had in the boot that she had a dead body in there. It didn't go down well, but mum had a wicked sense of humour and an Irish temper!"
The separation from Dr Amobi was stressful. "This was not the time of mobile phones and correspondence was slow and intermittent," says Olivia." It was therefore exciting and reassuring to receive any letters from dad in war-torn Biafra."
In Newry, however, the Amobis, who moved from Barcroft Park to Glen Hill, off the Dublin Road, cemented friendships that would last them a lifetime. But Newry wasn't home.
Happily, the merciless Biafra war ended in January 1970 and that was the cue for Dr Amobi to come to Newry to collect his family and take them back to Nigeria. But more problems were waiting for the Amobis. The family's beautifully appointed home in Nigeria, which had been filled with objects d'art, had been taken over as a wartime headquarters by the country's army, but they didn't leave the house as they found it.
All the family's possessions were gone, the house stripped clean by looters, but after intensive negotiations the Amobis got their home back and started trying to restore it to its former glory.
Dr Amobi also built a hospital - St Mary's in Enugu - and in 1975 he became king (igwe) of his region, with the title HRH Igwe Dr Benedict Vincent Obiora Amobi the third. Lilian was his queen.
Dr Amobi succeeded his father, who'd been a member of Nigeria's Federative Legislative Council and who had been awarded an OBE by King George V.
Olivia says: "It had been anticipated that he would follow in his father's footsteps, but he managed to continue his hard and dedicated work as a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist in Enugu, while also ruling his people in Ogidi, with the stalwart support of our mother."
Lilian had also been involved in the running of the family's property business in Enugu, but her world - and that of her children - fell apart in 1985 when Dr Amobi was shot dead at their home during an armed robbery.
The family were plunged into mourning, but Lilian, who'd lost her first son Robert at the age of 10 months in 1953, vowed that life had to go on. And there was no going back, to Ireland or anywhere else.
Lilian, who refused to allow the bullet holes at her home to be plastered over as a testimony to the horror that unfolded there, took over the running of the hospital, but more tragedy was lurking.
Lilian's son Philip, who'd maintained his links with friends in South Down, was shot dead in 1992 by a gang who wanted his new Mercedes car. His wife was travelling behind him in another vehicle.
Just as it seemed nothing else could happen, Lilian's granddaughter Ibra - Olivia's daughter - was among 107 people killed in a plane crash at Port Harcourt Airport in 2005.
Olivia says her mother was a tower of strength for her and she is comforted by the fact that she and her other siblings still hear stories of how much her mother was revered and respected by people outside the family, too, for her wisdom and for her kindness.
Olivia says: "Mum often waived the payment of bills for those going through hard times. She was a loyal friend and I and the rest of her children are still told about how gracious she was to them. She had a very generous heart." Lilian's philanthropic nature helped many local people to fund their education and she also trained many of the children of her staff, setting them on the road to becoming doctors and financing foreign trips for them to further their studies.
All the while, however, Lilian devoted much of her time to the care of her grandchildren and indulged her pastimes as a baker of cakes and a gardener with a love of roses.
Lilian also found the time to be an active member of an association of foreign women called Nigerwives, who had Nigerian husbands and who helped their members in tough times. She was a regular church-goer too
But Olivia says Lilian's faith was at times conflicted by her difficulty in reconciling Christian teachings about forgiveness with the murders of her husband and son.
"However, with the help of God, she managed to come to terms with this and she was keen that everyone who came to visit her and patients in St Mary's hospital would receive the same gift she had received, and she led many to Christ," says Olivia.
She also disclosed that her mum donated a sizeable portion of land in a middle class area of Enugu to missionaries setting up an independent Baptist church.
Olivia, whose brother Ben, is a former Nigerian Charge d'Affaires to the Republic in Dublin and ambassador to Sweden, with concurrent accreditation to Norway, Finland and Denmark, still marvels at the strength and independence of her mother, whom she describes as a survivor and "resilience personified".
Lilian died on Mother's Day on March 2, 2008.
Her funeral was "exceptional", says Olivia, and was attended by scores of mourners from all walks of life in Nigeria, people who wanted to honour the farmer's daughter from Ireland who became a queen and a queen of people's hearts, and who is buried beside her son Philip in Ogidi.