By Dr Gill Doherty

The missionary movement that was such a significant feature of the Irish Catholic church from the late nineteenth century through to the 1960s both recalled the earlier glories of the Middle Ages, when Catholic missionaries from the island had helped to maintain the faith and learning throughout Europe, and was also a logical consequence of contemporary developments. Freed from the legal and other impediments that had hindered its mission for centuries, the Irish church now entered a period of growth, domestically and internationally that had few historical precedents, and which has left behind it a substantial legacy of achievement that to this day adds lustre to Ireland’s reputation abroad.

Even prior to Catholic Emancipation there were numerous instances of Irish priests and religious ministering to the faithful beyond Ireland’s shores, but the combination of the mass emigration engendered by the Great Famine, and the massive increase in vocations to the religious life in the late nineteenth century, created a need and demand for, and a supply of, Irish priests among the Diaspora, notably in the United States and Australia, as well as in the industrial cities of England, Scotland and Wales.

It is, however, the extension of this missionary activity to ‘non-traditional’ destinations in Africa and Asia that provides the most novel, and in many respects most interesting, aspects of this tale of Ireland’s religious Diaspora. Central to this new departure was both the arrival in Ireland of existing, continental orders with a specific missionary charism, and the foundation of similar congregations within Ireland itself. Notable among the former were two French initiatives, the Holy Ghost Fathers (CSSP) and the Society of African Missions (SMA) – both of which had extensive links to All Hallows College, which had been founded in 1842 with the specific intent to train priests for the missions, and both of which focussed their efforts on the continent of Africa. Prominent among the indigenous orders created for female religious were the Holy Rosary Sisters, based in Killeshandra, county Cavan, and the Missionary Sisters of St Columban, both of which, again, dedicated their earliest efforts to Africa.

China was the principal focal point of missionary activities in the continent of Asia and during the First World War what became known as the Maynooth Mission to China began to take shape, with the new Society of St Columban dedicated to this end formally inaugurated in June 1918. Over the following three decades scores of religious from Maynooth served on this mission, before they were forcibly ejected from the country in 1954 by the new Communist regime – although by this time they had extended their activities to other countries in that continent, including Korea and Japan.

Given the sheer scale of the activities in Africa, Latin America lay outside the zone of Irish missionary activity for decades, but from the 1960s onwards the diocese of Cork and Ross (among others) undertook a new initiative, with the inauguration of formal partnerships with deprived parishes in Peru (1965) and Ecuador (1993).

Mirroring the more general reduction in vocations since the 1960s, this missionary activity has experienced a sharp decline, with very few new missionaries leaving Ireland’s shores over the last 20 years. The thousands already in situ, however, have continued their work, quietly, diligently ministering to the spiritual and practical needs of their Catholic, and non-Catholic, neighbours, most notably in the educational and health fields. This admirable tradition of self-sacrifice and service by Ireland’s religious has also been a powerful source of inspiration for the laity, with several organisations now harnessing the talents and sense of social commitment of the non-professed by placing them at the service of those in sore need of such assistance in other parts of the world.

May the memory of those religious who have gone before from Ireland’s shores never be forgotten, and may the on-going work of those who are active still obtain the support of those who are in a position to assist.