I am not an unalloyed admirer of nuns – still chippy about my convent education, which I consider to have been blighted by the Loreto nuns’ obsession with respectability and their favouritism of the cleverer pupils.
But steady on. The sheer amount of monstering that nuns, as a group, have received during the National Maternity Hospital controversy is odiously disproportionate. Although hundreds of clinicians and obstetricians approved of the NMH leasehold deal for the new hospital, the nuns – as previous owners of St Vincent’s Hospital – were categorised as evil people who “sold babies” and were Frankensteined in ugly street posters. Even in the Oireachtas, the anti-nun trope was evident.
Social media was awash with hostility to religious sisters who have been involved in medical care since 1834 (some had inspired Florence Nightingale in her nursing revolution).
The dwindling and now-ageing Sisters of Charity are reported to be bewildered by the blizzard of insults they have received, seldom accompanied by any acknowledgement of the positive contribution they have made – including caring for the dying, the disabled and the homeless. Nuns are people like the rest of us – they can make erroneous judgments and fail in care or in education.
But look at the bigger picture. From the Medical Missionaries of Mary – an Irish-founded order that has delivered excellent health care throughout the world – to the first Irish woman to be President, Mary Robinson (who wanted to be a nun herself), religious sisters have also had a positive impact on generations of Irishwomen.
From Maureen O’Hara (Dominicans, Eccles Street) to Nuala O’Faolain (St Louis, Monaghan) and Dervla Murphy (Ursulines), nuns have encouraged ambitious young women. And not just Irish women. Germaine Greer, the feminist and academic, has said that if it hadn’t been for Irish nuns tramping across the broiling Australian deserts, “I would never have had an education”. Irish Dominicans also insisted on teaching children of all races together in apartheid South Africa.
In their time, nuns were regarded as pathfinders for the empowerment of women. The pioneering British feminist educationalists Dorothea Beale and Frances Buss copied the Ursuline nuns, who had been providing education for girls since the 15th century. In Ireland, Nano Nagle launched the Presentation Order, in the teeth of the Penal Laws, to bring education to young girls of poorer means.
Mother Mary Aikenhead, founder of St Vincent’s Hospital and of the Religious Sisters of Charity, was an example of a female medical pioneer and a role model of female achievement. In our time, Dr Margaret MacCurtain, Sister Benvenuta OP, is considered a significant leader in feminist history.
Nuns did become dominant holders of property in independent Ireland and they took over many “big houses”, which the old ascendency could no longer maintain: Castel Durrow in Laois, Castlemartyr in Cork, Delvin Lodge in Meath, Mount Trenchard in Limerick and Roebuck Castle in Dublin were among those acquired by what the satirical writer Honor Tracy called “the property-grabbing” nuns. The crumbling ascendency, wrote Tracy, were “no match” for the nuns’ acumen (so many stately homes were burned out by anti-
Treatyites that acquisition was a way of saving them). The nuns were responding to a need for education and the provision of orphanages and homes, which in many cases nobody else wanted to run.
A slew of anti-nun publicity has been forthcoming following disclosures about the mother and baby homes, as well as orphanages and industrial schools. But nuns were acting at the behest of the State, when the State paid scant attention to health and welfare and didn’t, for a long time, even have a government department addressing these issues.
Memoirs have featured cruel nuns, and yet, in the best of these narratives, the picture is never black and white. Paddy Doyle’s poignant autobiography of being consigned to an orphanage from the age of four – The God Squad – references a spiteful sister, but also a kind and caring young nun. Nuns are people, repeat, and people are all mixed up between negative and positive.
There are positives as well as negatives: Irish nuns nursed cholera patients when few others would do so. Graves in Africa and India bear witness to the number of Irish sisters who left their homeland to dedicate their lives to the afflicted.
When I was 15, I developed a primary TB and was admitted to the Bon Secours Hospital, then in north Dublin. The medical care was superb and conditions spotless. The male consultants, normally emperors of all they survey, were in awe of the nuns’ rule. It was the first time I saw that women could, by the authority of their knowledge and expertise, command men.
In their own way, nuns were surely pioneers in female empowerment.