‘Christian Courtesy for Catholic Girls’: Reflections on a darker syllabus

I have fond memories of many books from the school curriculum, but it pains me to think that I never noticed back then how few of the stories were by women

In 1986, when I was at secondary school, the picture above was how the Student Yearbook & Career Directory chose to illustrate its advice that some teaching positions called for additional qualifications.

Now, more than 30 years on, I notice how the teacher has been drawn in Barbie doll proportions, how she leans, hand on hip, toward the ogling school boys. This is before I even begin to consider how her gaze is trained on her young student’s groin, before I reflect on how it is “Headmaster” rather than “Principal”. Back then, I don’t recollect anyone, teacher or student, finding anything wrong with that cartoon. I certainly don’t recall it sparking any debate, or being used as a “teachable moment”.

The year before, the High Court had upheld the dismissal by the Holy Faith convent school in New Ross of Eileen Flynn, a pregnant teacher who was in a relationship with a separated man. Eileen was living in the town with her partner and his three young children. She had concealed her pregnancy for as long as she could. In 1984, Ann Lovett, a 15-year-old pupil of Cnoc Mhuire secondary school, had died after giving birth at a grotto in Granard. Ireland had only recently come through the Eighth Amendment referendum, and the Kerry Babies Tribunal. I do recall lapel pins in the shape of small feet, and an ugly joke about Joanne Hayes.

In the school library, a different book, Christian Courtesy for Catholic Girls, had my friends and I falling about laughing

Elsewhere in the handbook, under job opportunities for would be doctors and nurses, it was advised that: “Decreased opportunities abroad, Health Board cuts and the increased number of women staying in jobs have all contributed to the disimprovement in this sector.” Hmm. So women having jobs was responsible for the problem of people not having jobs? The handbook wasn’t some small in-house publication printed by my school; it was a book with a significant readership, in its own words: “the biggest selling and most successful career publication in Ireland.” In a curious juxtaposition, the page facing that cartoon was dominated by an advertisement asking: “Is Christ inviting you to take a risk?” It was just one of many advertisements in the handbook by religious orders seeking recruits: the Presentation Sisters; the Religious Sisters of Charity; the Congregation of Irish Dominican Sisters; the Church of Ireland Theological College; the Legionaries of Christ; the Marianists; the Columban Sisters; the Redemptorists.

In the school library, a different book, Christian Courtesy for Catholic Girls, had my friends and I falling about laughing. All these years later, I wondered if I might have misremembered the name, or if it was a satirical title we'd invented ourselves, but the internet tells me it was called exactly that. It was published in Australia in 1937 and its author is identified simply as "A Sister of St Joseph". It's an eclectic mix of advanced etiquette and religious instruction: "Adopt a becoming posture in church and at religious functions . . ."; "A hostess suggesting a second helping considerately avoids the use of the word 'more', which is a reminder that the guest has already had some." On re-reading, the book feels darker, more disturbing, than I remember. It is a lot less funny. Perhaps as teenagers we were laughing too hard at such bald lies as "Convent girls, generally, are taught to play outdoor games skilfully, joyfully and becomingly", to register the grim constraint behind the advice to "Accustom yourself to keep rules. You will have rules to keep all your life", or "In writing to persons much your superior, use as few words as possible." Maybe the old-fashioned type and formatting and language lent the publication a sepia hue, led us to regard it as an amusing historical artefact, a thing belonging to times past. Women, the book made clear, were to be held responsible, not just for their own behaviour, but for men's also. "We are all our brothers' keepers and it is to our girls and women that we look to keep our men good"; "Girls should cultivate that truly maidenly reserve which resents the least liberty and compels others to keep their place"; "And in case the reader still hadn't got it: The blame for the decay of home life, as well as the only hope of reform for that evil, rests with woman."


I don’t think I invested much time putting either the handbook or the courtesy manual to its intended purpose. As far as careers guidance went, the nun charged with teaching the subject told me that she didn’t think I was likely to end up doing what I had in mind. For some years I’d harboured an ambition to join the Army. I never for a moment imagined myself fighting a war. Neither did I see myself peacekeeping in the Lebanon, or even driving those trucks that provided escorts to cash-in-transit. I was joining the army for the sole purpose of riding their show-jumping horses. Instead of Army fatigues, I would wear one of those smart dark green riding jackets, belted at the waist. In retrospect, it’s possible that the careers guidance teacher had decided to cut her losses. This was the era of Lieutenant John Ledingham and Captain Gerry Mullins, and I didn’t notice that there weren’t any women riders on the Army team.

Of the books on the actual syllabus, I preferred the ones that dealt in words and stories, rather than numbers and formulas. I leaned toward English, Irish, History. There was a short story by Padraic O'Conaire on our Irish syllabus for the Leaving Certificate called Nora Mharcais Bhig. It's a story about a young woman who has to leave her parish and travel on her own to England, where things go badly for her. Later, when she returns home, she is shamed, rejected, and packed off back to England again. I remember one of the girls in our class asking if Nora had to leave because she was pregnant. No, the teacher said, categorically, Nora wasn't pregnant. Fast forward to later that same year, post-Leaving Cert, and I find myself studying the very same story as an evening student at a third level college. This time, to my puzzlement, it's taken as a given that Nora is pregnant. Who to believe? Nora it seemed had achieved a conception as miraculous as any biblical account, impregnated over the course of the summer, wordlessly and surreptitiously.

Nowhere in O'Conaire's story are the words "sex" or "pregnancy" mentioned. The short story form is perhaps particularly well suited to the dance that was required to suggest the truth of Nora's situation without falling foul of the sensitivities of the publishing industry of the time. I wonder now if the story was even recognised as being open to the interpretation of a crisis pregnancy. O'Conaire was the subject of censorship complaints, but a complaint about the story from Canon O'Leary, for example, is focused on Nora's subsequent life of prostitution in England. It's possible that some of the gaps and silences in the story – a feature of Irish short stories, certainly – may in the case of Nora Mharcais Bhig be a result of censorship by publishers under the guise of editing. O'Conaire had occasion to write to at least one editor to object to a story being changed without his consent, pointing out that an editor was entitled not to publish a story, but didn't have the right to change it, or spoil it, without the writer's permission. While that letter relates to a different story, it makes reference to similar wrongs being perpetrated against Nora Mharcais Bhig. (see Pádraic Ó Conaire – Scéal a Bheatha, An tSiúr Eibhlín Ní Chionnaith.)

There's an English translation of the story by Thomas McCarthy at The Short Story Project (shortstoryproject.com.) Re-reading the story now in 2018, I find it difficult to view it as suggesting anything other than Nora being pregnant: the layers and the nuances, the things not said, the things hinted at by the men who discuss Nora from the ditch as she leaves the parish. Nora fell in love with an affluent young man who came to the parish on his summer holidays. She had to leave Ros Dhá Loch, the story tells us, because of the love she had had for him ("toisc an cion a bhí aici air. . .") and I can't help noticing how in the Irish language "cion" can mean, as in this instance, love or affection, but the word can also mean fault or transgression.

It pains me to think that I never noticed back then how few of the stories were by women

Fast-forward several decades to my forties when I have become an obsessive reader of short stories, and have also taken to writing them. One day in my post I receive a copy of The Watched, a collection of stories by Dora Murphy, an Irish writer I'd never heard of who was born in Dublin in 1902. The collection includes a story called Saturday, first published in the Kilkenny Magazine in 1969, which features a young Irish woman making arrangements to travel to England for an abortion.


Murphy's protagonist, a seventeen year old woman from rural Ireland called Shelagh, has many parallels with O'Conaire's Nora Mharcais Bhig. Shelagh has decided to pretend that she's going for a holiday to a cousin in England: "nobody at home need know but that she'd spent the holidays with Bridie. And the pips went a second time . . ." The attempt to make arrangements is complicated by many things, not least the fact that she can only contact Bridie via a pay phone: "No time to ask any more questions and still so much to say. No change to keep the damn thing going." The story does not use the words "abortion" or "termination" but it is made clear what Shelagh's trouble is. "Lots of people get it done over here," Shelagh's cousin tells her, "It's happening all the time." Murphy chose to end the story with a one word sentence: "Waiting."

I can only imagine the bravery it took to write that story in 1960s Ireland. The Watched and Other Stories was published by Carlow Writers Group in 1992, when the author was 90, and it has been translated into Italian by Rosangela Barone. I try to imagine how Saturday might have been taught if it had somehow miraculously materialised on the Leaving Cert syllabus in 1986. The questions the story raises around topics such as contraception, abortion, power imbalances, women's lives, would have been impossible to side-step. In the case of O'Conaire's Nora Mharcais Bhig, as long as the predicament wasn't named, it was possible to pretend that the story was about something else. This capacity for pretence may have been part of what O'Conaire was writing about. Also, the fact that O'Conaire was writing in Irish may have been to his advantage. Merriman's Cúirt an Mhéan Oíche was composed in 1780 and acclaimed for generations, but Frank O'Connor's English translation of it in 1945 was banned. An Triall by Máiréad Ni Ghráda, a play, in Irish, about unplanned pregnancy and single parenthood set in 1960s Ireland, was performed in 1964, although it didn't make it onto the Leaving Cert syllabus until 2006.

I have fond memories of many books from the school curriculum – Exploring English 1 for example – but it pains me to think that I never noticed back then how few of the stories were by women. The same way I didn't register, as a teenager, the awfulness of that cartoon in the Careers Directory. Or that the Army didn't have any women show-jumpers. Such things were regarded as standard operating procedure. Un-remarkable. Women were tasked with curating an acceptable version of themselves for others to gaze upon. This was how they "qualified". There were also ways in which women became "disqualified", women who found themselves in predicaments similar to Nora Mharcais Bhig, or Dora Murphy's Shelagh, but the rules of disqualification tended to be mostly unspoken; there were no directories. Dora Murphy's stories would have been a welcome addition to our 1980s teenage world. We – literally – didn't know what we were missing.

Danielle McLaughlin is author of Dinosaurs on Other Planets and editor of Counterparts, a new Stinging Fly anthology of original writing from Irish authors with legal backgrounds alongside selected extracts from law reports. As part of Dublin Book Festival, she discusses law and literature with some contributors on Sunday, November 18th, at 3.45pm in Winter Garden