| 3.9°C Dublin

Obituary: Margaret MacCurtain

'Sister Ben' insisted that nuns should be 'more than cooing doves' serving the male leadership of the Catholic Church


Fiery and well-liked: Margaret MacCurtain

Fiery and well-liked: Margaret MacCurtain

Fiery and well-liked: Margaret MacCurtain

Margaret MacCurtain, who has died aged 91 at the Dominican convent at Cabra in Dublin, was a fiery nun who espoused a succession of liberal and feminist causes. She was a lecturer in history at University College Dublin (1964-94) who rejoiced that her lifelong determination to write women into mainstream Irish history had succeeded beyond her wildest dreams.

She belonged to the last generation of Irish women to espouse the religious life, in which they had once been a major force in the Catholic Church throughout the English-speaking world and beyond.

While remaining true to her vocation as a nun, she personified the disillusionment with traditional Church teaching that alienated so many Irish women from an institution which they had once done so much to sustain.

Born in Cork on April 27, 1929, one of five children of a schools inspector, and known in her family as Peg, Margaret MacCurtain was a political activist as a student studying History, Irish and English at University College Cork.

She surprised her family when on graduation she entered the Dominican order. A secluded life of conformity and obedience seemed to await her, and an English suitor of hers was left disappointed.

Taking Benvenuta as her name in religion, she taught history at the order's Sion Hill School near Dublin. She was released from enclosure to take a master's degree at University College Dublin and then wrote a doctorate on Daniel O'Daly, a 17th-century Irish Dominican exiled in Catholic Spain. Researching in the Vatican archives, she was impressed by the pivotal role some women played at that time; this kindled her interest in women's history.

In 1964 she was welcomed as a lecturer into the UCD History School, which had a long history of female academics. The college authorities were, however, taken aback when, four years later, attired in her Dominican habit, she spoke out at demonstrations in support of a sit-in by students protesting against inadequate facilities and poor teaching. This set the tone for an uneasy relationship in the years ahead.

In 1979 she was given three years' leave of absence to become the founding principal of Ballyfermot Senior College, a vocational college in Ballyfermot, Dublin. On her return she sought an injunction in the High Court, successfully, to fight off UCD authorities who wished to make her part-time on the ground that her commitments - serving a term as prioress of the Sion Hill convent - were incompatible with a full-time post. She also had to brave opposition before having women's history added to the syllabus in 1987.

Margaret MacCurtain was equally defiant towards the controlling Archbishop McQuaid of Dublin, who demanded to see the text of lectures on the Reformation and Counter-Reformation which she was giving to undergraduates.

Although not incapable of sharpness, she was well liked by students. "Go for it" was her usual enthusiastic response when they sought her advice on a project. She had an engaging smile that denoted openness, and was a sympathetic listener to those who came to her with their troubles.

Daily Digest Newsletter

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

Her campaigning tendencies manifested themselves when she joined marches to protest against apartheid and, nearer home, the destruction of the remains of Viking Dublin to make way for municipal offices.

She resumed her birth name of Margaret when canon law was amended in the 1970s to allow it, but many continued to think of her as the battling "Sister Ben".

Her main focus had become the feminist movement for gender equality. She objected to school textbooks depicting boys doing brave things and girls being passive at home; demanded the amendment of the sexist language of the Bible and in Church liturgy; and debunked the cult of the Virgin Mary that was so strong among Irish Catholics.

She insisted that nuns should be "more than cooing doves" serving the male leadership of the Church, with which she broke ranks boldly when in 1995 she became a patron of the successful "right to remarry" campaign to introduce divorce.

Appointed in 1997 to chair the Advisory Council of the National Archives of Ireland, she was frustrated by its lack of real powers and legislation that did not make it mandatory for government departments to make records available.

Her contribution to scholarship took the form mainly of essays, mostly on aspects of women's history. A collection of these was published in two volumes in 2008 and 2019.

In her 80s, she rescued for publication the doctoral thesis that was her most extensive work of original scholarship.

It told the story of how the Dominican Daniel O'Daly, described memorably by her as having the "inscrutable suavity which is the mark of a successful Kerryman", had crowned a life of diplomatic intrigue in Europe by negotiating the marriage of King Charles II and Catherine of Braganza, which restored the old alliance between Portugal and England.

Margaret MacCurtain is survived by a younger sister, Eilis.