Wimples and swimsuits and suncream on sisters
In 1939, when St Michael’s holiday house for the Presentation Sisters was opened in Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry, visiting nuns had to obey the bishop’s ‘Ten Commandments’. These days things are a little more relaxed – and the house a lot emptier
Sr Eileen Leen, Sr Borgia Shanahan, Sr Anne Roche (Sacred Heart sister), and Sr Regina O’Conell at the holiday house of the Presentation sisters in Ballinskelligs Co Kerry. Photograph: Frank Miller
Undated archive photo of nuns outside the holiday house
Sr Borgia Shanahan in the holiday house. Photograph: Frank Miller
There is a large yellow building that overlooks Ballinskelligs strand in Co Kerry, at an enviable location on the far end of the beach. It sits back from the strand at a height, the lawn ending in a drop that’s protected from erosion by a concrete wall at its base. Anyone familiar with Ballinskelligs will know this building, distinctive by the cross that rises from its flat roof.
St Michael’s in Ballinskelligs is the purpose-built holiday residence of the Presentation Sisters’ order, dating from 1939. In an era when numbers in the religious community were far higher than today, most orders had designated holiday houses on the coast, with Clare, Waterford and Kerry being most favoured. At the opposite end of the beach from St Michael’s, there is a holiday house owned by the Sisters of Mercy.
St Michael’s is where my great aunt, Bridget Kennelly, known as Sr Kevin by her community and Auntie Bride by her family, came on holiday each summer. She was born in 1900, and entered the convent in 1923. I have only one clear memory of her. It is of attending her 50th Jubilee celebrations as a Presentation Sister in Castleisland, Co Kerry when I was a child. Being alive for 50 years seemed incredible enough to me then, let alone being a nun for five decades. She was 94 when she died, having spent a total of 71 years as a nun.
Although the religious community in Ireland has contracted greatly since 1939, the Presentation Sisters continue the tradition of holidaying here each summer. They arrive at the beginning of July, with the first week spent in retreat, and depart on 15th August. During that period, sisters from different parts of the country come to stay for varying lengths of time.
One sister, the Superior, remains in residence for the entire six weeks to oversee the day-to-day running of the house. For several years now, it has been Sr Eileen Leen, who entered religious life in 1956. “I don’t know how you’d describe me. Am I in charge? I suppose I am,” she says briskly.
The large site was bought in 1938 for £50; the following year, when the house first opened, the dormitory accommodated 64. It was full all summer, and those who filled it were only the Kerry-based nuns. In 1988, the house was refurbished and the dormitory converted into 20 single bedrooms. Bathrooms remain communal.
On the cerulean blue July day that I visit, there are four nuns on holiday, and six more are expected the next day. “There’ll be a few young ones among them,” Sr Eileen says. When pressed on what ‘young’ means, she answers, “late 60s”.