Rescue missions


TV REVIEW:AT THE TURN of the last century, Fr Joseph Shanahan, a Holy Ghost priest from Co Tipperary, set off on a journey to darkest Africa with a clear mission in mind.

He wanted to preach the word of God to the people of Nigeria, and hoped to convert some of them to Catholicism. He used education as his weapon, setting up schools and teaching young Nigerians to read, write and recite the Bible. When he was ordained bishop of southern Nigeria in 1920, he began recruiting young priests, and in 1924 he founded the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary. He died in Nairobi in 1943, but, following a campaign by his former parishioners in Nigeria, his remains were brought back to the town of Onitsha in 1956 and buried there.

By then, the Irish had – spiritually at least – conquered the Third World, having sent thousands of priests and nuns to China, Africa, South America and Fiji. On God’s Mission tracks the history of the Irish missionary movement, following these men and women of the cloth as they set out into the unknown armed with their wits and their unshakeable belief. It’s a remarkable two-part documentary, with archive footage and photographs, bolstered by interviews with Bob Geldof, Tim Pat Coogan, President Mary McAleese and Peter Pinda, prime minister of Tanzania, who was educated by Irish missionaries.

The missions have a peculiar place in our collective psyche, with priests visiting the school to recruit for the missions. There was a time when you could just put your hand up in class and, bang, you’d be in the seminary and being prepared for the missions before your parents even had the tea ready. One such was Corkwoman Dr Maura Lynch, who as a child was enthralled by a film about Mother Mary Martin of the Medical Missionaries. She upped and joined the missions: now in her 70s, she is still healing the sick in Uganda.

Whether you believe the missions were a form of cultural imperialism or a case of the Irish running away from their own subjugation (the race to join the missions began in earnest immediately following the failed 1916 Rising), you can’t deny that the Irish missions is an international success story that makes Riverdance look like a travelling hoedown. Sure, some missionaries had little regard for local culture (Fr Shanahan believed African tribal rituals to be satanic), but there’s no doubt the missionaries improved the quality of life for their adopted parishioners. Narrator Barry McGovern gets a little carried away by the national pride of it all, but the programme-makers can be proud they’ve chronicled a valuable chapter in the growth of our national sense of self-worth.

CHEWING, CHOMPING and crunching; close-ups of mouths tearing into chunks of roast beef; ordinary people guzzling the juice from a crushed pineapple and sucking honey straight from the honeycomb – it was enough to put you off your dinner. All this munching and masticating was to illustrate, in an ironic way, of course, how far we’ve evolved from our bone-gnawing ancestors. Some time between one and two million years ago, humans started cooking food. It was a gradual process, but within a few millennia, we were chargrilling everything that moved and – probably – putting far too much salt on our steaks.

Horizon: Did Cooking Make Us Human? posited a very compelling theory, that cooking made our food high-energy and easier to digest, thus leaving us free to develop our brains and become the dominant species on the planet. When early man accidentally dropped his dodo leg on the fire and discovered that it tasted pretty damn good, little did he know that he was setting in motion an evolutionary cycle that would culminate in the rise of the celebrity chef.

To prove the theory, the scientists tried out a few experiments. A group of people went into the chimpanzee compound at a zoo and spent a week eating the apes’ diet of raw nuts and vegetables. The diet left them tired and unsatisfied, and played havoc with their digestive systems. We met the wonderfully named Dr Bob Brain, who has spent 50 years examining the leftovers from early humans’ dinners. Another scientist joined a tribe of bushmen as they hunted for their dinner with spears.

Faced with all this raw data, there was no choice but to concede the argument and accept that we are smarter and more highly evolved as a result of learning to cook. So maybe you should pay more attention next time Delia Smith comes on the telly.

However, there’s a high price to be paid for our dependence on high-energy, high-sugar, high-fat food, the programme concluded. Our bums and tums have evolved to gargantuan proportions, and it’s all the fault of that clumsy chap munching his dodo bone by the fire all those millennia ago.

STILL, NEVER FEAR – Gerry Ryan was here to tackle the nation’s obesity and fight the flab with military precision.

In the grand finale of Operation Transformation, it was time to see what progress the five “leaders”, who had been battling the bulge for the past seven weeks, had made. No, Ryan still looked the same. The five leaders didn’t look much slimmer either, but they have lost a stone or two – a pretty good achievement given the timeframe. More importantly, they looked happier, better dressed and groomed, and with a bit more zest for life.

Joining the great slim-a-thon were a group of Galway taxi drivers and a bunch of politicians, including Sen David Norris. When their collective weight loss was tallied up, the politicians had won by a landslide. I demand a recount.

Pot, kettle, black issues aside, Ryan seemed unsuited to the role of the nation’s Mr Motivator. As he met each leader and announced how much weight they had lost, he could have been tallying up the totals on “Winning Streak of Bacon”. It doesn’t help that the programme’s non-stop soundtrack of classic pop songs resembled a 2FM show from the 1980s.

Obesity is a serious issue, and there was real pain behind some of the stories on show here. Penny Dwyer’s daughter Melody died of meningitis in 2008; Dwyer’s struggle to lose weight and regain her self-esteem deserved a better programme than this one.

DAVID COLEMAN is the agony uncle to another group of troubled teenagers, this time six girls with enough collective baggage to sink the Titanic. Teens in the Wild sees Coleman taking his charges on a journey of self-discovery – with a bit of canoeing, cycling and sailing thrown in, too. The outdoor activity is crucial – it takes the girls out of their comfort zones and helps them bond and build confidence. And they’ll be so busy trying not to capsize their boat, they won’t have time to think about how much they hate the world.

The girls come from all parts of the country, but they all have similar problems at home.The six rebellious teens bunk together, Big Brother-style – three weeks with no mobile phones and no access to drink. Pretty soon the group dynamics start to emerge. “Groups tend to isolate one scapegoat who they blame for everything,” Dr Coleman informs us. Bono would know all about that. There are no scoreboards, no diary rooms, no bush tucker trials, but there is genuine tension as you wonder if Dr Coleman can succeed in keeping control of this volatile group for the duration of their stay.

Are you sitting comfortably? Well, don’t get too comfortable in front of the telly; in fact, be afraid, be very, very afraid, because TV3 has news for you. The country, it seems, is overrun by murderers, thugs and thieves, and you are their next victim. We’re not calling it crime porn, but such programmes as Ireland’s Crime Capitals and Under Siege – Fear on your Doorstep do seem to revel in the ever-growing crime statistics. TV3’s latest addition to the canon is the portentiously titled Aftermath, a new series on homegrown homicide which revisits the killings that have made the headlines over the past few years.

The programme makers are not stuck for material to fill each hour-long episode – all they have to do is raid TV3’s own news archives and interview the station’s journalists. Watching this parade of perpetrators, I realise with horror that yes, the country is overrun. Soon, we won’t be able to walk the streets without being accosted by a TV3 crew making yet another crime documentary.

On God’s Mission RTÉ1, Tuesday

Horizon – How Cooking Made Us Human BBC2, Tuesday

Operation Transformation RTÉ1, Wednesday

Teens in the Wild RTÉ1, Monday

Aftermath TV3, Monday