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?