The second burial of Bishop Shanahan took place in Nigeria in 1956. Amid great public rejoicing, his remains were brought back to the land where he had laboured for thirty years. In the second burial, twelve years after his death, he was being given the honours denied to him during his lifetime.
Joseph Shanahan was born in Co. Tipperary in 1871, the son of a poor farm labourer. He joined the Holy Ghost Congregation, studied in France, and returned to Ireland to be ordained priest in 1900. Two years later he was sent as a missionary to Southern Nigeria and he remained there, first as priest and then as bishop, until 1932.
His life was one of the great success stories of missionary history. He was a truly charismatic figure, a man of exceptional courage and vision. He travelled the country on foot, by bicycle, by canoe. He walked boldly into villages where no white person had set foot before. He saw the importance of education and built a whole network of schools which formed the foundation of one of the most flourishing missionary churches in the world.
Much of his energy was spent in recruiting priests, brothers and sisters for Southern Nigeria. He founded the Holy Rosary Congregation, a missionary sisterhood that has spread all over the world. He was the inspiration behind the setting up of the Kiltegan Fathers, the Medical Missionaries of Mary, and two Nigerian sisterhoods. After his death in 1943 he was acclaimed as the leader and father of the great Irish missionary movement that marked the first half of the twentieth century.
The tributes that were paid to him and the books that were written about him told the truth but not the whole truth. No mention was made of the sadness and suffering that clouded the last years of his life. During those years he was subjected to a twofold rejection, first by the mission he had served and then by the sisterhood he had founded. An active and vigourous man of sixty, he was forced to leave Nigeria and spend the rest of his days in exile and frustration. On his return to Ireland, he became the subject of accusations, especially among the members of the Holy Rosary Congregation which he had himself setup. A cloud of suspicion hung over his name for the rest of his life and continued after he had died.
The book relates for the first time these sad events and what lay behind them. It completes the rehabilitation of Bishop Shanahan which was begun by his second burial. Father Desmond Forristal, biographer and playwright, has made skilful use of a wide range of unpublished material in telling this strange and dramatic story. He describes it as ‘a cautionary tale of how words can be misunderstood and actions misinterpreted, of how good people can act from the highest motives and yet inflict great suffering on one another. It is a story that has no villains but still has a hero. His light shines all the more brightly in the darkness that surrounds it.’