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Sunday 19 January 2014

Book Review: Aran to Africa, An Irishman's Unique Odyssey

"Aran to Africa, An Irishman's Unique Odyssey," by Pádraig O’Toole Can$12.39
ISBN: 9781492248903

Pádraig O’Toole, was born in 1938 on the Aran Island of Inis Mór. The eldest of seven children, he had a carefree childhood, walking in bare feet to school until winter time when he wore knitted socks and pampooties.  He fished for supper, learned to manoeuver the currach, and helped his father make soil for their potato crops by mixing clay, sand and seaweed.  Embedded in his memory of childhood are evenings of song and storytelling by a fire of dried dung, with his family sitting ‘round on wooden kitchen stools.  In time, his mother bought a bicycle, and then a radio that operated on a large wet battery, which needed re-charging every few weeks.  Pádraig’s task was to mount the battery onto the bicycle and drive for miles into the village of Kilronan, where the local policeman charged batteries for all the islanders with his small generator.

The Irish government of the day allocated a number of scholarships to give primary school children access to teacher training colleges on the mainland. Gaining access to such a scholarship was the only chance a child had for ongoing education, thus avoiding the emigrant ship.  Pádraig, who neither spoke nor understood English, began a new adventure in Galway, where an unkindly landlady referred to him as the “stupid little boy from Aran”. 

With his natural penchant for scholarship, he learned English and obtained consistently high marks in secondary school. In his last term a “frail, sunburnt missionary” in a long white cassock spoke to his class, telling of excitement and adventure working in Africa.  Pádraig applied to join the Society of African Missions, and following his university studies, he became a seminarian and an ordained priest, and set out in 1965 on a mission to West Africa.

Free thinking Fr. O’Toole never fell into step with the institutional Church’s requirement for blind obedience.  Far from being a “cultural imperialist” and given that historically his own Irish language and culture had been supplanted, he did not subscribe to the evangelical number-crunching view of “harvesting souls for God”. His commitment to the priesthood was about improving the world.  In Nigeria, his teaching and community development led him down many paths, from running mercy missions to hospital for a snake-bitten villager and a birthing mother, to tending prisoners on Death Row, to designing and building a combined currach -kayak to navigate the Niger River . 

At the start of the Biafra war, Muslim officials urged the Emirs to establish secondary schools to address the lack of literacy of its populace.  The author accepted the challenge of moving to Lafiagi, a mosquito-infested village with no water or electricity, to help set up a school.   The best accommodation available was the Emir’s ‘palace’ where the author, a celibate Catholic priest, lived amongst the Emir’s harem of ten wives.  Fada, as he was known, was considered a “good pagan” and he and the Emir enjoyed conversation over the occasional bottle of Guinness “for medicinal purposes”.

There follow colourful anecdotes of  building wells, and of a cow and goat falling into them, and stories of scorpions and snakes, including one dreaded kind of spitting cobra known locally as “Good Bye Tomorrow”.  On leaving the Emir’s palace for home leave, the author reflects that he saved no souls, nor planted any crosses in the land.  But on top of a tall mango tree there hangs a crucifix, placed there by a playful pet monkey.

A return to Aran gave the author time to look out onto the ocean waves and realize that certain ‘priestly virtues’ escaped him.  He was “still living in the jet stream of the missionary rocket, not yet realizing that very soon, by the very laws of physics, if not spirituality, (he’d) have to curve out of that orbit…” After a fortnight of walking the crags he packed his bags mentally and prepared for a new chapter.

There were many new chapters:  he became a magazine editor, a television producer, a doctoral student in Toronto, a teacher of IT and Design Technology in England.  He married Mary O’Hara, the internationally renowned singer and harpist, and became her concert promoter around the world.  After Mary retired from performing, they spent six adventurous years working in Tanzania.

This is an account of a life well lived, narrated as though around a fire, or over a neighbourly garden fence.  Sincere, intimate, jocular and unaffected, this is indeed a Unique Odyssey, beginning and ending on Inis Mór, a place of westerly gales, where breakers spit at the shore “in an age-old love-hate feud of land and sea”.

By Susan Sweeney Hermon

If you wish to listen an Irish language review of this book, listen to RTÉ radio's 
Iris Aniar Máirtín Jaimsie Ó Flaithbheartaigh, colúnaí.

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