Volume 7, Number 4

November 2011

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Leonard O’Brien, Children of the Sun: the Cork Mission to South America.

(Dublin: Veritas Publications, 2010) 240 pp. Photographs appear courtesy of Richard Mills.

ISBN 9781847301994

Reviewed by Gabriela McEvoy

Dr. Gabriela McEvoy was born in Peru. She received her B.A., M.A. and PhD from UC, San Diego and specialised in Latin American Literature. She is an Assistant Professor of Spanish at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania in the United States. She teaches all levels of Spanish Language and Literature and has published articles and presented papers at conferences dealing with immigration into Latin America.

One function of religious and charitable global organizations is to bring spiritual and material relief as well as hope for a different future to people in need. The Irish priest Leonard O’Brien’s Children of the Sun: the Cork Mission to South America intertwines twentieth century Peruvian history with the Cork and Ross Irish Mission. This text tells the history of Cork and Ross’ Catholic Mission that began in Peru and later expanded to Ecuador and Chile. The writing is very clear and it is organized in chronological order. It covers the time period from the sixties up to year 2004 (when Irish mission leaves South America). The text is organized into thirty-seven chapters that map out a variety of social, political, economic, and cultural topics. This provides the reader with a good general overview of Peruvian society. The chapters are grouped together (mainly) in sections according to particular topics (geographical regions, material conditions, Irish mission expansions throughout South America, etc.) and the narrative structure varies from chapter to chapter. While some chapters begin with an opening paragraph with a historical contextualization, others introduce the Irish mission work, and follow with a Peruvian socio-historical explanation.

O’Brien portrays the crucial role the Cork and Ross mission played in terms of education, health, and food in Trujillo, a city in northern Peru. Catholic missions provided help through education for children, vocational classes for women (cooking and dressmaking classes), hospital health care provided by nuns.  Food was distributed to the needy with funds given by Irish Catholic institutions and parishioners, as well as by North American aid institutions such as Caritas. O’Brien describes the material and political conditions of marginalized barrios, depicting health problems such as the cholera epidemic and natural disasters such as the 1970 earthquake and El Niño in 1997/1998. He also discusses the presence and threat of the Maoist group Shining Path, from its beginning up to the capture of its leader Abimael Guzmán on 12 September 1992. Shining Path’s threat was closely felt by different religious congregations including the Australian, Polish, and Italian missionaries who were assassinated by Shining Path aniquilamiento commands. 

The Irish priest’s narrative portrays how the Peruvian state’s lack of presence in extremely poor barrios is substituted by the Irish mission. As this narrative is written from the viewpoint of the Catholic Church, Children of the Sun lacks self-criticism and is largely unaware of the power dynamics between the Church and the Peruvian state. While one aspect of the Catholic Church’s agenda is to recruit more people to be part of the institution, one could read their use of the Peruvian ‘state apparatus’ with regards to education and health care as a means of exercising their influence over the new ‘recruits’. In a poor country like Peru, it becomes easier to ‘evangelize’ in neglected cities when food and health are exchanged. It is important to mention that the traditional predominance of the Catholic Church –within Latin America– has been challenged by other religious institutions in the twentieth century. For this reason, Catholic missionary work becomes an important tool of the Catholic Church. In fact, O’Brien’s text expresses this concern in his discussion of the ‘Protestant sects’.

O’Brien’s narrative historically contextualizes the cultural adaptation of priests and nuns in Peru,   and shows an in-depth knowledge on his part of Peruvian social and cultural conditions, specifically through its portrayals of differences among various Peruvian geographical regions, including the coast, the Andean zone, and the jungle; however, it would have been important to present specific information regarding various Peruvian historical time periods. That is, some names of historical characters have been omitted when describing the period of Oligarchy Republic and the dominance of the ‘thirty families’ as well as the period of the first Peruvian mestizo blood president (as he mentions on pages 51-52 ). For readers who have little knowledge of Peruvian society, concrete historical references would be very illustrative.  Although John Buckley, Bishop of Cork and Ross mentions in the Foreword of the book, that this text is the result of O’Brien’s anecdotal recollections, the lack of bibliographic information implies some problems with the historical information, and for a scholarly project, the reader might have problems verifying the collected data.  For example, when O’Brien discusses Guzmán’s capture, he mentions that ‘By coincidence, one of the detectives lived close by. On the Saturday night of the assault on the house this man staged a barbecue in his garden’ (206); however, there is a great deal of information that states that the DINCOTE (Dirección Nacional contra el terrorismo – a counter-terrorist branch of Peruvian National Police) rented the house for this specific capture, and all the happenings inside Guzmán’s neighbor house (including the barbecue) were addressed to accomplish what was known as the Victoria operation (the Shining Path leader capture plan).  On the other hand, the text does not mention if the military coup lead by General Juan Velasco Alvarado on 3 October 1968 (and who was in power from 1968 to1975 ) had an impact on Irish missions, given the fact that this period of time characterizes nationalization as well as a rejection to “foreign” communities and congregations. In addition, O’Brien’s familiarity with Peruvian culture allows him to portray their customs and traditions vividly; however, the text lacks  careful editing  of Spanish terms.  

In sum, the easy and engaging readings of Children of the Sun: the Cork Mission to South America allows the reader to learn of the role of the missionary work initiated by Cork Bishop Cornelius Lucey and put into action by Father Michael Murphy and Michael Crowley with the support of the Mercy Order nuns and Bon Secours Sisters in South America. The Cork and Ross Mission is a result of the work of three Irish religious generations. They invested money on infrastructure such as churches, schools, and medical centers, and gave a great deal of dedication and help to the neglected and poor Peruvian barrios such as El Porvenir, Florencia, and Esperanza, among others. This book is highly recommended to any reader who is interested in learning more about the social, political, and economic challenges the Irish mission faced in South American countries, or in the so-called ‘Third World’ countries. In addition, the photographs included in the text help readers visualize O’Brien’s narrative. As this text is about the retrieval of a memory, Peruvians that grew up during this time period could read this book as eye-opening experience with regards to the work of Irish priests and nuns in the fight against poverty. In fact, they built a bridge between two countries, two continents, and left an important legacy on this side of the world. This book, written from an Irish priest’s perspective, contributes to the discussion of missionary work rarely examined.


Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2011

Published: 01 November 2011
Edited: 07 Diciembre 2011

Gabriela McEvoy 'Leonard O’Brien  Children of the Sun: the Cork Mission to South America." 7:4 (November 2011), pp. XXX-XXX. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla2011_7_04_10_Gabriela_McEvoy2.htm), accessed .

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