Making a major mission statement
A documentary on Irish missionaries portrays some radical free thinkers living maverick lives
For those feeling jaded and cynical amid a misery-laden news cycle, three Irish missionaries featured in a documentary on television tomorrow night provide a revealing, and at times moving insight into a species now bordering on extinction.
Film maker Ruán Magan travelled 35,000km to some of the most remote parts of the planet to capture them in their natural habitat.
Part David Attenborough and part Paddy O’Gorman, Lifers tracks down a particularly exotic subject in Fr Pat Brennan. Asked how he discovered the Roscommon man, who has returned to Ireland just nine times in 35 years, Magan replies: “You won’t believe this but I imagined him. I said: ‘What would be the most extreme situation in which you find an Irish missionary?’ and I imagined if there was someone up the Amazon working with indigenous Indians, that would be it.
“None of the people in administrative level in Ireland [in the Irish Missionary Union and Mission Cara, the State-supported funding body for the sector] had come across him. I just stumbled across him on the internet.”
In halting English, Brennan (64) speaks emotionally in the film about the trials of his vocation and the affection he still has for a homeland that seems ever more distant.
“I only feel well among poor people,” says the priest, who now thinks and talks in Portuguese. Part of his work is fighting against loggers, who are destroying the rainforests and displacing peasant farmers. It’s dangerous work: an American-born colleague, Sr Dorothy Mae Stang, was murdered in 2005 after receiving death threats from landowners.
But Brennan has no thoughts of quitting. In fact, when we leave him towards the end of the documentary, he is plotting a new human-rights campaign he wants to establish “before I get old”.
For Magan, the project was unfinished business from two previous treatments of the subject. In 2009, he made On God’s Mission, a two-part series with Tyrone Productions on the history of the Irish missionary movement. Two years later, he made a film on Charlie Burrows, an Irish priest creating wealth and employment in Indonesia.
All three projects have been funded in part by businessman Denis O’Brien (see panel). The initial series was also “his idea,” says Magan. “He went to John [McColgan] and Moya Doherty in Tyrone and suggested something should be done on the missions, and if so he would back it.”
An atheist’s approach
As an atheist, Magan says: “I would never have expected to be making documentaries about the church or missionaries but it has ended up as a great passion. I want to learn what motivates them, and the more you get involved, the more you’re fascinated.