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Big in Japan: how an 84-year-old Northern Ireland priest earned one of nation’s highest honours


Father Jude McKenna donning his judogi

Father Jude McKenna donning his judogi

Father Jude McKenna in his more familiar Capuchin robe in Zambia

Father Jude McKenna in his more familiar Capuchin robe in Zambia


Father Jude McKenna donning his judogi

He is 84, a judo expert and has just been recognised by the Emperor of Japan.

And he is a priest who has spent more than half-a-century of his life in the wilds of Africa.

Welcome to the decidedly interesting world of Father Jude McKenna.

The Ballymoney judoka has hit a career high after being awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays by the Japanese government.

It is one of the highest honours bestowed to individuals who have strengthened relations with Japan.

"It's given to people who make a very significant contribution to the spread of Japanese culture," Fr Jude explained.

"That's what I did in Africa through judo, which is one of the greatest gifts Japan has given to the sporting world and it's one of the biggest sports in the world today."

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He added: "It's a great recognition. I'm very proud of it, but I'm also surprised and overcome by the enormity of it. It's not something I was expecting at all."

Born on St Valentine's Day, Fr Jude spent the bulk of his career from 1966 to 2017 in Africa before retiring to Dublin, where he is now based, due to his failing eyesight.

Having come into the world with his twin brother Fr Brian McKenna, the siblings did everything together - they pursued the same theological studies, were ordained together and then joined the Capuchin Order.

It was only when the day came for the young brothers to be allocated postings that the pair got split up, with Fr Brian being sent to California while Fr Jude was given an open ticket to Zambia.

Fr Jude said his interest in judo followed on from a love of boxing - he revealed he "used to box for Ireland when I was a young crazy fellow" back in the 1950s.

He joined the Capuchin Order - an order of friars within the Catholic Church and a branch of the Franciscans dating back to 1525 - 61 years ago, having yearned to be a priest.

"I always felt the urge that I was being called by God," he said.

"After leaving school I spent five years discerning and confirming that was what I wanted and in the meantime I was doing sports, and playing cricket and football and boxing."

While in Africa, Fr Jude, who has been to Japan three times, said he also picked up "a few technical words" of the language.

"I trained orphans, street children, rich people, black, white and coloured Africans for 50 years," he said.

And, by way of reward, the Co Antrim priest revealed that "the Japanese emperor was the one who stamped the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays document with his seal".

Fr Jude recently retired from his post in Zambia after 50 years' service where, in addition to his missionary work, he made a major contribution to the development of judo in Zambia and all of Africa.

He is getting treatment for his eye condition, macular degeneration, but "unfortunately it's not really working".

He is former president of the Zambian Judo Federation and vice president of the African Judo Union.

Since his retirement to Dublin Fr Jude has supported several local judo events including last year's Northwest Open in Londonderry and this year's Intervarsity in Coleraine where he was a guest of honour.

Fr Jude's Order of the Rising Sun was presented by Japan's Ambassador to Ireland Mari Miyoshi in recognition of his outstanding contribution towards strengthening bilateral relations and promoting friendship between Japan and Zambia through judo. The ceremony was held at the Japanese Residency, Oakfield, in Dublin.

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