Sunday, 19 January 2014


Yesterday, I attended a fascinating symposium organised by WOIRN (Women on Irish Research Network) on ‘Irish women, religion and the diaspora’ at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies. You can find the programme here. This was thanks to an invitation from my wonderful school-friend, Claire, whom I first met in maths in year eight, and who studied at the Institute. While she used to steal my textbook so I had more time to chat and less time to do algebra, in our comparative old age, she’s now expanding my intellectual horizons!  

I know very little of Irish history. When beginning to research my doctorate, I toyed with the idea of comparing British women missionaries’ activities in India with those of their Irish counterparts, particularly nuns of the Loreto sisters whose hill-station schools were populated by children of the Empire. Yet, due to the constraints of time and the availability of sources, I chose to concentrate upon British women alone – women who did not go to India to serve the Raj, but whose nationality inevitability tied them to the imperial regime. Yesterday, however, I found that there were many similarities between the experiences of Anglican women missionaries of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Church Missionary Society and those of their Irish Catholic sisters.  

There were eight papers, covering subjects including female philanthropy, the importance of ‘faith’ to voluntary action, emigration, place, and the construction of identities. Two papers were especially relevant to a scholar of spinsters!

Susan O’Brien of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, spoke of her research on Irish members of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. This was a French order, founded in the seventeenth century for the care of the poor and sick, and it continued to have a strong French identity. Between 1855 and 1940, over 1000 Irish born women belonged to the British mission, and from 1885, province of the Company. Although houses were founded in Ireland, the majority of these sisters lived in Britain itself. The Company’s Father General was based in Paris, however, and all sisters undertook formation there, learning the language. Susan argued that these Irish sisters, domiciled in Britain as members of a French order, developed a distinctive, transnational ‘Vincentian’ identity. Her research suggests that Irish sisters were not treated any differently than their British and French colleagues. Although when the British province was established in 1885, the figures of authority were English upper-class women, an Irish sister was elected head in 1925.

I was particularly interested by a point Susan made about the backgrounds of the Irish Vincentian sisters. Many seem to have had aunts and sisters already in convents in Ireland. By becoming members of a French order, indeed an order with annual rather than perpetual vows, they were breaking from family tradition.

Grainne O’Keeffe-Vigneron of Universit√© Rennes 2 also spoke about nuns – this time, Irish nuns in a religious order in France itself. She had carried out oral research amongst a French congregation, examining Irish sisters’ reasons for joining, their experiences of migration in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and their adaption to their new lives in a foreign country. I was amazed to discover that there were approximately 19,000 nuns in Ireland in 1967! Again, by choosing to leave to join a French order, the women interviewed by Grainne had been more adventurous than their peers.

When Grainne explored these women’s decision to become nuns, I found there to be many parallels with my own work on SPG and CMS recruitment. While it is true that becoming a nun brought employment and security for ‘surplus’ spinsters, compensating for a lack of eligible bachelors, it is important not to underestimate the genuine sense of vocation felt by recruits. Like the majority of British women missionaries, the nuns spoke of feeling a distinct ‘call’ from God to service and a pressing desire to help those in need and to sacrifice themselves for others. Unlike the middle-class recruits of SPG and CMS, however, many of the nuns were from poor rural backgrounds. Donning the habit gave them the status to carry out the social work they desired. For one nun in particular, who expressed a wish to work with children, it was less limiting than becoming a wife and mother at home. She could become a mother to many more children in need.

Interestingly, Grainne suggested that for many of the nuns, the decision to join a French congregation might have been simply an accident rather than a sign of adventurousness or rebellion. Mother Superiors and special ‘recruiting nuns’, chosen for their ability to communicate, were sent from France to Ireland on recruitment drives. Young women were simply attracted by their words, and tales of the order’s work, only discovering later its location overseas.   

Grainne spoke of Irish recruits’ sense of displacement upon arrival in France – everything was different, the language, the regimented daily life, the dress, the food. Great efforts were made to suppress recruits’ previous identities, cultivating a congregational identity above individualism. Indeed, being forced to speak in a new, foreign language made the expression of personality especially difficult. Family members, close friends, and women who had grown up together in the same parishes and villages in Ireland were placed apart in separate congregations in France to avoid the development of ‘special’ or ‘particular friendships,’ which distracted from community life and reminded recruits of their previous existence.

The dangers of ‘particular friendships’ were also identified by mission societies and this is a theme I will explore further on this blog in later weeks. They were seen to be as detrimental to life on a remote mission station as they were to life within a religious community. If two missionaries alone on a station were to develop a strong attachment to one another, it could limit the efficacy of the work. If two out of three missionaries on a station had such a relationship, all kinds of hurt, hostility, and jealousy could ensue.

Following the papers, there was a period of general discussion, during which I took the opportunity to point out all the similarities to my own research!

I thoroughly enjoyed my foray into Irish history and am keen to explore further the backgrounds and motivations of Irish nuns and their transnational encounters. I’ve made a note of several books to hunt out in the Bodleian, but any recommendations would be much appreciated!  

1 comment:

  1. You touched on some young women receiving the calling from God...I suppose that is how they interpreted the feeling of longing to be useful. However itis believed that each of us are given inbuilt skills or at least the sense of wanting to attain them, The motivation of just why one wants to do something or the thought one was made just to be able to do it is unexplainable or is it?