Lessons Learned from an Irish Nun, a Bottle of Whiskey and a Christmas Cake

Glug, glug, glug. That was the sound of a bottle of rare Irish whiskey being poured into a bowl of chopped fruit. My heart almost stopped. Middleton Irish whiskey was created to be sipped from Irish crystal tumblers in front of a roaring fire … not wasted on some darn Christmas cake.

My Auntie Jo, a missionary nun, and a great cook was visiting from Ireland and decided to make a traditional Irish Christmas cake. Sounded good to me. I knew the recipe called for Irish whiskey and I had a good supply. I never dreamed she’d use my special bottle. Ouch!

I got over it, and I also learned a few valuable lessons about life. My aunt was a gentle lady who spent 60 years as a missionary sister … much of it in West Africa. She taught school in Warri, Sapele, Asaba, Kaduna, Agbor and Ibadan … names of places I’ve never been but familiar to me from her stories. As well as teaching, she looked after orphans. She was a happy contented person, full of the joys of life.

Life in the missions was hard. She first went to Africa in 1944 when World War 2 was still raging. Even the journey itself was dangerous. She sailed from Cobh in Cork, Ireland to Liverpool, then to Accra in Ghana, and finally to Nigeria. German U-Boats were a constant threat.

Going on the missions was a huge commitment. It meant leaving home and family for anything from five to nine years at a stretch. The only contact was by mail, and that could take months. Remember this was in the days before the internet, even before landlines, never mind cell phones.

Auntie Jo returned from one mission to find her mother and father, and her brother, an SMA priest, had died. She had no idea.

Occasionally, someone returning from the missions would bring news of a loved one, but that was rare.

Sisters like my aunt battled an unfamiliar tropical climate, heat and humidity, monsoons, mosquitoes and malaria, blackwater fever, primitive living conditions … God only knows what else.

They were a hardy bunch. They not only survived, they thrived and did good work in hardships most of us will never imagine.

Fast forward to my Auntie Jo and the Christmas cake. She was a great cook. She could turn the most mundane ingredients into a mouth watering feast. Given that, she had zero respect for special status or material objects. She had none, nor did she want any.

She learned in the missions that when you got a break, you took advantage of it. You enjoyed whatever pleasures came your way because you never knew when, or even if, it might come your way again.

Her famous Christmas cake was an example. She used the best ingredients available. The thought of saving a rare bottle of whiskey for a future day never entered her mind. Use it while you can because tomorrow is not guaranteed.

The lesson for me was simple but profound. It has stuck with me through the years. Focus on what’s important, not the material trappings most of us spend our lives chasing.

Listen, don’t get me wrong. I’m not an ascetic. I enjoy my comfort as well as the next person. I like to be warm and dry. I don’t like to be hungry. I like to feel good. But, once the basics are covered, I’m content.

A few years after the Christmas Cake episode I attended my Auntie Jo’s funeral in Cork.

It was rainy, windy, blustery. Typical Irish spring weather. The group gathered at the grave of Sister Josephine Birmingham ignored the elements. There were 13 SMA fathers, about 30 OLA sisters, my mother, my sister and myself.

Josie’s colleagues, her fellow missionary nuns and priests, most in their 70’s and 80’s bore the ravages of long hard service in West Africa. Heroes and heroines like them were not going to be deterred from saying farewell to their sister by something as mundane as wind and rain. They had faced and overcome hardship the likes of which most of us will never know. 

Ignoring the rain, they finished with a decade of the rosary. They would miss Josephine’s bright smile, but they know she has gone to her reward, her payback for 60 years as a missionary sister. 

She was buried with her silver ring and her rosary beads. She left behind a battered handbag, a few photographs (mostly family) and her prayer book … her entire worldly possessions after over 80 years on this earth.

Looking at this group of saintly people, I felt proud, but sad. Their strength and faith were palpable. It reached out and made me stand up straighter. I was afraid I was seeing the end of an era. Who would come forward to carry on the work of this incredible group of men and women? And the world would be poorer by the loss.

Not to worry. The work of those missionary sisters is carried on today by a group of dedicated sisters and lay people based in Ardfoyle, County Cork, Ireland. They don’t ask for anything for themselves, but they could use our support. Check them out at http://www.olaireland.ie 


I haven’t tasted a drop of Middleton since my aunt poured it into that Christmas cake many years ago. Not sure if I ever will again. I do know this, I’d give you the entire distillery if I could see Auntie Jo’s smile again. Meanwhile, I try to live up to her example and lessons. 

I’m Oliver Connolly and I work with owners and sales management professionals to build a sales organization of overachievers. I believe we can do this while making the world a better place to live. Contact me at oliver@streetsmartsalesmanagement.com.


Check out my website: https://www.streetsmartsalesmanagement.com for more information and some tips on sales and sales management.

Oliver Connolly