The Call to 'Walk On'

 

An interview with H.E. Ambassador Seán Hoy on his life as a diplomat and his encounters with missionaries.

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H.E. Ambassador Seán Hoy. Image courtesy of www.dfa.ie.


The appointed time of 3pm arrives and right on cue, Dorothy transfers our call to H.E. Ambassador Seán Hoy, the Irish Ambassador to Nigeria. The uplifting melodies of the U2 hit ‘Walk On’ play away for the few seconds before the Fermanagh native picks-up the call. The song speaks about doing what one feels is right. It provides the perfect backdrop to our first question about his 1985 decision to go to Sudan with Concern. The then 21 year-old had just graduated from Queens University Belfast with a degree in agriculture. What drew him to Africa?

“I studied agriculture as I liked the outdoor life and look at me here now sitting in an embassy! There were not many jobs in 1985 and I had an interest in travelling. It was the year of the Live Aid concert organised by Bob Geldof. I guess I got caught up in that too. I had arranged to fly out on July 16 – a Tuesday. The Live Aid concert actually took place the Saturday before I left.

'Big step'

“It was a big step for me but an even bigger step for my parents. Back then, there would have been no phones so we would communicate by letter.

“Concern was built upon the ethos of the Holy Ghost Fathers. We would live together in small groups as a community. This appealed to me.  It was all about surviving together.”

One particular moment during this experience stood out for him and helped shape his future in diplomacy.

“I remember one Christmas morning at a border camp which was home to about 20,000 people. As it was Christmas Day, sweets were given to some of the soldiers about to go to war. Many of these never saw another Christmas.”

Ambassador Hoy returned home in 1987 to complete a Masters in Development Planning. After a further two year stint in Sudan, he began working for the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1990.

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Ambassador Hoy pictured during his early days in Africa. Image courtesy of Ambassador Hoy's Twitter account.

 

‘Grass roots network of missionaries’

Over the years, Ambassador Sean has worked in Mozambique, Uganda and Vietnam. In 2014, he was appointed as Irish Ambassador to Nigeria which includes responsibility for Ghana, Senegal and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

“One of the first things that struck me coming here was the impact missionaries have had. Many people over a certain age would have known of an Irish missionary. They are the entry point no matter where I go across West Africa.

“I was talking to the Dutch Ambassador to Nigeria this morning and it reminded me of the unique position we have - thanks to the missionaries. Missionaries have developed a ‘grass roots’ network and it gives me an opportunity to meet the ordinary people on the street which sometimes is not always possible in my job. Missionaries know what the views are on the ground, say, if there is an election coming up.”

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A map of West Africa. Image courtesy of www.wikimedia.org.

 

Interfaith harmony

Since arriving in Nigeria a little over three years ago, the Ambassador has met many missionaries. He feels that the contribution of missionaries is only a ‘positive one’ and emphasised how they also reached out to the substantial Muslim community in the country.

“Last year, I met with the Emir of Kano, Mohammad Sanusi II. He is the second most senior person in the Islamic hierarchy of Nigeria. The Emir told me that he received his primary education from Irish missionary Sisters in Jos.

“Years ago, the only education outside of the main towns would have been provided by the missionaries. People knew they would get a good education and it was not exclusive to Christians, many Muslims attended too.

“Fr. Derry O’Connell, a Kiltegan missionary, also comes to mind. I attended a ‘Send Forth’ ceremony on St. Patrick’s Day this year to mark his retirement. Fr. Derry was a teacher for 50 years at St. Fatima’s Secondary School in Minna - a career that was close to one and a half working lives for a teacher in Ireland. The school is in itself the story of religious tolerance in Nigeria. It was opened in January 1965 as St Fatima’s Secondary School with Fr. Derry confirmed as principal two years later. In the 1970s when all religious schools were nationalised, it became the Government Secondary School, Minna. Last March, the Governor of Niger State agreed to rename it Fr. O’Connell Secondary School Minna. Following Fr. Derry’s retirement, a new Muslim Principal took over.

“All events here start and end with both Christian and Islamic prayers. Our office here is mixed and everyone is in harmony. Next month, I will talking to students here about the Irish experience during The Troubles. Where ethnic or religious divisions exist, it is important to find the middle ground before the extremists get a foothold. The dignity of paid employment has big role to play too. Extremists are also looking for  chinks in the armour.”

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Ambassador Hoy with Sr. Mary Rita O'Mahony (centre) and Sr. Patricia McMenamin during a visit to the graves of some of the early OLA Sisters buried in the 'Dutch Graveyard', Elmina, Ghana.


Missionaries ‘valued’

During his current posting, Ambassador Hoy has met a number of OLA missionaries. One such is Cork born Sr. Mary Rita O’Mahony who has been in Ghana since 1959.

“She is a great character. A woman of great strength and personal drive. I visited her private museum up the hill in Elmina. I remember she went up the hill faster than us! It contains relics from churches and schools which were knocked down. It is a real Aladdin’s cave.

“We also visited ‘the Dutch graveyard’ in Elmina too. I remember seeing the headstones with the shamrocks on them. They mark the spot where some of the early OLA missionaries are buried.  Two died at the age of 21, succumbing to yellow fever. Sr. Mary Rita commented that ‘two would die and another two would be on the way’. It must have been heart breaking for the families. They had great faith.”

 “The Nigerians valued what the missionaries brought – rigour, discipline and strong leadership during chaotic times. It was not just because they were white and looked different. The missionaries were humble, inspirational and worked hard. They were leaders, teachers who did not merely hold a position.

“They offered people advice. A man once told me how, at the age of 11, he was advised to become an engineer by a missionary. The man never looked back after that day."

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Image courtesy of www.bbc.com


Legacy

It is said that the only constant in life is change and this rings true in the case of the missionary presence in West Africa.

“In the 1960’s, every Irish person knew someone who was a missionary overseas. In Nigeria alone, there were almost 1,500 missionaries in 1967. Fifty years later, in 2017, most Irish people would now know someone that is Nigerian.”

Ambassador Hoy estimates that there are currently ‘about forty’ Irish missionaries in Nigeria these days with a ‘handful’ also in Ghana.

The Irish missionary footprint is leaving a legacy that we can celebrate.

“I recently wrote to the new Papal Nuncio to Ireland. He replied saying that were it not for the Irish missionaries, that he would not be in his current job.

“For me, this rounds it off. The Nigerian Church is in a strong place - thanks to the missionaries."

And speaking of legacy, the Ambassador concludes by sharing his favourite proverb which comes from Kenya.

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

“I think this proverb is also very apt when we think of the contribution of Irish missionaries. Maybe it doesn’t go far enough as missionaries have been planting these trees since the 1800’s.

“The Irish missionaries planted a great forest of trees which have grown tall. Over the years, they gave shelter and protection. New shoots have now emerged.”

As the phone call draws to a close, thoughts revert back to U2 song ‘Walk on’ and Ambassador Seán Hoy’s decision to go Sudan 32 years ago. Like the Ambassador, many missionaries went to serve others - all because they wanted to do what they felt was right. The legacy of their work will continue ‘walk on’ for many years to come.