‘The Irish Nuns At Ypres” sounds like a great title for a film about the first World War. But it’s a potential Hollywood epic yet to be made. However, a book with that very title was published in 1915 and caused quite a stir. The nuns in question had been forced to flee their convent in the Belgian town, which was on the front line of battle from almost the beginning of the Great War.
The Benedictine order first established a community of Irish nuns in Ypres in the 17th century. The Abbey of Our Lady of Grace, in Rue St Jacques, attracted the daughters of wealthy Irish families in the centuries that followed. But in August 1914, their tranquility was shattered forever when Germany invaded Belgium. Allied and German troops began a series of battles with Ypres as the epicentre. The nuns, known as the Irish Dames of Ypres, hung on for a few weeks as the town – and eventually their beloved abbey – was destroyed by shellfire. They eventually, and with great reluctance, decided to flee to safety – first to England, and eventually Ireland.
With the help of the British army, they managed to leave Belgium and cross the English Channel by the end of 1914 and went to recuperate at Oulton Abbey in Staffordshire. In spring 1915, sympathisers arranged for the book about their plight to be published. It contained a first-hand account written by one of the nuns, Dame M Columban, “of all that has befallen the Community, since the coming of the Germans to Ypres”.
It’s a cracking read and, possibly, the first eye witness account of the first World War written by a woman. The convent was in the eye of the storm, and she writes, “the shells and bombs were flying in all directions; and the explosions joined to the firing of the guns resembled some huge machinery with its never-ceasing boom and crash”.
Dame M Columban provides vivid accounts of the German invasions and shelling; the subsequent recapture of the town by Allied troops; and of an encounter with soldiers in trenches.
On hearing the nuns were Irish Benedictines, “ ‘Irish !’ shouted half a dozen of them, and so are we,’ and they all began singing, ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’. ’”
She tells how, as the bombardment continued, the nuns coined a new verse to add to their daily prayers: “Dear St Patrick, as you once chased the serpents and venomous reptiles out of Ireland, please now chase the Germans out of Belgium !”
Well, St Patrick’s intervention didn’t kick in until 1918 when the war ended – and by then, the nuns had long gone and their convent, and virtually the entire town of Ypres, had been bombed to smithereens.
Before leaving, the nuns made badges, of embroidered cloth depicting the Sacred Heart, which they distributed to British, French and Belgian troops.
John Redmond MP, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons, who had secured Home Rule for Ireland and supported Irishmen joining up to fight with Britain, wrote an introduction to the book. One of the nuns, Dame Teresa, was his niece. He called for public support “to help those devoted and heroic nuns to go back to Ypres”.
But the war that was meant to be "all over by Christmas" dragged on and in 1915 the nuns, perhaps not wishing to outstay their welcome in England, began to look for a new home. They decided to return to their spiritual home in Ireland and leased Macmine Castle near Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, where they planned, according to an ad they placed in The Irish Times in 1917, to open "a Select Boarding School for a limited Number of Young Ladies" which would offer "High-class Education together with all the advantages of a Continental Training".
But the plan didn’t quite work out. The house was too small so they sought a more suitable property. They found it – in Connemara – when in 1920 they bought a Victorian mansion called Kylemore. The nuns eventually opened their boarding school in 1923, which gradually achieved national and international renown. They never returned to Belgium. The school closed in 2010 but the “Irish Dames of Ypres” are still at Kylemore Abbey.