Margaret MacCurtain obituary: Pioneering historian and campaigner
President leads tributes to nun, educator, feminist and human-rights activist
Sr Margaret MacCurtain: Generations of students remember her as a warm, friendly, approachable, helpful person. Photograph: Eric Luke
May 17th, 1929-October 5th, 2020
The distinguished historian, educator, feminist and human-rights activist, Dr Margaret MacCurtain OP, has died aged 91. Her research into and writing of what has become known as “women’s history” were pioneering and she is on record as saying: “My determination to write women into mainstream history, though resisted for years, has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.”
President Michael D Higgins said: “There were so many aspects of Irish life, past and present, to which she made a unique and valuable contribution.
“Dedicated to her religious vocation and inspired by the Second Vatican Council, Sr Margaret MacCurtain displayed her tremendous talent in so many areas, and she will be remembered not only for her academic achievements but also for her tireless campaigning for social justice.
“We owe her a profound debt of gratitude for her advocacy on the abolition of corporal punishment in schools and for the rights of children with special educational needs, and indeed for her academic work in which she highlighted the oft neglected role of women in Irish history. She brought not only great determination and energy to all her work but also great humour, compassion and humanity.”
Her multifaceted contribution to Irish life was recognised in the award of a number of honorary doctorates. Part of the citation for the award of honorary Doctor of Philosophy to her by Dublin City University in early 2015 read: “Her outstanding attributes include courageous individualism, scholarly integrity, great personal humility and a profound love of freedom.”
The citation from an earlier honorary award, that of Doctor of Literature from the National University of Ireland in September 2007, drew attention to another important facet of her personality: “She is above all a great listener, who puts everything else on hold to listen to you, particularly when she knows you may be seeking help and advice.”
She grew up in Cork city, the middle of five children of Seán MacCurtain, a school inspector, and Ann McKenna, a banker. She attended the St Aloysius Mercy schools in the city. The seed of a religious vocation was planted in her when she was preparing for her First Communion. “The Mercy sister instructing my class invited us to think of becoming a nun, and because she was such fun and so kind, it didn’t seem outrageous.”
The seed thus planted was further nourished when a long illness, diphtheria, at the age of nine confined her to a rundown fever hospital where no visitors were allowed for months. “As a result, my thoughts turned to God, especially when one of my companions in that bleak ward died.” A 15th-birthday gift of a book by a French Dominican, On the Joy of Loving God, caused her to look for joy instead of sadness or fear of punishment in religion.
There was a great emphasis on education and gender equality in her family and she and her three sisters all attended university. She did a degree in English, history and Irish and a higher diploma in education in University College Cork, intending to become a teacher. At 21, she decided to enter the Irish Congregation of Dominican Sisters in Dublin “after much heart-searching” and took the name Sr Benvenuta. Following her novitiate in Kildare and the taking of temporary vows, she was assigned to the Sion Hill community in Blackrock, Co Dublin.
She taught in the secondary school there and when she unexpectedly had to take over a colleague’s senior history classes, she said she felt inadequate dealing with such bright pupils, so she got permission to study for a Master’s degree at University College Dublin.
Her supervisor was, in her own words, “the famous and eccentric” Robert Dudley Edwards and she did a thesis on the 17th-century Dominican, Dominic O’Daly. She was encouraged to do a doctorate, which she completed in Madrid in 1964.
Dr MacCurtain returned to UCD and lectured in history there for the next 30 years. In the late 1960s, she supported students’ demands, which she said made her aware of other inequalities, such as the position of women worldwide. This made her determined to write women back into mainstream Irish history, a task for which she received little support from the academic establishment.
She co-edited, with James Lydon of Trinity College, the Gill History of Ireland series in the early 1970s, and wrote Tudor and Stuart Ireland (1972) in that series. She had already co-authored The Birth of Modern Ireland (1969) with Mark Tierney, and with Donnchadh Ó Corráin she co-edited Women in Irish Society: the Historical Dimension (1978).
In 1979, she was seconded to become head of the first College of Further Education of Dublin VEC. She developed an innovative curriculum there and Ballyfermot College, as it was called, became the prototype for future PLCs (post-Leaving Cert colleges).
She served as Prioress of Sion Hill Convent 1984-88 and her continued work in women’s history attracted a new generation of young researchers. With Mary O’Dowd, she co-edited Women in Early Modern Ireland (1991) and, with Suellen Hoy, From Dublin to New Orleans: Nora and Alice’s Journey to America 1899 (1994). She also wrote Ariadne’s Thread: Writing Women into Irish History (2008). In 1997, Women in Irish History: Essays in Honour of Margaret MacCurtain was published. UCD now awards the Margaret MacCurtain Scholarship in Women’s History.
Among the many campaigns she took a leading part in during the course of a long life were for the abolition of corporal punishment in schools, for children with special educational needs, against building on the Wood Quay site in Dublin, against apartheid in South Africa, against domestic violence and for the right to remarry after a civil divorce or annulment (she was patron of that campaign).
She was chairwoman of the National Archives Advisory Council 1997-2002, a member of the editorial board of Field Day, volumes IV and V, and second holder of the prestigious Burns Chair of Irish Studies in Boston College. She was also consultant to the Irish Famine Curriculum in New York city and state project, the initiative of her close friend and colleague, Maureen Murphy.
Generations of students remember her as a warm, friendly, approachable, helpful person. She possessed a great sense of fun and no challenge ever daunted her.