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
That first summer, the building and plumbing work had not been completed when the nuns moved in. A donkey cartload of “much chipped and somewhat rusty chamber pots” arrived, to be placed at “strategic points” in the dormitories.
“There was no electricity the first few years,” Sr Regina says. “We used candles. Lights out were at 10 o’clock.” When they were not practising their Irish, knitting on the lawn, having their one allocated swim a day, or out walking the mountains in six yards of black serge, they gathered on the rocks at the end of the beach for sing-songs. “We used to have great fun. We’d sing things like The Hills of Donegal. Or we’d do little sketches.”
Inside I’m dancing
Sr Eileen shows me the sanctuary room, where the nuns heard Mass every morning. It’s as big as the refectory, and behind folding wooden doors, is the tabernacle. “We would close the doors here in the night, out of respect,” she explains, “and then sometimes sisters who had relatives nearby, would come in and play the accordion or sing, and we’d dance.” She recalls two nuns who were actual sisters, and whose father came every summer to play the accordion for their community.
“We danced ballroom, quickstep, foxtrot, waltzes. Before we entered, we’d have been going to the dances on our bicycles, so we knew them all. We’d usually have a little party after dancing on the nights we were dancing: lemonade and biscuits. Red lemonade. Nash’s red lemonade was the best thing for a cold; You’d boil it up and put a few cloves in it.”
There’s no dancing at St Michael’s any more, but the sisters still enjoy themselves. As they are on holiday, they don’t cook: someone is employed to do it. “We light the fire on misty nights and play Scrabble,” says Sr Eileen. They watch television: their favourite programmes are Nationwide – “It always gives your heart a lift,” as Sr Regina says – and anything to do with nature. They read. They walk where they like. Sr Borgia naps each afternoon. They are content and self-contained, and fewer in number each year.
When I have said my goodbyes, I go for a swim at the beach below, and think about the life my great aunt led. After a while, someone comes down the private steps from the nuns’ garden. It is Sr Eileen, in a modern swimsuit, pausing on her way to the warm water to chat to people she evidently knows. If it had been 1939, she would have been breaking two of the “Ten Commandments” in under a minute.