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The Nun\'s Story: Writing the Record : Volume 107: No 426

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Studies is greatly indebted to Professor Deirdre Raftery of UCD, who, under the auspices of H-WRBI (History of Women Religious – Britain and Ireland), organised the conference in the summer of 2017 on which seven of the papers here are based, and who has generously acted as associate editor to ensure their publication in this issue. The conference theme, as she explains in her own introductory paper, was ‘Sources and the History of Women Religious’ and the emphasis in several of the papers is on the challenge of tracking the sources and being able to interpret the evidence, not least the stories, that record the lives and experiences and contributions of those we in Ireland have traditionally called ‘nuns’.
Despite the evocation in the issue’s overall title, ‘The Nuns’ Stories’, of Fred Zinneman’s memorable 1959 film, The Nun’s Story, in which Audrey Hepburn played the brilliant but conflicted nun Sister Luke with such distinction, watched over by those two grandes dames of British theatre in that era, Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans, as two of her convent seniors, the emphasis in the papers published here is rather more focused on laying foundations for a fuller narration of ‘the nuns’ stories’ than on telling those stories themselves.
At the same time, a large part of the motivation for producing this issue is the desire to help in however modest a way in the work of rescuing the word ‘nun’, and the reputation of the many thousands of immensely dedicated Irish women who were traditionally called by that name, from the ‘historical marginalisation’ to which Caitríona Clear, as quoted by Deirdre Raftery, refers. Dr Clear is the author of a number of pioneering studies of Irish women’s lives, including the valuably contextualising Nuns in Nineteenth Century Ireland, published in 1988, where the phrase occurs.
Of course, the record is somewhat mixed in the case of some institutions and of the women religious who worked there. Damage, sometimes terrible damage, was done by individuals and bodies purporting to act in the name of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What was only part of the story, however, and surely much the lesser part, is being allowed to become the whole story and this constitutes a grave injustice of its own to what Dr Raftery rightly speaks of as ‘a vast, and largely undocumented, legacy’ in, among others, the fields of healthcare and education. And that is to say nothing of what has been contributed by the silent, faithful witness of so many in contemplative life over the years, which continues counter-culturally and largely unnoticed in our own day.
The marginalisation we are dealing with in this instance is not due to some kind of merely careless amnesia. ‘The derision with which the word “nun” … has been spoken (on Irish television) has cut to the heart of many who have put their lives on the line for values that are foundational to human flourishing’, St Louis sister, the distinguished Patrick Kavanagh scholar Una Agnew, wrote in a letter to The Irish Times last year.
She wondered, in the same letter, whether she should just ‘sit it out in silence, in the hope that some fair-minded journalist might do some rigorous and balanced research and contextualise events that have occurred as part of our country’s history’. Some of the challenge in doing such research – a challenge few journalists, working to deadlines, are likely to face into, even were they to contemplate taking it on board – emerges from a number of the papers that follow. Of special note, both because of its quality and of the particular topic she is dealing with, is Holy Faith sister Jacinta Prunty’s painstaking account of her work on the history of the Sisters of Our Lady of Refuge in Ireland and their two Magdalen institutions in Dublin.
The scope of some of the other papers ranges more widely, which in present circumstances may be salutary in itself. In this era of Brexit, we in Ireland are apt to pride ourselves on how successfully we have escaped the insularity and, as we see it, blinkered vision of too many of our near neighbours. But the truth is that, when it comes to the subject of religion, and especially consideration of the Catholic church, wider perspectives seem to get lost in too much public discourse and media coverage. This is the currently fashionable, and distorting, trend of which women religious, ‘the nuns’, in Ireland have so undeservingly fallen foul.
Local reaction, especially in media, to the visit of Pope Francis, imminent as these lines are being written, will reveal our capacity to look beyond ourselves and a narrow, relentlessly scapegoating view of the church he leads. Not only because of the office he holds, although that is important and matters a lot to very many Irish people, but also, and most strikingly because of who he is and the luminous moral leadership he gives far beyond his own church in an increasingly troubled human community, the pope is, by any measure, one of the outstanding and most inspiring figures in the world today. Will we be able to rise to the occasion?
This issue of Studies also carries two articles unrelated to the main theme. Dr Oliver Rafferty writes of the role played by the nineteenth and early twentieth century Catholic church’s role in the development of Irish democracy. ‘Institutional Catholicism’, he observes, ‘was astute enough to realise that, in its desire to have control or at least influence over Catholic Ireland, it would have to bend to the will of the people in political matters so as to retain their affection in religious matters’. ‘Catholic Ireland’, of course, is, to paraphrase Yeats, now like ‘romantic Ireland … with O’Leary in the grave’, not least because of the kind of control it misguidedly sought to exercise for so long in this country, which is partly what has the institution where it is today. The playwright Brian McAvera’s long and careful analysis of Patrick Pearse’s plays is a paean of praise neither to Pearse’s talents in this regard nor to the patriotic impulses which underpinned his writing and his life. Those impulses, too, help to explain not a few of the features which characterise twenty-first century Ireland, as we wait for Brexit and the pope.
It is appropriate to end by repeating the debt of Studies to the very large contribution Deirdre Raftery has made to this issue as associate editor and, in thanking her, also to thank those who spoke at the 2017 H-WRBI conference and kindly prepared their papers – in one case at least under the most enormous pressure – so that they could be published here.

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