(The picture is of the Qianlong Emperor out hunting, by the Jesuit painter Guiseppe Castiglione)
The first Irish missionary to live and die in China was Robert Hanna (1762-1797) of Newry. He was a member of the group of Vincentians planning to take over from the Jesuits as the Qianlong Emperor’s Western astronomers, painters and scientists in Beijing.
Robert joined the Vincentians while a student in Paris and set out for China in 1788. After a five month journey he arrived in Macao where he spent five years teaching philosophy as he waited for an invitation to Beijing. During that time he joined the British Envoy, George Macartney (a fellow Ulsterman), at the start of his 1793 famous visit to the court of the Emperor Qianlong. Robert’s hope was to get to Beijing as part of the entourage but was not allow off the ship and had to return to Macao.
He finally got to Beijing in June 1794. Unlike foreign diplomats, the Jesuits and Vincentians were treated well. According to a report, ‘The missionaries (in Beijing) are answerable to only one mandarin and are reasonably free. They have a house in the city and one in the country; they can leave and return to Beijing whenever they wish. They maintain a large household for, including the Chinese, they are as many as one hundred and sixty. They have mules and carriages. They make extremely good bread but have difficulty in producing wine.’
However, Robert did not have an opportunity to get take up a post in the court. Within three years he died from a ‘chest ailment’ caused by ‘studying too hard.’