Celts among the Shona
We Too, Have Lived In Arcadia
Mel Hill, O.Carm. First published – 1952.
If you baled out of a plane somewhere in the tropics, picked yourself up, and walked across the bush to the nearest mission, it’s not likely that you’d find the place staffed exclusively, on the male side, by five Dublin jackeens. It’s even more unlikely that the five boys who were reared beside the tram tracks should have connections with Terenure College. Well, that’s just what you’d find in Triashill, and if you think Triashill is a hole in the wall, let me begin by reminding you that it’s one of the biggest outfits in Zimbabwe, 15 miles from end to end, somewhat longer than the distance from Nelson’s Pillar to Bray. We maintain that Triashill is the only place in the world where Terenurites can hold a reunion dinner every day in the year without having to pay for it. Every mission in the Eastern Districts of the Dominion, with one lamentable exception, has its quota of Terenure men: farmers, plumbers, builders, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, teachers, school inspectors, and of late, one mission actually boasts of a Terenure doctor. When a missionary who has had the misfortune to have been educated elsewhere makes his appearance he naturally feels out of it but we do our best to make him feel at home.
The father of all Terenure men out here is Fr. Andy Wright. He was on the staff of Terenure when some of us were running round in rompers. He was playing for Blackrock Seconds before some of us were born, but he still has plenty of kick left in him. If you don’t believe me just ask the locals. Fr. Wright, with his co-disciple Fr. Gerry Meagher, lives in the African location in Mutare. They are the only white men allowed to live there and that makes a great difference to the prestige of the Church in the eyes of the African. Fr. Andy, in certain respects, reminds me of Terenure’s beloved Mr. Joseph Griffin. Whenever I think of Mr. Griffin I always see him in my mind’s eye, dashing about the place with a teapot in his hand, the coat slung over his shoulders! The last thing you see Fr. Wright doing every night is going up from the location to the presbytery in the town, putting a bottle of milk and a heel of bread into the basket and pushing his old Ford car down the hill with tomorrow’s breakfast under his arm. In his spare time he is on the African Welfare Council, an organisation which aims at the social betterment of Africans. Needless to say, he is hail-fellow-well-met with everybody in the town, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
Fr. Raymond Lamont is the Superior of all the Carmelite Missions out here and as if that were not headache enough he is also the Parish Priest of Mutare. A very large percentage of the children whom Fr. Lamont teaches in the European school are children of broken families. They know nothing about religion of any sort and what is worse, they have no interest. The African lacks proper development and the white man is at times de-civilised and of the two the white man is very often the worse. Then apart from the problem of souls he has all the cares of mission finances to worry about; one mission wants money to build, another needs money to put in a water supply and somewhere else the crops have failed owing to drought. Fr. X wants another priest and Fr. Y wants another brother and so the superior’s worries mount.
You must be wondering how Africa managed before Terenure got hold of it. The answer is, it just didn’t manage. Whole families and villages lost the Faith owing to shortage of priests and schools, despite the heroic efforts of most saintly men who came before us and left their bones in mission graves. You will meet Africans today who never heard of Christ and yet they have Christian and even Irish names: Kilian, Maria, Patrick. The explanation is this: fifty years ago they had a Catholic school in the village started by some pioneering priest or brother. The founder died, the school fell into decay and there was no relic of Christianity left after two generations except the names of the first Christians. I am very glad to be able to report that thanks to the efforts of four Terenure men, Frs. Ambrose Roche, Anselm Corbett, John O’Sharkey and Senan Egan and of Fr. Luke Flynn, these one-time Catholic centres have the Mass, the Sacraments and their schools again.
Dr. Jim Barnes is active in these districts too and his mission hospital is crowded out. The hospital is at Mount Melleray Mission and it is a simple thatched affair consisting of three rooms, one for women, one for men, and one for doctor and the Irish Presentation Sister who does the nursing. Since Dr. Barnes has arrived the women have been coming down the mountain like herds of goats, drawn by his bedside manner. When the first draft of them came in everything went swimmingly, but when more women arrived, there was nowhere to put them. There was only one man in the men’s place. The Terenurites held a council of war and decided to take the man out and let the women in. They had no place to put the man so they put him under a tree. Ever since the tree is referred to as the men’s ward. The Terenure doctor and the Terenure priest certainly make a very pleasant combination as they set out across the bush in their Land Rover at all hours of the day and night. The Barnes family have certainly left their mark on the Africans, and I’m not referring to their hypodermic needles. Three of them are missionary doctors and to make the job complete they have an aunt a nun in the Blue Sisters’ Hospital in Harare.
Recent past pupils of the college will recall Fr. Tommy. Brennan, the man who used to shoot the works during the Shakespearean season in Terenure College. Well, he has left his Shakespeare behind him but that didn’t stop him from electrifying Triashill. The first thing he did when he got here was to wire the place and get in a new plant and put an end to fifty years of messing about with oil lamps. He also looks after the farm here. We have 26 milking, or supposed to be milking, cows, but for six months of the year we have to send away to Mutare, over 90 miles, for condensed milk for the tea. If you had 26 cows which failed to produce a pint of milk between them in a country parish in Ireland, the parish priest would nearly preach about it from the pulpit. All over Terenure you will find examples of Brother Joseph Clinch’s workmanship. It’s here too, ably assisted by his brother Bernard and Brother Brocard Boyle and Pius Martin. Roofs for schools and churches, desks for school, doors, benches, chairs and tables all rolling off the mission assembly line from one end of the week to the other and no holiday thrown in.
The most recent arrival here from Terenure is Fr. Cormac Kennedy. He is being gently broken in, learning the language and doing office work. Everybody on the mission has some sort of job of his own apart from his normal work. Fr. Kennedy is the postmaster. Besides that, he already knows enough of the language to baptise and answer the phone. By the time this is in print he will know enough to hear Confessions and preach and have an odd yap with the locals. You can count on him losing his hair any time after that. Fr. Anthony Clarke, a classmate of Fr. Kennedy’s, is now in a Reserve about 32 miles from here with Fr. Barty McGivern, a brother of Dr. Joe McGivern, who was in the college in the early thirties. Fr. Clarke is now in charge of outschools which means he has to offer Mass regularly in villages which have no priest and inspect schools in the villages. He is also the local drill master and many a morning at the crack of dawn you can see him like Kipling’s Mulvaney with his raw recruits out on the square teaching them to: “Fear God, Honour the Queen. Shoot straight, And keep clean.”
I might ramble on forever describing the exploits of the past in Zimbabwe, but we must leave some room in your College Annual for examination results and the Cup. I must warn you, however, that you would get a very wrong impression if you were to conclude that we are the only pebbles on the beach. We are merely following in the footsteps of the Sons of Ignatius and the Mariannhill Fathers who blazed the trail and bore the heat and burdens of the day. Where they have sown we now reap, even though we garner a pretty varied crop. The African is patient, long-suffering, good-humoured and happy on the minimum necessary for existence. Above all he is courteous and has a very good sense of fun. He is always ready for a joke or any kind of fool-acting.
I have never seen an African laugh at a white man trying to speak his language although some of the things we say are so funny that we laugh at them ourselves. What they do laugh at is when we start imitating their Cork accents. This singsong makes all the difference to the meaning of a word, for instance, when you pronounce the word ‘tsuro’ with a Cork accent it means a ‘hare’, but if you are unfortunate enough to pronounce it with a Dublin accent it means an ‘orphan’. We used to be told when we were children that the Dubliners speak the best English anywhere, but they certainly don’t speak the best Cimanyika. On one occasion I asked a boy whether the people understood what I say in church on a Sunday morning. “Oh, yes, they understand all right.” “How do they understand?” “They understand the big words and guess the rest.”
Now you know what missionaries mean when they tell you that the conversion of Africa will take a long time.