An Irishman in Africa

Pádraig O’Toole’s new book tells a moving story of life in Africa and Ireland

Cill Rónáin, Inis Mór. photograph: bryan o’brien

Cill Rónáin, Inis Mór. photograph: bryan o’brien


One of the great untold and uncelebrated stories of 20th century Ireland is Irish missionary activity in Africa, South America and Asia. Thousands of Irish men and Irish women went abroad to places where only Irish mercenaries in the British army had gone before in the first half of the 20th century. They were spreading the gospel of Christ as Patrick had done in Ireland 1500 years before, and as Irish missionaries had done in the dark and dungeon ages when the barbarian hordes had conquered the Roman Empire from the barbarian hordes who were the Roman Empire.

One of these was Pádraig O’Toole from Inis Mór in the Aran Islands who joined the Society of African Missions in a sunburst of idealism to spread the light of Christianity in Africa. His autobiography Aran to Africa: An Irishman’s Unique Odyssey (Nuascéalta 2013) has been recently published and is both a sober and an exhilarating account of his life as a missionary, and his subsequent life as somebody who did much else besides.

With this, I have to enter a personal note. I knew Pádraig O’Toole for a brief period, as we were both teachers in the college in Nigeria in which I taught in my very first job. He vanished into “the bush” in my second year, and my only consequent contact with him was his driving across non–existent bridges in Northern Nigeria with an alacrity which defied the land-speed record; and a subsequent visit to Inis Mór where he covered the length of the place so fast in a car that we began in the north of the island when the ropes were loosed on the quayside and arrived just when the boat was being launched in Cill Rónáin.

Beyond this, there was silence; apart from the fact that he had married Mary O’ Hara, singer, harpist and gentle artistic interpreter of an Ireland that had been more raucously expressed by the Dubliners and all who followed. This is a book which for me filled in all those gaps and it is a wonderful read for anyone who wants to know about that corner of Ireland that has long been hidden, and to meet a person who has so much to say about his life and those times.

It may be that some of this is conventional enough: the traditional upbringing, the Irish spiritual empire, the idealism to spread the word. It is the courage and the deviation that are important, however. His upbringing on Inis Mór will not be a surprise to most people, nor will his training as a priest for the missions. His education in UCC he describes as “halcyon days”, and his love for some of his teachers and professors shines through. The mission is patent, but the individual thinker is there from the start.

He was sent to Nigeria in its first flush of independence, and in those years when Nigeria was aflame. He worked as a teacher, as a priest on death row, as a founder of a Muslim college which was trying to marry the best of western education with the African resurgence of Islam. It may seem strange to us that a committed Catholic priest would be appointed principal of a Muslim secondary school, but he obviously performed his duties with complete dedication and with a balanced understanding of cultures which would not go amiss today, either in sectarian Nigeria, or in bigoted racist Europe.

His disillusionment with the church was slow and measured. Part of it was intellectual, part of it cultural, part of it entirely temperamental. It was entirely predictable by the Holy Ghost that a free spirit could not be doctrinally confined. This is not an angry polemic, however, but the disclosing of slow doubt, and the visiting of “unfamiliar, disturbing thoughts”. One of the more scary and illuminating comments is that “missionary societies are founded and inspired by visionaries. They are killed off by control freaks”.

There is some sadness, but not that much, in the third part of the book where he says that life begins at 40. Because this is the part where he meets and falls in love with Mary O’Hara and where they work together in east Africa. It is the greatest affirmation of the saying that God works straight but with crooked lines. It is shot through with aphorisms that are as wise as any seanfhocal; I am not sure that anybody ever said until now that you should leave one corner of your life for experiment. You sense that there are guts in this life which could never be explored even if he lived seven times.

Despite his recent serious illness you sense that Pádraig O’Toole is still bursting with life and has beautiful and savage things to say.

Treise leis agus fad saoil.

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