In 2003 I left Ireland for Chennai in India, to live in Perambur among the Anglo-Indian community and volunteer as a teacher at The Little Lambs School. Although Sr Loreto, a Presentation nun from Co Tipperary now aged 91, was living close by, it was three months before we met.
In 1943, 16-year-old Peg Houlihan had left her rural farmhouse in Tinhalla near Carrick-An-Suir in Co Tipperary. She became a Presentation Sister noviciate in the UK before departing for the distant shores of India. Her ship set sail from Liverpool to Bombay as the second World War was drawing to a close, and she celebrated her 17th birthday on board.
During that journey and its many blackouts, Sr Loreto bravely looked forward - spending a lot of time on the ship learning the ancient Tamil language, the beautiful letters which she has never forgotten.
After landing at the port of Bombay, the rest of the journey was by train down to Madras. On arrival at the Presentation Order convent, there was a letter waiting from her mother. It opened with “Céad míle fáilte”, “a hundred thousand welcomes” to India.
Sr Loreto speaks lovingly of this letter, as she knew it was a huge sacrifice for her mother to let her go. It was a gift of the utmost love for a mother to let her daughter go with the words “keep up your brave heart Peg, all will be well”. They never saw each other again.
Sr Loreto dedicated her life to love and serve others through education in Chennai in India. After completing her teacher training at Churchpark School in Madras, she went on to work as a primary school teacher, based most of her life at St Joseph’s Anglo-Indian School in Perambur in north Chennai.
The children in her class were six years old and over the years, she has taught three generations of families, and become a well-loved and respected person in the community. In class she says she was strict, but outside of school, “I didn’t have enough fingers for them to hold onto”.
She is one of the last Irish Presentation nuns left out of 131 who travelled and worked there. In the community, she lives a life of truth in purpose, with a great sense of adventure and humour. She is, she says, “blessed with strong faith, good sleep, and no regrets”.
Born into a large Irish family in 1927, Peg grew up in hard times, especially in the 1930s with a worldwide depression and an economic war between Ireland and Britain. By the time she was five years old, her mother was already a widow as her father, a blacksmith, had died.
As a child, her strong faith was apparent. She was nicknamed "Holy Mary" as the other children saw how she prayed in the garden. During her school days at the Presentation Convent she became interested in becoming a nun. The Venerable Nano Nagle is her role model in life. Nano is known as "The lady of the Lamp", a pioneer of Catholic Education in Ireland during times of penal law.
In the 1950s, Sr Loreto spent what she calls “the happiest days” of her life living with a tribal community in Bihar. She learned their language, Santali, and taught in Hindi in the school. Over the years she learned to cook, and even baked brown bread in the tandoor oven, a simple rural life she still talks lovingly of.
After returning from those wonderful years in Bihar, Sr Loreto has spent the rest of her life teaching in Perambur. On Indian Independence in 1947, the Indian government had asked the Presentation schools to continue their education, and the doors were opened to the indigenous population, which in India is almost 80 per cent Hindi. The children were encouraged to celebrate their culture in the schools, and the adults I meet nowadays who attended schools where Irish Brothers and Sisters were teachers, talk fondly of them and their education. The late chief minister of Tamil, Nadu Jayalalitha has spoken of her school days at Church Park as being the happiest of her life.
I was introduced to Sr Loreto through a mutual friend. I will never forget the day I walked into the Presentation convent to a genuinely generous and warm welcome - the signature element of Sr Loreto’s charm. After many years in India, her Irish accent was still strong with a broad welcoming smile and the offer of a cup of tea was like music to my ears. Just as I was beginning to miss my homeland, here was an angel of Ireland in a remote corner in faraway India. This filled me with such joy and I’ve treasured the moments we’ve spent together as friends ever since.
Over our many cups of Barry’s Tea together, we talk about the similarities between Ireland and India, especially the warmth of the Indian and the Irish people, and how they connect so naturally.
Irish in India
The community around Perambur has many Anglo-Indians, a minority community that evolved from the time of the British Raj. There is a history shared between Ireland and India, where both countries suffered suppression and poverty, and fought for our independence from Britain: Ireland in 1922 and India in 1947.
Many Irish were part of the British Regiment in India, and key figures supported the Indian movement for independence. Annie Besant, who campaigned for women's rights and Indian self-rule, is a household name in India always thought of as British, yet her parents were Irish. There are Anglo-Indians with an Irish legacy through surnames such as O'Brien, Johnson, Walsh and Collins, all living near Sr Loreto in Perambur.
These conversations evoked a passion in me to produce a documentary on Sr Loreto, filmed around the time of her Jubilee, or 70 years of sisterhood. I wanted to not only share her story, but also celebrate the work of so many other Irish educators in India, as this era draws to a close and another starts.
The Irish legacy of education in India is one of Ireland’s strongest links with the country. The seeds have been sown for the Indian Sisters to take this legacy forward for the next generation of children. Sister India, which will screen at a number of film festivals in Ireland and India this month, was made to preserve not only the story of Sister Loreto, but to remember all the Irish who have dedicated their lives in the service of education and community support in India, made with the support of family and friends and the very talented director Myles O’ Reilly.
Myles sums up Sr Loreto perfectly when he says that listening to her talk “was like being warmed at the hearth of a fire on a rainy day, hearing stories as she put it, from ‘the long ago’”.
“I learned from her, that India and it’s culture retains more of the life she left 70 years ago in Ireland, than we have here today, and so she chooses to live the rest of her days there.”
Sister India will be screened at the Silk Road Film Festival on March 9th, the Dingle Film Festival on March 22-25th and the Fastnet Film Festival May 23-27th.