Bulawayo and Beyond

Not long ago I joined the Old Drogheda Society. It was suggested to me that I should as I might have an interest in the events the society promotes. I duly presented myself at the desk one morning in the grandiosely named Governor’s Residence and asked to enlist. The word ‘governor’ always has negative connotations for me, never able to successfully leap the first hurdle of viewing a governor as something other than a brute that society in one of its more callous twists licences to run a prison. Not all jail governors are like that, and I have met quite a few during and after my spell in the North’s political prisons. But enough were of a cruel disposition to implant the thought so deeply in my head that instinct tends to kick in on hearing the word.

In the governor’s office, far from being told that I was on report, would face the mandatory guilty verdict to be followed by solitary, I was relieved of €15 in return for the Society admitting me as a member. It seemed a fair exchange. On Wednesday evening it seemed an even better deal from my point of view, having attended a lecture there, ‘Our First African Mission’. It was delivered by a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Devine Motherhood, Sr Marie Coyle. Listening to her narrate as we viewed silent footage initially captured on old reel, it occurred to me that there were a lot of things I could have parted with €15 for and got much less in return. And that is just the first in a series covered in the cost.

To get to the venue it is a mere matter of entering the area known as the Great Fort which would seem to be the highest vantage point in Drogheda. For a while the fort housed a quality Greek restaurant, the Martello, where the restaurateur inducted my wife and me to a wine which has since become our favourite. Regrettably, it is now closed. The one other occasion we made a visit the fort was to view a museum exhibition about two years ago. That wet windy Sunday we took the kids up to the top of the structure for the firing of the cannon.

From some of the utterances made from the floor during the lecture, I sensed that the audience was fairly Catholic in orientation. Not being of the persuasion did little to make me feel uncomfortable in the presence of the faithful. Besides it might only have been a presumption on my part. Admittedly I had no great interest in Catholic missionaries plundering Africa for souls to save. I merely went to familiarise myself with the society.

To say it was not a worthwhile venture would be untrue. Old recording that had been shot with the 1940s version of a camcorder had been discovered, restored and preserved for posterity. Not everything was easy on the eye. The hand behind the camera, Mother Frances, was by no means a professional one. But for all of that the product was a decent result. Parts, but few in number, were blurred.

The subject of the story, missionary nuns from the 1940s, made the sea journey from Southampton to Durban and then by train into what Joseph Conrad in a contentious work once termed the ‘heart of darkness’. There they worked amongst the poor and ill of African society. Footage of them working at close hand with a Leper colony brought back stories from my mother’s knee about a Father Damian who died in a leper colony having gone there to work with the victims of the disease. He lasted 16 years before succumbing.

I found Marie Coyle lively and direct. She was not in any way enamoured to the patriarchy that permeated the functioning and administration of the Catholic Church. She spoke openly about the missionaries in their religious enthusiasm appreciating the opportunity to attend the bedsides of the terminally ill: there were bound to be deathbed conversions. Theirs was a mission to Christianize not radicalise. Echoes here of the Christopher Hitchens’ critique of the Mother Teresa operation in Calcutta where the dying were asked if they wanted a free ticket to heaven rather than be offered medicinal palliatives to curb their pain.

Of interest to me from a personal perspective was that the missionaries spent a lot of their time in Bulawayo. I was long familiar with the name of that particular city, having had an aunt and cousins live there under the regime of Ian Smith when the country was known as Rhodesia.

The missionary sisters were filmed on a visit to the grave of Cecil Rhodes, the Englishman whose name was imposed on Zimbabwe. While they did not spit or piss on his final resting place the thought struck me that it might have made for positive political controversy had they done just that. The morality of desecrating graves aside, these missionary nuns were not political. Their aim was to save people from Satan and not from imperial plunder.

Marie Coyle delivered her lecture with lots of wit and no waffle. Narrating, running the footage and reading from the travelogue painstakingly typed out by the ‘Mother General’ of the Franciscan Sisters on her mission through Africa, this was a remarkable presentation which gripped the attention of the audience. While lacking in serious political depth – never its purpose – the film coupled with the travelogue serves to maintain an archive that cannot but stimulate interest in aspects of the history of the sprawling continent of Africa.


  1. AM, another thoughtful entry. One of the once-flourishing, now nearly-moribund orders (Medical Missionaries of Mary) featured in God's Missionaries had its vast motherhouse in Drogheda. Joe Humphreys gives a fair and thought-provoking summation of the past century's legacy, for better and worse, of Irish efforts, lay and clerical, to build the "spiritual empire." He was African correspondent for the Irish Times, so he's well-placed to write this 2010 account.

    (BTW, that Martello tower's rumored by Drogheda's own journalist-scholar, Anthony Murphy, to crown the neolithic grave mound of Amergin [died in legend 1694 BCE], first bard to land on Erin's shores.)

  2. FionnchĂș,

    we would have taken you to the Martello rather than the Eastern Seaboard when you visited had it still been open!

  3. There are grand memorials - sometimes moving (er, not like at Ballinaspittle) - to the battlefield fallen around Bulawayo. Then you realise that the much greater local dead don't merit a memorial in stone - just seen as anonymous extras.
    Good place to visit though.
    Last time I was there the very broad streets were easy to cross, it was so peaceful in the centre.
    But hey - that's what no-one having any petrol will do for you.

  4. Blackwatertown,

    the wide streets of Bulawayo got a mention during the lecture. The reason given for their width was the need for farmers to turn their herds.

  5. Mackers,
    hard to imagine you sitting there surrounded by all those Catholics.
    What was the name of the wine?

  6. Nuala,

    they were fine and were not into bible thumping! Oyster Bay, red or white. A lovely wine