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The man with the very warm handshake
When Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela turns 85 on July 18, one of his well-wishers will be the long-time Irish chaplain to the prison where he spent 18 years.

When Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela turns 85 on July 18, one of his well-wishers will be the long-time Irish chaplain to the prison where he spent 18 years.

As a 28-year-old, Catholic priest Brendan Long was appointed chaplain to Robben Island, 12 kilometres from Cape Town, in 1962 after a term at Saint Mary's Cathedral.

Little did he know that this appointment was to last more than two years and bring him into close contact with a man who was to become one of the world's most respected leaders.

His 40-minute ferry trips on Sunday to the island to hold services for the inmates led to a friendship with the occupant of cell number one, namely Mandela, but under the watchful eye of a warder.

As the prisoners' beliefs varied, non-denominational services were held and confessions for Catholic inmates were heard, Father Brendan (70) said.

"Mandela regularly attended services together with the 15 other inmates of his block," the priest said in an interview at his home in County Clare, Ireland.

On occasions, the island's most prominent prisoner read aloud passages from the scriptures.

"He once said to me: 'If I were a communist I wouldn't have read scripture,' Father Brendan recalled. "He read with great pride a psalm entitled 'Let every creature praise the Lord'."

Not only did he read his favourite psalms from the Old Testament, but also amazed the chaplain with his knowledge of Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ -- a book which impressed Mandela so much he read it twice. A work of spiritual devotion, this guideline for Christian behaviour is sometimes called the Following of Christ.

The chaplain's weekly trips to Robben Island usually ended with a joke about them getting together for a party in freedom, little thinking this would ever come about.

Their friendship continued after Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor prison on the mainland in 1982 and his release from detention on February 11, 1990.

Father Brendan was forced to return to his native Ireland in 1996 for health reasons. It was here that he last met, "the humble, highly intelligent, very spiritual Mandela and man with the very, very warm handshake".

The meeting took place last month when Mandela was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws at the National University of Ireland in Galway. - Sapa-DPA