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Chinese days

30 November, 1999

Journalist Miriam O’Donohoe recalls her time in China and how it strengthened her Catholic faith.

“I remember thanking God that I had taken the decision not to go to Kabul that day,” recalls Miriam Donohoe, now deputy news editor with The Irish Times. It was a snap decision that probably saved her life. Together with a number of other journalists, she had just crossed over the Pakistan-Afghan border and arrived in the city of Jalalabad. The following day four journalists, including an Italian correspondent whom she knew, set off in a convoy for the Afghan capital, Kabul. They never arrived. En route they were shot dead by bandits. “I will never forget when their bodies were brought back to Jalalabad. We had a little prayer service for them in a squalid morgue at the local hospital,” she remembers vividly.

Prayer in dark times
Coming face to face with death in Afghanistan – and escaping its clutches seemingly on a whim – has perhaps made the County Kilkenny-born journalist more aware of a need to give spirituality a greater role in her life. She says that what kept her going through some of the darker moments of her coverage of the Afghan war was not only the odd prayer, but her family background. “I’m from a large family from a small village called Goresbridge in County Kilkenny. My father died when my mother was expecting her tenth child and as the eldest girl I had to help out with the younger children. My mother is a very strong, tough, resilient woman, and I think I have inherited some of those qualities from her.”

Reporting on the war followed her appointment in January 2001 as The Irish Times’ Asia Correspondent, a posting which involved moving with her family to the Chinese capital, Beijing. Not a simple matter when her husband, John Murray, was working as a media adviser to the Tánaiste, Mary Harney, and when she had her two young children’s educational needs to consider.

Text-book journalistic career
Elevation to this high-flying position followed a text book journalistic career following graduation from Rathmines’ school of journalism in 1983. First off there was a staff job with The Tallaght Echo in south-west Dublin. Then followed a couple of years freelancing for the Irish Press group. Between 1987 and 1992, she worked as a staff reporter with the Cork Examiner. Subsequently she freelanced for the Independent news group before joining The Sunday Tribune and becoming the paper’s News Editor. In 1999 she joined the Irish Times.

She readily admits that her work as a journalist fulfils an ambition she has held since she was fourteen. It all stems from a visit to her school by the esteemed Irish journalist and current affairs commentator, Olivia O’Leary. “She gave a talk on journalism and from that day I was sold and wanted to do nothing else,” she recalls. Coincidentally, Olivia O’Leary’s brother Art also played a formative part in Miriam’s education. He was her English teacher at secondary school.

Being Irish and Catholic in Beijing
Living in Beijing was initially a huge culture shock for Miriam but having embraced this new culture, she now feels privileged to have had what she terms a “unique experience”. The ex-pat community in Beijing was small, about 100,000 out of a total population in Beijing and its environs of around 50 million. The Irish community was tiny, about 50 in all, of whom ten worked with the Irish Embassy. However, her husband still managed to start a GAA football team in Beijing which even included one Chinese player!

The time she spent there has, she believes, given her a real insight into Chinese culture, politics and religion, particularly the practice of Catholicism. Of the last, she says that in many respects it has strengthened her faith. One highlight of the week for Miriam and her family was the weekly Mass held for ex-pats in the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. The priest was an accountant by day. Miriam recalls that the Canadians were very strict on security, making sure that only ex-pats were admitted. Had any Chinese people got admittance, they would have got themselves and the Canadians into a lot of trouble with the authorities.

Each week about 150 people were packed into a small room at the embassy. At special times, like Easter, she recalls, it was difficult even to get in the door. Weekly Mass, according to Miriam Donohoe, provided her children with a link with home. “Settling down to a whole new life in China was difficult for Stephen and Catherine and Mass provided them with a strong link with their roots in Ireland.”

The Church goes underground
Her admission that she and her family never missed Sunday Mass while in Beijing might surprise people, as China certainly wouldn’t be a country noted for religious freedom. She acknowledges that part of the appeal of the weekly liturgical gathering was due to the sense that there was “almost an element of doing what we shouldn’t have been doing.” In China, priests, bishops or lay leaders detected or suspected of practising their faith have in the past been imprisoned and frequently sent to labour camps, often for 20 or 30 years.

These draconian measures continue even today. Three years ago, it was reported that a Bishop from the Underground Church, Bishop Han Dingxiang, had been arrested yet again, this time when he was leading a religious retreat. Currently his whereabouts is unknown. He had previously been jailed for 20 years for his beliefs. The aim of this persecution is to erode the authority of the Pope over Catholics. However, the dogged determination of a rump of “underground” Catholics who continue to this day, despite many hardships and penalties, to remain staunchly loyal to the Pontiff, has undoubtedly surprised the authorities. Some estimates put the membership of the Underground church at eight million. Large though that may seem, it is a tiny percentage of the overall Chinese population of 1.3 billion.

Though the difficulties of working in a society where press freedom is something of an abstract concept and where the state throws numerous obstacles in the way of foreign correspondents in a bid to control what they print, were legion. Miriam says that on reflection, it was more difficult to be a Catholic in China than a journalist. She admits that rather than causing her faith to wane, the evident persecution which dogs the practice of religion in this vast country, in fact, made her faith stronger.

A less inspiring Catholicism at home
Back at home in Dublin, Mass in contrast, seems flat and uninspiring. When she recently wrote about her experience of Mass in Ireland as being generally dull, she got a huge response from ordinary Catholics agreeing with her and thanking her for being so frank about her faith. She believes that with the huge pressures people are under today, now more than ever people are searching for spiritual guidance and are reaching out, but that unfortunately they are not always getting the help they are looking for. “The Catholic Church still has a huge role to play in catering for those needs,” she says.

When she and her family set out on their great trek to China, they expected to be away for three years or longer. But the financial crisis in The Irish Times in late 2001/early 2002 led to 250 voluntary redundancies at the paper and closure of some operations. One of these was the Beijing bureau, which had originally been opened by Conor O’Clery, who is now the paper’s North America editor.

Still thinking of China
Miriam and her family were forced to return to Ireland far more quickly than they had originally envisaged. She has more recently been covering events at Leinster House for the newspaper. She admits she is disappointed that she never got to write a number of features on China. One of these would have been a feature on Chinese Catholicism.

However, her interest in the country hasn’t diminished. In fact, if an official visit to China by President Mary McAleese comes to fruition this year, Miriam Donohoe could find herself back on the Chinese beat again, even if only briefly! As for the Church, Miriam believes that these days “the Church needs more support than ever” and with disarming forthrightness adds, “and I am prepared to give that support.”

This article was first published in The Word