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Some nuns spent up to 40 years living in Australia before returning home to Ireland


At the launch of 'The Letter Under My Pillow' which details the 150 years of the journey and experiences by young Irish women who went to Australia was truly brought to life by real-life testimony by sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

Sister Anne Keety said she hailed from Tipperary and her journey started at the convent in Newmarket in 1948. In the very room where the book launch was held, she recalled the front of the room was the chapel and the back was the study room. She left for Australia when she was 15 years old in 1950.

"I had 15 companions travelling on the Irish sea and it took us six weeks to reach Australia where I stayed for 55 years. I came home in 2005 to spend the rest of my life with my family. I can still remember the plane landing down in Shannon it was May 13, 2005 and the time was 12.35pm," she said.

Sister Margaret O'Sullivan from West Limerick went to Australia in 1968 when she was 18 years old and where she spent 31 years and she too returned home in 2000.

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Sister Sarah Hogan also hailed from Tipperary and said she was nearly 17 years-old when she left for Australia where she spent over 40 years and returned back home in June 2005. "I loved Australia and New Zealand," she said.

In chapter 24 of the book it tells the story of Sr Benedict Hickey who was born on a farm at Tureenbawn, Millstreet in 1854. She was baptised Ellen and educated by the Presentation Sisters. At the age of 21 she opted to volunteer when she heard Bishop Matthew Quinn 'appealing for postulants for his diocese in Australia,' and she arrived in that 'faraway country in 1875.' She wrote of her life and remarked that some sisters were adept at setting rabbit traps and making rabbit stwes while others were good at organising Friday night dances for the young people and providing supper.

However, during the economic depression of the 1890s, great poverty hit all the Australia colonies and the people of the Diocese of Bathurst did not escape - nor did our sisters, she wrote.

'Severe unemployment, drought and poverty were everywhere. Fifteen sisters died during the 1890s, nine were in their 20s and two were just over the age of 30. Nine sisters died of tuberculosis, which was rampant at the time,' she wrote. However, she also wrote frankly about "party politics' when a Sr Lucy Cuffee was elected Sister Guardian. Sr Hickey wrote that she refused to be her assistant as it was hard for her to give up her position of authority and to work with someone she did not trust.

But she noted how Bishop John Dunne from Mitchelstown gave her an 'ultimatum …to return to the Vale or leave the Institute.

'Six years later, when Sr Lucy's term of office was over, Bishop Dunne took it upon himself to appoint Sr Paulinus Farrington as their Sister Guardian rather than letting them elect a sister.

'HE did so because he believed that we were all engaging in party politics. We were upset with his actions and needed help to come to terms with his decision.' Bishop Dunne was a good bishop. A decent, hardworking man who cared for his people and priests,' she wrote.

She also reflected in the chapter on her life in Australia, 'I look over my life and see a 21 year-old woman from Millstreet who ended up being a leader of a young Australian institute and steering it though the years with the help of many generous souls,' and she also said she was grateful to God for calling to her.

In the book many of the sisters spent time in Newmarket before going to Australia and there are also others sisters with links in Duhallow who are mentioned in the book.