By: Our Correspondent


missionaryOne November evening in
1902, a teacher in a school in the west of Ireland received a
telegram from a missionary in a remote town in northeast China asking
her to marry him.

So began a new and
extraordinary life in Manchuria that was to last until 1942, when she
and her husband were expelled by the Japanese after the attack on
Pearl Harbour.

The Presbyterian Church
in Ireland (PCI), to which they belonged, has just discovered the
account which Annie O’Neill wrote of her early years in China.
It describes a life of isolation, with no telephone or postal system,
bitter winter and danger from bandits, warlords, foreign armies,
kidnappers and epidemics.

It took her a year from
the arrival of the telegram to reach Fakumen, the small town in
Manchuria which she was to call home. She left Belfast on August 23,
1903 and took a North German Lloyd steamer to Shanghai, where she
married her husband in the city’s cathedral on October 7.

They traveled much of
the way by horse-cart and the drivers did not dare travel after dark,
for fear of bandits and the bitter cold. Fakumen was a small market
town, set in rolling hills, 100 km north of the provincial capital of
Shenyang, then called Mukden.

The couple arrived in
Fakumen on a Thursday night: the following Monday she began to study
Chinese, three hours in the morning and three in the evening.

“Fred (her
husband) told me to keep out of the kitchen and study as I was of no
use until I learnt to speak Chinese.”

She learnt from her
husband how close he had been to death three years before during the
Boxer Rebellion, which aimed to rid China of Christian missionaries
and their Chinese converts.

“Our church had
been burnt, his house and all its contents. Fred escaped from Fakumen
dressed in a Chinese outfit and coolie hat.” He joined Chinese
Christians and Russians in an exodus on large carts to the north.
Some were killed or died of illness on the road. Fred reached
Khabarovsk, from where he took a boat to Vladivostok and went down
with typhoid.

After the rebellion was
put down, Fred was able to return to Fakumen, via Japan and Tianjin,
and build a new church, with a plaque in honor of the martyrs who had
been killed.

Annie began her new
life as the wife of a missionary — teaching at the mission
school, helping with church services, meeting members of the
congregation and examining candidates for baptism.

She went with her
husband on a tour of mission stations in winter, when temperatures
fell to as low as minus 18 degrees Centigrade. “I remember the
tea in our little bowls freezing and the towel we dried our hands on
stiff as a board soon afterwards.”

Meanwhile the Russians
and the Japanese had gone to war over control of Manchuria. “Banditry
became rife and it was hard for everyone … We had Russians in
the town and many officers, some of whom had their wives with them,
who became our friends and shared our meals.”

Annie’s first
son, Patrick, was born in January 1905: he was to die of dysentery
three years later and is buried in Fakumen. A fellow missionary gave
her a revolver, not to kill people, but to fire in the air and
frighten bandits.

That month, the Russian
commander in Port Arthur, close to what is now Dalian, surrendered to
Japan. The Russian soldiers left Fakumen, which briefly fell into the
hands of local bandits, before the Japanese arrived.

“How different
from the happy-go-lucky Russians! They were so correct. Britain and
Japan were on good terms then. If we invited them for a meal, they
would arrive punctually and leave when the meal ended. Conversation
was difficult. They asked us if we had met any Russians. We heard
from outside that Fred was a Russian spy!”

In the summer of 1905,
Admiral Maresuke Nogi, the victor of Port Arthur, established his
headquarters in Fakumen, bringing a large number of soldiers and
foreign military attaches to the town.

Nogi gave Fred and
Annie his card, which saved them from arrest after they were detained
by Japanese soldiers outside the town.

That year a medical
missionary named Isabel Mitchell arrived from Ireland. They
established the first modern hospital in Fakumen, where Dr Mitchell
worked until her premature death in 1917, from an illness she
acquired from a patient.

In January 1906, the
couple began a visit home. This meant ‘a very severe
cart-journey in a cutting wind to Tieling. There we took a goods
train. The floor of our carriage was covered with small scarlet
blankets and a charcoal brazier was lighted. The noise of the train
and the gale was terrific.”

From Dalien they took a
boat to Hiroshima and from Yokohama across the Pacific to Vancouver,
across Canada, then New York and home to Ireland. They stayed with
missionary families along the route. They left Ireland in early 1907,
returning to Fakumen via India.

Fred and Annie remained
in Manchuria for the next 35 years. They had five sons, of whom two
died and are buried there and three grew to adulthood. After the
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, they were
detained as enemy aliens and held for six months in Shenyang and six
months in Nagasaki, before being exchanged with Japanese prisoners of
war in Mozambique, a colony of Portugal, a neutral country.

After the Communist
conquest of Manchuria, they were unable to return. Fred died in
Belfast in October 1952 and Annie in Belfast in November 1957.

Their work was not in
vain. Estimates by Chinese members of the Protestant church in the
three northeast provinces, formerly called Manchuria, put the current
number of its members at 300,000, more than the size of the mother
PCI which founded it.

“The story of the
missionaries is one of extraordinary sacrifice, hard work and
achievement,” said John Dunlop, 68, a minister of the PCI who
has visited Manchuria. “People wondered if the church had
survived during the Cultural Revolution, when there was hardly any
news. Now there are thousands of Christians. It seems like a

Annie O’Neill
was the writer’s grandmother.