Wednesday 18 September 2019

Television review Biafra - Misean Dearmadta: The ruling class we never had

  • Biafra - Misean Dearmadta (TG4)

Fr Joe McHugh,General Ojukwu head of State Biafra and Archbishop Arinze, Onitsha before Biafra war
Fr Joe McHugh,General Ojukwu head of State Biafra and Archbishop Arinze, Onitsha before Biafra war
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

A few weeks ago on TG4 there was the very fine documentary about the concertina player Noel Hill, called Aisling Ghear (Broken Dream), and last week there was another very fine documentary on TG4, Biafra - Misean Dearmadta (Forgotten Mission).

I translate the two titles, as a public service, and I write about the programmes also as a public service, in the knowledge that very fine though they are, very few people will have seen them, because they were on TG4.

By now the world knows that I lament the death of public service broadcasting in its superior form, whereby these outpourings of excellence might be seen by accident, as it were, by viewers expecting to consume just the usual fare - such happy accidents have transformed the lives of many, whereas now these programmes of which I speak tend to be ghettoised, cordoned off into the "safe space", as it were, of a BBC4 or a TG4.

And, in Ireland, there is the extra complication that you probably have a better chance of getting your documentary made if it's got the bit of Irish in it, for TG4, but if it happens to be very good, it will not get the kind of viewing figures that a very good documentary deserves.

But I'll tell you about this Biafra programme anyway, because it really was high class. Indeed I may be dwelling on this "high class" theme because as I was watching this film about the work of the Irish missionaries in providing aid to the people of Biafra during the late 1960s, I would keep thinking about the subtleties of the Irish class system.

Which was part of the power of the film really, the fact that it was about this appalling civil war in Nigeria, and yet it was also about Ireland. These Holy Ghost Missionary chaps were clearly coming from quite privileged backgrounds back in the old country, and had gone out to rule over this "spiritual empire" of ours.

But by the end you were seeing them as the ruling class that Ireland never had, this elite corps of people of extraordinary ability, too much in fact, for this corrupt little country in which they'd been raised.

Here they were in Africa, on the side of the oppressed. Here they were, understanding enough about the modern world to turn this squalid civil war in an obscure region of Nigeria, into the first humanitarian disaster to be seen on global TV. Here they were with the logistical nous to organise night flights of aid supplies in such a way that it captured the imagination not just of everyone in Ireland, who donated millions to the cause, but of the international media.

These guys were good. Too good, you sensed, to be bringing their priestly gifts to bear on the leadership of their own land, in which their Church and others who had been to the same schools as them, would have taken a poor view of their progressive attitudes.

The nuns too, of the Holy Rosary Missionaries, were women whose abilities would have been largely wasted in the Ireland of that time, some of whom, indeed, were in Africa mainly because it wasn't Ireland, and because it enabled them to have some kind of an interesting life.

So here we had a kind of an Irish Catholic ruling class, in exile from Catholic Ireland. Interestingly they were also up against the Brits in this conflict, the Brits who were protecting the plundered resources of their own empire.

On the whole, it is not a good idea to have our posh chaps going up against their posh chaps - a Varadkar or a Coveney will tend to have this attitude of besting their Etonian counterparts, with unhappy consequences for all the little people.

But then the Holy Ghost chaps were up against so many other bad actors in this situation, they didn't really have time for such games of elitist one-upmanship.

So we were left with the impression that what was happening here was obviously a tragedy for Biafra, but a kind of a tragedy for Ireland too. I do hope you get to see it some time.

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