Missionary era very far from being over

Missionary era Legacy Irish Missionaries Lives
President Michael D. Higgins with Misean Cara Chairperson Matt Moran.
Pic. Keith Arkins

The former chairman of Misean Cara tells Fiona O’Brien about how Irish missionaries are still having a lasting effect on the world’s poorest people

“We need to debunk the notion that emerges that the missionary era is over. Done. History,” says Matt Moran.

Matt last year released a book studying the changing role of Irish missionaries abroad, and how their influence over the past six or seven decades has influenced communities in the ‘global south’ and back in Ireland too.

The book The Legacy of Irish Missionaries Lives On is endorsed by former President Mary Robinson, who says in the foreword: “Missionaries are an important part of our diaspora. Their committed work, as illustrated dispassionately in this book and supported with diverse testimonial evidence, has helped to establish recognition of Irish values internationally.

“The missionary movement is firmly enshrined as a key part of our national heritage. This book commends the past and points to the future where the work of the Irish will be continued in a new era by local and indigenous missionaries and by Irish lay missionary volunteers.”

Missionary era Legacy Irish Missionaries Lives

Matt’s own interest and knowledge is from his time working as director and chairman of Misean Cara, after a decade with Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Support in his native Cork. He has since retired, and spent his free time documenting and highlighting the great impact that Irish missionaries have had overseas.

So just how is Ireland still having a lasting effect on communities abroad when vocations are down across the board? During the time that the book was being written there were 1,100 missionaries serving overseas from Ireland.

That number is down from the 6-7,000 that served in the height of the missionary era in the 1950s and 60s, but that number itself was just an estimate. But as Matt explains, it is the work that the Irish have put in place that have longstanding benefits and effects on the community.


“The work is being continued by local and indigenous missionaries that the Irish trained and recruited. Across Africa, Asia and South America the people of the communities are following the work that the Irish started.

“The second group of people still working are local congregations at diocesan level that a number of Irish missionaries founded in several African countries and in India.

“The third grouping are the lay missionary volunteers that go out from Ireland. They are the three ways in which the legacy has been continued.

“I’ve been to sites in Africa, and when you get there there’s an elderly sister or priest or brother there. But there a lot of other people, colleagues of that priest or sister, who could be from that country or from a different country.

“Mission by its nature is international, it’s global. You will find in particular sisters and priests from South America working in Africa, and you will find them from Africa working in South America. You will find them in one African country from other African countries. But there is a lot of lay people working on these sites as well.”

The book also explicitly details what the aim of missionaries are, and Matt explains that the fundamental goal is then adapted depending on each unique situation.

“The overriding consideration of missionary work is the alleviation of poverty by creating sustainable livelihoods.

“Education is key. If someone is educated they are more equipped to pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty.

Missionary era Legacy Irish Missionaries Lives
Matt Moran planting a tree at a mission project in Kenya

“But there are many forms it comes in whether physical poverty, social poverty, or mental poverty. Human trafficking is a huge issue at the moment that maybe wouldn’t have been a few decades ago.

“Fracking and displacement of indigenous people is a huge issue in South America. Where Fr Shay is working in the Philippines the sex industry creates its own problems of deprivation compared to elsewhere.”

Matt uses Fr. Shay Cullen as one of many examples in his book. The 74-year-old has put measures in place to ensure that his work continues long after he isn’t in the area anymore.

“A number of Irish missionaries set up, knowing they will not be around forever, and that there will unlikely be colleagues interested in the same aspect of their social justice missionary work to ensure that the local community would carry on.

“There was a desire there that their work should continue when they are no longer able or, indeed, around to do it.

“As a very young man Shay Cullen set up the PREDA organisation within five years of arriving there. They are several others who have set up these community development organisations and undertake a particular area of work.

“There is another Roscommon and Cork priest who have set up an outfit in Kenya called the Shalom Centre for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation and they are doing exceptional work in East Africa.

“Shay Cullen is 74 at the moment. He is still very much a fit man. But give him another six years, he’s 80. How long can he continue that in an active sort of way?

“He’s in Germany tomorrow to pick up an award. He’s coming to Ireland then for a speech. He is addressing a priest conference and fair trade conference, and then a meeting with the people who fund him. Then he does back to the Philippines for more meetings.


“How long can a 74-year-old man continue doing that? The intention would be that the lay people, 63 of them who are employed by PREDA, social workers and people like that, will continue the work that is being done. I do not see another Columban going in to that project. It is very much a personal type project that Shay took up and continued with for a very long period of time. So the infrastructure will be there for the work to continue once he is gone.”

Matt says that the missionaries go in and identify certain needs, and then aim to empower local people to look after themselves. And he shows that many international charities and government have adapted this Irish take on helping abroad in their own procedures.

“Self-reliance and sustainability is a big part of what they are about. Very often, particularly in the early days of NGOs which are a product of the 1970s onwards they left a vacuum when they left whereas the missionaries set up structures that the people themselves would be in charge.

Missionary era Legacy Irish Missionaries Lives
Columban Sr. Roberta Ryan comforting a Hindu woman in Pakistan

“Their whole rationale is empowerment. There is accompaniment first to help the people along. And that is one of the central things that missionaries always did, still do, and it is something that development in Germany has now found is the only way to achieve sustainable lasting development.

“You can’t keep providing services. ‘Give a man a fish you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life’ that is the basic principle that they operate in.

“NGOs have now, for some years, been adopting and following that principle. In their strategic development goals, it’s now about sustainability, it’s not just about feeding the hungry. That’s today’s work. Tomorrow’s work and next year’s work is making those people sustainable to be able to feed themselves.”

Ireland would have been one of the largest suppliers of missionaries per capita, and Matt explains how big a deal it would have been for a young priest or nun to have made the journey abroad.

“They had a choice, you could join the diocesan set up or join a missionary congregation. Having a son on the missions was a very proud tradition for many Irish mothers. It certainly wouldn’t have been seen as a penance and some of them went off to countries that they had only ever seen on a map.

“Now they come back every two years, in those days it may not have been for ten years. And back in the 1950s and 60s you could forget about phone calls. It was all letters, but the archives mean they are a wonderful resource on this correspondence going backwards and forwards.

“I remember a priest, now deceased, in his 70s telling me about leaving west Cork when he was 23 to go to South Africa. He said it took weeks to get there and a crowd of people to meet him. He had never seen a black person in his life, he had never even seen a photograph of a black person. “And after that it took them 10 days to get to their mission station. He said it definitely was like going from one world to another world.”


Now many charities are also seeing the benefit of collaborating with faith-based organisations when carrying out development work.

“The Catholic church essentially is in decline in the northern hemisphere in Europe. And in Ireland you can really see the effect of separation of church state relations. Yet in the UK the department for international development have been pursuing, and published, partnership principles with faith-based organisations. They see the value of linking with faith based organisations.

Missionary era Legacy Irish Missionaries Lives
Young Holy Rosary sisters in Nigeria preparing for their missionary assignments

“In more recent times the German government have switched their international aid policy to include partnership with faith-based organisations, and in the book I have written a full chapter on the role of faith in international development.

“It shows how an Irish nun from Derry currently holds a senior position at Unicef, she worked for 12 years as a mercenary rep at the UN. Some of these congregations have consultative status at the UN, and she was there for 12 years and then she was asked by Unicef to join them and run a programme on collaboration with faith based organisations. She travels around the world meeting different large faith organisations about collaborative programmes and all of that.

“Irish aid had the benefit for many years that they had the missionary element as an integral part as Ireland’s oversea aid programme. Other countries did not have that missionary development involvement. That’s why successive Irish governments have co operated and provided funding to missionaries for the development work that they do in education, human rights, advocacy, HIV, sanitation, water, all those sort of areas missionaries have been involved in.

“Other countries are now beginning to realise that there is greater benefit to be accrued with greater collaboration with faith based organisations. Not just Christian faiths, the Muslim faith has quite a lot of involvement in development international.

“And it doesn’t mean that the people being helped have to be of that religion, there is no discrimination. They are not there to preach, they are there to help all. I have photographs of a very poor parish called Esso and we went there to find one lay volunteer from one of the Irish agencies running a computer course. In that class of maybe 13 or 14 girls, three were wearing the traditional Muslim headgear.

“The faith of the people that they provide services for is irrelevant. They do it for people. Their faith doesn’t come into the equation, whether they are non-believers or from a different denomination.”

• You can buy Matt’s book for €15 from www.onstream.ie/books/missionaries

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