Missionary zeal: Ireland's informal diplomatic corps


Irish missionaries have had a profound impact internationally and remain relevant, despite their dwindling number. It’s a reminder of what we are capable of, writes JOE HUMPHREYS

A FEW YEARS ago I got talking to a nun at an Irish Embassy reception in South Africa. I decided there and then I was going to write a book about missionaries. It seems a bit impulsive now. Stupid perhaps, given how unfashionable all things church are these days. There was never going to be a publishers’ bidding war over the title.

But this nun reeled me in. She told me about her work in crime-ridden neighbourhoods and prisons, how she counselled young rapists and murderers, how she’d survived close scrapes down the years and how she planned to live out the rest of her life – and be buried – in Africa.

I’d had similar conversations with missionaries elsewhere, but this sprightly, defiantly upbeat sandal-wearing septuagenarian unsettled and agitated me. I realised something quite obvious but also, it seemed to me, profound: she had once been a young woman with her own hopes and dreams. Did she ever want to get married or have a paid career? Did she really know what she was getting herself into when she filled out a recruitment coupon on the back of a missionary newsletter a half-century ago? Why did she now speak of Ireland disappointedly?

Thus began my journey into the world of missionaries. I met dozens of priests and nuns working in Africa, Asia and South America. I met people who worked alongside them and people in a position to judge their work objectively. I devoured literature on the subject. The aim was not just to write the inside story of the missionary movement but also to evaluate its legacy and its contribution to both Ireland and the world.

To my amazement I discovered that almost every publication on missionaries had been written by religious congregations themselves and, with the exception of an (admittedly excellent) 20-year-old title by Edmund M Hogan, a member of and historian to the Society of African Missions, no general analysis or history of the subject had been published.

The information gap was compounded by the fact that Catholic missionary societies – and there are more than 80 of them in Ireland – act independently of one another. Each has its own archive and none rates record-keeping particularly highly when compared with the pressing, human demands of the field. There still is, for example, no complete record of all the missionaries who died in violent circumstances overseas.

Another obstacle is getting missionaries to speak openly and honestly. Some are, perhaps understandably, nervous about talking to the media. Others are stubbornly humble, regarding self-promotion as vaguely distasteful. The result is that missionaries have something of a twilight existence, usually entering the public consciousness only when one of them is kidnapped or killed – and even then the publicity is short-lived.

Just weeks after Fr Michael Sinnott’s 31-day hostage ordeal ended in the Philippines last year, the 78-year-old Columban priest declared: “I’m hoping I can now fade into obscurity again; for me notoriety is worse than captivity.”

So what can I say I discovered?

Motivations among missionaries are mixed, and there are plenty of contradictions and flaws to their enterprise. For all that, missionaries have done the State some service. For part of the last century they acted as an informal diplomatic corps for the newly independent Irish Republic; in more recent years they played a pivotal role in shaping the State’s overseas- development policy and in giving birth to a number of national and international aid agencies, as well as spawning a still-vibrant volunteering tradition in Ireland.

Missionaries also greatly enhanced Ireland’s international reputation, something that continues to have practical benefits today. The telecoms tycoon Denis O’Brien, for example, describes missionaries as “advance point people” for Irish companies trying to break into emerging markets. The advantages are heightened where members of the local political and business elite went through Irish mission schools.

“We got most of our licences in the Caribbean because we were Irish,” says O’Brien. While Ireland’s artistic or cultural heritage might open doors in the United States, he says: “If you take these [developing] countries, they have never heard of Seamus Heaney. So it’s really because of the work of missionaries . . . [who] have effectively created unbelievable goodwill towards Ireland.”

Calculating the impact of the movement is tricky. You can cite success stories like the Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, who credits Irish Loreto Sisters with unlocking her passion for both science and social justice.

“After my education by the nuns,” she says, “I emerged as a person who believed that society is inherently good and that people generally act for the best.”

Or you can estimate the contribution of individual missionaries, such as Sr Cyril Mooney, a Co Wicklow native whom the Indian government has credited with helping up to 450,000 people during her time in Kolkata, where she now runs education, nutrition and microfinance schemes.

But, however you do the maths, you can only conclude that the legacy of the missionary movement is significant. In fact, it is hard to identify a cultural phenomenon emanating from the State that has had such a profound international impact.

That said, the movement’s influence is fading. There are fewer than 2,000 Irish Catholic missionaries today – down from a height of 7,000 in the mid 1960s – and the average age is now well over 70. Those still active have little desire to return to an Ireland that is somewhat alien and seemingly hostile.

There are also dark clouds over missionary organisations, including their handling of the clerical sexual abuse scandals. A number of former missionaries have been prosecuted for offences committed in Ireland, and some of them have admitted to abusing children on postings overseas. Religious congregations have shown no appetite for investigating further, and thus the true scale of abuse in missionary settings can only be speculated about.

Here, as in other areas, there is a dichotomy between individual missionaries and the movement to which they belong. While some religious congregations have been slow to respond to abuses in their midst, the same cannot be said for people like Sr Mary Killeen, a Sister of Mercy from Phibsborough, in Dublin, who has survived death threats for her exposure of child sexual abusers, including priests, in Kenya over the past 20 years. Or Sr Maura O’Donoghue, a Medical Missionary of Mary from Kilfenora, in Co Clare, who conducted a groundbreaking inquiry (the findings of which were suppressed by the Vatican) into priests’ alleged sexual abuse of nuns in more than 20 countries. Or Fr Shay Cullen, the Columban priest whose charity in the Philippines tries to rescue children from prostitution.

Ironically, individuals such as these display the very characteristics that Ireland has been calling out for in recent times: rugged determination, optimism and a sense of public duty that appears to be matched only by their humility.

So I had to reach the surprising conclusion that, far from being irrelevant, missionaries are especially prescient today. At a time when our self-confidence is low they remind us, in an unlikely way, just what we are capable of.

God’s Entrepreneurs: How Irish Missionaries Tried to Change the World, by Joe Humphreys, is published by New Island. The book includes reports by Ruadhán Mac Cormaic, Sarah MacDonald and Brian O’Connell on missionary work in Brazil, south Sudan and India