God save the heathens from our pious zeal

by John Boland

In these bad days for the Catholic Church in Ireland, RTE1 offers us the two-part On God’s Mission, which allows those who so desire to wallow in memories of a time when we had more priests than the country needed and so dispatched them to the far corners of the globe where “they brought their faith, education, medicine and humanitarian aid to millions”. That, at any rate, is how narrator Barry McGovern described their influence; a view also espoused by President McAleese, who warmly regarded Irish missionaries as “our primary ambassadors — we were judged by them”.

It all began in 1902, when Tipperary-born Holy Ghost priest Joseph Shanahan was sent up the Niger to civilise the natives. “A truly heroic figure,” according to Concern CEO Tom Arnold. Shanahan saw his calling in simple terms, recalling later that “it was no easy task to civilise, teach, subdue and bring beneath the yoke of Christ a population sunk for centuries in superstition, ignorance and vice”.

This, according to Bob Geldof, “must have been very satisfying” and he summed up their mindset as: “We will go out and convert the heathen to the correct word of God and make them into fully-formed adults in our image, which is God’s image”.

But if Shanahan was the first of such proselytisers, Edward Galvin — an Irish Columban priest based in Brooklyn — was equally important, blazing a missionary trail to China that many other priests would follow.

“I’m going for Christ’s sake to save souls,” he told his mother.

Though the Columban magazine, The Far East, put it in even more stirring terms — calling on recruits to reach “the furthest outposts of heathendom, that vast, restless mass rotting in sin”, and to ensure that “nothing can withstand the terrific onslaughts of courage and faith”.

By 1965 there were 7,000 Irish missionaries throughout the world, but there are only 1,700 today — partly through the huge falling-off in vocations and partly because such religious imperialism simply isn’t acceptable any more. Of course, it shouldn’t have been acceptable then, either, though it was left to the closing part of the film for dissenting voices to be heard.

The most eloquent of these was Dublin-based Nigerian sociologist Festus Ikeotuonye, who saw the whole enterprise as “an invasion” that was anything but consensual in its methods, with Africans forced to speak English in missionary schools “just as the Irish had been in earlier times”.

And Philippines-based Columban priest Shay Cullen insisted that “saving souls doesn’t come into our thinking whatsoever — we’ve gone beyond all that”.

Instead, he sees the missionary’s role as about “transforming society and creating some kingdom of justice and peace”.

In her own modest way, Alice Leahy is attempting to right some of society’s wrongs with Trust, the agency for marginalised people she co-founded in Dublin 35 years ago. “Treating everyone with dignity and respect” is her mission, and Would You Believe (RTE1) paid tribute to her work in an engrossing little film.

In a week focused on the benefits of do-goodery, RTE1 also began the second season of Teens in the Wild, in which psychologist David Coleman aims to bring meaning and purpose to the lives of disaffected young people. As with last year’s series, he attempts to achieve this by taking them out of their home environments for three weeks — in this case to “a therapy-based activity programme” in (where else?) “the wilds of Donegal”.

First, though, we had to meet the six participants. Last time they were boys, now they’re girls including Amy (16), who’s “physically and verbally abusive” to her mother; and Niamh (also 16), who’s “verbally and physically abusive” to hers.

I was indulgent to this series in its previous incarnation but this time round, after listening for 20 minutes to the moans and whingeings of the various parents and the bickering of their daughters, I asked myself if I really wanted to spend the next few weeks in the camera-conscious company of six truculent and surly teenagers, and I decided I’d rather stick needles in my eyes.

TV3’s Aftermath, a new series chronicling the effects of murder on the families of victims and on the communities in which they occur, was a lot more engrossing. Refreshingly unsensationalist in its approach, this week’s opener featured the eloquent reminiscences of Gemma Coleman, whose son Pat was killed in Limerick when a teenager stabbed him in the neck with a broken bottle.

Also well-told was the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in Galway and the shaming effect it had on the city. I don’t know quite what purpose such a series fulfils, but this first episode held the attention.

The purpose of My Secret Body (3e) was clear from the outset. An opening title warned that “viewer discretion is required” as “the following programme contains full-frontal nudity”. It wasn’t wrong. Within five minutes there were enough boobs, bums, pubes and dangly bits on display to satisfy even the most enthusiastic of voyeurs.

This British-made series purports to offer insights into how people of all ages view their bodies, but really it’s about letting it all hang out or down or whatever. And why not?

In Showhouse (RTE1), interior designer Eileen Cullen’s supposed task was to remodel an estate house in Wicklow but the real purpose of the exercise was to reveal her mastery of superlatives. The view was “beautiful”, the curtains were “beautiful”, the dining-room table and leather sofas were “beautiful” as were the floor tiles and chiffon lampshades.

When things weren’t beautiful, they were fabulous.

The burgundy suite was “fabulous”, the caramel carpet was “fabulous” and the general atmosphere was “fabulous”.

Other aspects of her creativity were either “fantastic” or “absolutely fantastic”.

The programme itself was certainly fantastic, though far from either fabulous or beautiful.

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