Darragh McManus talks to the man behind a revealing documentary about three extraordinary missionaries
When we think of someone living an "extreme" life, we usually think of things like drugs, adventure sports or high-octane professions. We generally don't consider missionaries, yet these gentle, philanthropic souls have lives as strange, difficult and radical as anyone.
Lifers is a new documentary from award-winning filmmaker Ruan Magan that examines their incredible true story – specifically, three members of probably the last generation of Irish missionaries. As Magan says: "We don't really do missions any more, or God; we've moved on to other things. As a result, everyone I spoke to was in their 70s."
The one-hour film talks to Fr John Glynn, who runs the We Care Foundation in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, one of the world's most dangerous cities; Sr Pat Murray, a Loreto sister in charge of Solidarity with South Sudan which pools resources to help the destitute in the newest country on earth; and Fr Pat Brennan, a Divine Word missionary who fights for the rights of indigenous Indians in the Brazilian Amazon rain forest.
Co-sponsored by RTE and The Iris O'Brien Foundation ( Denis O'Brien's charity), the documentary also stemmed from a conversation Magan had with the telecoms magnate.
"Denis was telling me that Irish missionaries are very well-respected all around the world, in places he visits on business or charity work," he says, "and we wondered why this isn't more recognised by us at home. So he suggested making a documentary series, telling the story of the Irish missionary movement of the last hundred years."
Work proper began last March, with Magan tracking down people to interview.
"I wanted someone who would be honest and open, and talk about how they really felt about things," he says. "Then I travelled to various places, doing much of the production and editing myself. That gave me more control over the material."
He covered 22,000 miles, going to some of the world's most remote and hazardous places, spending two weeks each with the three featured missionaries. He discovered that their lives were dangerous, lonely and tough. Yet they didn't complain and would never countenance leaving. They had pledged their whole lives to it (the title refers to the way the missions are like a life sentence in prison).
He says now: "One thing that struck me was: why on earth do they do it? Apart from the fact that they had joined missionary orders years before. Saving souls isn't what it's all about any more, it's more pastoral now. And it struck me as a strange thing to do with one's life.
"A few people gave the standard answers about just wanting to serve the church and so on, but I dug a little more to get to a deeper motivation. And the prime reason for what they do seems to be spiritual payback – you get what you give. Simple as that.
"Helping others makes you feel happy. We all know this ourselves: if you give someone a gift it makes you feel good. So in a way it's the pursuit of happiness.
"It's extremely difficult, their life and the work they do. It's often dangerous, the conditions are horrendous, and at the end of it all the situation never really improves that much anyway, decade after decade. But that feeling of spiritual payback makes it all worthwhile for them."
It's obvious in conversation that Magan found Fr John, Sr Pat and Fr Pat to be truly inspirational people; those rare individuals who care more than the rest of us and put their feelings into action. Yet he also found them nice, normal and enjoyable to be around; regular folks doing incredible things.
Magan says: "They're ordinary but extraordinary at the same time. And what struck me about their lives is that the hardest thing for them is the loneliness. Not danger – the fact that they could be shot at or killed. "That comes with the territory. They just get on with it, they ignore that. But not having a family, a spouse and children, someone to talk to and lean on at the end of a tough month – that's difficult. I got the impression they'd prefer it if the church's celibacy policy was optional.
"In many ways they're outside the 'official' church, – Rome doesn't really know or care what they're doing – but they're still devoted to it, which of course I found strange as a sort of 'outsider'. You might ask them about leaving their religion, and they'd look at you as if you'd said something funny."
Dubliner Magan is a 20-year veteran of TV and film production. He's worked on Michael Collins, The Devil's Own and the Emmy-nominated documentary series The Ghosts of Duffy's Cut, among many others.
He recently won an award for a short movie, and has two feature films in the pipeline – a drama about hurling and a thriller. But you imagine that things like work and awards drift away from anyone's mind when they see the abject conditions in which some people must exist.
"Making a film like this gives you a perspective on things," Magan says. "You get a greater appreciation of how lucky we are to be born here, not in south Sudan, say. "But it wasn't always grim. The documentary ends with shots of people dancing, in the three places we filmed, which shows that they appreciated the good moments in life too.
"They were happy in those moments."
Lifers is on RTÉ1 at 10.15pm on Thursday, January 31