JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – On March 17, the world celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. Also known as Feast of St. Patrick, the date marks the commemoration of the Irish patron saint’s death and the role he played in bringing Christianity to Ireland. Although this year’s celebration and fun-fare marking the day was cancelled as a result of the Corona pandemic sweeping across the world, millions of people especially Catholics used different means to celebrate the day with pictures and nice quotes.
Unlike in Ireland, St Patrick’s day is not an official public holiday in Nigeria. There is no parade or carnival of any sort but Catholics attend Mass in their parishes and dioceses where he is celebrated as the second patron saint of Nigeria. In a Catholic daily reflection handbook for Mass in the month of March, Fr. Victor Nwabueze described St. Patrick as one who “left everything to follow Christ, to be a fisher of men.”
“We too are called to leave everything behind to follow Christ in fishing for men and women,” he says.
In 1961, the same day Ireland opened its embassy in Lagos—the first in Africa—Irish bishops in Nigeria named St. Patrick as the country’s patron saint. Each year, celebrations for the day are held at the embassy of Ireland with music, food, and drinks with friends and members of the diplomatic corps.
Bishop Shanahan and Irish influence
Irish influences run through nearly every level of the Catholic church in Nigeria. Ireland has a long, enduring history with Nigeria, including its role and political alliance during the 1967 civil war, but especially in the work of the Holy Ghost Fathers, the Irish Catholic missionaries who came to Nigeria in the early 20th century and established schools and hospitals and other community development legacies. Many Catholic establishments in Nigeria today were named in memory of early Irish missionaries who came to Nigeria starting in the 1880s.
For instance, Bishop Shanahan hospital and a nursing school which is run by the Catholic diocese of Nsukka in Enugu state, Southeast Nigeria was named after Bishop Joseph Shanahan (1871–1943), an Irish-born priest of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit who served as bishop in Nigeria’s Southeast region.
Bishop Shanahan, who first journeyed to Nigeria in 1920, was so loved in Nigeria that his remains were brought back to the country 13 years after his death in 1943 in Nairobi, Kenya, for a second internment at the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity in Onitsha.
In Enugu state, Southeast Nigeria, the presence and influence of the Irish missionaries is still felt presently. The first Catholic priest in the region, John Cross Anyogu was ordained by Shanahan in 1930. He later became the first bishop in 1957 of Enugu diocese which was created in 1963, and was influenced by his early studies in Ireland.
“You can see their impact in the Catholic church in Nigeria everywhere you go,” says Fr. Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua, executive secretary of the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council. “Many of the schools, hospitals you see today were established by Irish missionaries who journeyed to Nigeria for the spread of the gospel.”
“In their early days, they worked in local communities with poor road networks and infrastructure to provide for their spiritual and material needs,” he says.
Contribution to missions in Nigeria
Presently, a lot of Irish missions, orders for priests, and congregations for sisters exist in Nigeria – some dating back to early 1900s. In the early 1920s, Irish priests of the Order of the holy Ghost established their mission in southern part of Nigeria. Later, St. Patrick’s Society for Foreign Missions, dedicated on March 17, 1932, became one of many Catholic groups in Nigeria providing education both religious and secular.
“They contributed greatly to building the Catholic faith across the country,” says Fr. Aniedi Okure, the director of the Africa Faith and Justice Network [AFJN]. “They came from a country that had been colonized by the British so they have experienced it although not in the same fashion like we had in Nigeria.”
Okure told the Catholic Herald that there was an existing suspicion between the Irish missionaries and colonial masters at that time. This, he said, was because the British government was largely protestant Anglicans while the Irish were mainly Catholics.
“With that suspicion in mind, they were concerned about being outside the colonial government enterprise,” he says. “They rather settled to educating Nigerians, building hospitals and building social service centres. The type of education they provided enabled them to understand colonial mindsets because those that were trained by the British were trained to centre into the low-level administration of the colonial system like clerks and messengers.”
In July 1988, an Irish missionary, Fr. Charles Nowell arrived in Nigeria and soon after introduced the Discalced Carmelite Order to Nigeria. The society has grown, with many Carmelite priests and societies in Nigeria. And when he died, to fulfill his wish, he was buried at Mount Tabor Carmelite Community, Onuiyi, Nsukka.
“They created a supra-ethnic community that linked people from many ethnic groups into a faith community to see themselves as one,” Okure says.
One of the cultural aspects that many Nigerians, especially the young millennials, don’t realize is that Guinness beer and other brands including Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Origin, Malta Guinness, Satzenbrau are all Irish products. Some years ago, Nigeria surpassed Ireland in Guinness sales, making the country the world’s largest consumer of the product.
In 2010, it was estimated that 12.6% of the then-158 million Nigerians were Catholic; the population of the country now exceeds 200 million, making it the most populated country in all of Africa.
For Omonokhua and Okure, the early Irish missionaries set a strong faith foundation and left lasting legacies which “will continue to endure in communities they worked.”
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