Let us sing a song of praise to . . . the Irishry

. . . to a deep empathy of strong ethical character

It’s the season of goodwill, so let’s attempt it.

That honest Staffordshire man Dr Samuel Johnson once said "the Irish are a fair people: they never speak well of one another".

I propose, here, to do otherwise. I wish to speak well of our own. That so many of the praiseworthy belong to the Catholic Church and the Garda, two of our most beleaguered institutions, is also a reminder. We have become so accustomed to betrayal by those who chose to serve us it can be necessary to remember this is not the norm; that the gross behaviour of a few cannot be allowed obscure the dedication of so many.

Last month I reported on President Michael D Higgins's visit to Africa. For this occasionally jaundiced Irishman it was a heartening experience. So much of the best in our people is daily experience there. Meeting Irish missionaries and compatriots with NGOs felt like a rejuvenation.


There was Kiltegan priest Fr Gus Frawley from Clare. He has been in Malawi 44 years, since he was expelled from Biafra in 1970. And Sister of Charity Imelda O'Brien, who has been in Malawi two years, after 33 years in Zambia and nine years in Nigeria.

Irish missionaries

They were among six Irish missionaries who have spent their adult lives in Africa honoured at a dinner in Milawi attended by Mr Higgins, his wife, Sabina, and hosted by Ambassador Áine Hearns.

Days beforehand in Ethiopia, the President and Sabina visited an eye clinic in Mekele run by the Daughters of Charity and sponsored by Trócaire. Sr Margaret Coyne, sister of Sabina, worked there for 23 years.

The following week at Soweto's Regina Mundi Catholic Church in South Africa both heard eight Irish nuns speak passionately about the need for more education. Among them was Sr Frances Sheehy from Limerick, in South Africa 43 years.

Then the next generation of Irish with the NGOs who, too, have chosen to spend much of their adult lives in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth helping some of its most unfortunate. Such as the indefatigable Mary T Murphy from Cork and Louth man John Rhynne, who help run Goal's Tierkidi refugee camp in Ethiopia's Gambella province. And Mike McDonagh, who co-ordinates UN humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia, there since 1983. And all those Irish with Trócaire, Concern, the Irish Rule of Law group in Malawi, Gorta Self-Help Africa, World Vision, Irish Aid itself. The sincerity and commitment was compelling. Who would believe it in an age such as this?

Empathy put into action In Ethiopia's Addis Ababa, Mr Higgins said of them all, missionaries and NGOs alike: "To me they represent an 'Irishness' to which all of us should aspire, motivated by a deep empathy put into action and a strong ethical character." He might also have been talking about his own security detail

. Det Insp Kevin Ring and his men and women were unobtrusive, professional, courteous, friendly and sociable. They presented a positive image of the Garda and our country. The US secret service might learn from them. Lots of grace, whatever the pressure.

One among them, Det Garda Bryan Teahan, became something of a ministering angel (his colleagues will love that!) to many on the trip as his skills as a paramedic were called on frequently to assist those who succumbed to bugs and "live streaming" of a more traditional kind.

Then there were the Áras an Uachtaráin and Department of Foreign Affairs staff from Dublin and local Embassies. Meticulous in attention to detail they executed a thoroughly well-planned itinerary.

Though I do owe an apology to one hard-working third secretary who didn’t know what to make of my references to his beloved department as “. . . sweet FA”. It was a compliment. Sorry Ross.

Yes, it really feels great to be Irish. Happy Christmas to one and all. (Normal hostilities resume in 2015!)

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent