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
We are having lunch in the refectory, a large, sunny room with gorgeous views out over Ballinskelligs beach and bay. It once held eight long wooden tables, each seating eight. Now a few small round tables suffice. The rest of the space is occupied by bookshelves, and antimacassared armchairs that face a fireplace and a television.
Over cauliflower cheese, mashed carrots, new potatoes and beef, followed by stewed rhubarb and ice-cream, the nuns reminisce about former holidays. They were allowed three weeks at Ballinskelligs during the summer. They all remember the pre-Vatican II habits they wore, even on the hottest days. “Six yards of serge and a wimple,” Sr Eileen recalls grimly.
“We walked for miles in them in the fields and up mountains. You’d nearly be fainting at the end of it,” says Sr Regina. Today, only Sr Borgia (93) is wearing a habit, and it’s a modern one.
The nuns had to obey rules set down by the Kerry Bishop of the day, Bishop Michael O’Brien. These were pinned up inside the house, and nicknamed by the community as “the Ten Commandments”. The nuns were forbidden to speak to people on the beach; wear ‘modern swimsuits’ (above elbow and knee); go to the local shop without permission; go swimming more than once a day; go alone on the rocks; go for long walks in the afternoon, unless as part of a group, following a leader. They also had to speak Irish as much as possible and observe set periods of silence.
It sounds, frankly, not like a holiday at all, and impossible to imagine any group of adults obeying rules like these today. Yet their annual three weeks by the sea were cherished each year, as they still are.
Sr Eileen has been thoughtful enough to search through their archive in advance of my visit and find photographs of my great aunt. She also shows me documents from their archive by a nun, now dead, who wrote down memories of her holidays.
In 1989, Sr Gonzaga O’Keefe wrote about the summer the house first opened, half a century previously. Then as now, the beach was bisected by a small river, known as the “Black Pipe”. After a celebratory Mass on the day the house opened, Bishop O’Brien took the nuns for a walk on the beach. “We gathered round him like clucking hens,” Sr Gonzaga wrote.
The bishop “pointed to the ‘Black Pipe’ on the strand and said, ‘Thus far and no farther’. We were also told that boating was not for us, and walks on the road were out. We may laugh at this now, but we accepted it without protest then, so glad were we to have the holiday and a measure of freedom.”