“I personally have been living as a hermit for the best part of 30 years,” Mother Irene says. “I was the first person to make my vows in Ireland as a hermit. But don’t call us hermits. Call us Carmelite nuns of the Holy Face of Jesus. The media sensationalise hermits.”
In Corran, near Leap in rural west Cork, is a community of two contemplative nuns. In an era of falling religious vocations, choosing to live a contemplative life – cut off from society for the sake of greater intimacy with God – is unusual. It is particularly remarkable in the case of these nuns, who are practising a faith outside the mainstream Catholic church, with which they don’t wish to be associated.
Mother Irene (61), Sr Anne Marie (21) and I are sitting in the wooden building that serves as oratory, kitchen and living space. It's a hot summer's day, and Sr Anne Marie asks permission to open the door, as both women admit to sweltering in their woollen habits and full wimples.
The space is filled with religious statues, pictures, rosary beads, icons, and tapestries. There is a strong smell both of incense and petrol from the generator that powers Mother Irene’s computer and mobile phone: we have been communicating by email prior to my visit, and when I got lost earlier en route, I called to check directions.
Although both women's names have been reported in the media in recent months, Mother Irene requests that I do not use either of their surnames. (Anne Marie is a religious name; her secular first name is different.)
'I wanted to live a life of great simplicity and a life of prayer and penance'
“It’s like when a woman gets married; she takes her husband’s name,” she says, explaining that they now consider themselves married to Jesus and have left their former names behind. “If people really want to know, they can Google us.”
I point out that not all women take a new surname on marriage, which Mother Irene seems genuinely surprised to learn.
Mother Irene, originally from Dublin, first tried living a religious life with the Carmelites and then the Benedictines.
“They were all too progressive for me, so I left,” she says. “I wanted to live a life of great simplicity and a life of prayer and penance.”
Although Mother Irene was only a child when Vatican II was established in the early 1960s, she identifies with a church of before that era. Vatican II, which concluded in 1965, was a papal council that introduced a series of modernisations to the Catholic Church, including a less formal Mass and simplified prayers that no longer used Latin.
Pope John VI, says Mother Irene, “opened the window and let in modernism. He let the world into the church so that they would become united. The smoke of Satan had entered.”
She made several attempts to find a bishop who would allow her to make her vows “as a hermit” under what she tells me is Canon 604 under the Code of Canon Law.
“It’s about the consecration of virgins,” she says. “I wanted to live a life of poverty, obedience and chastity. But I could not find a Bishop who would take my vows, because they do not like to be the first to do something other bishops were not doing. They kept passing my request on; passing the buck.”
Canon 604 reads: “The order of virgins is also to be added to these forms of consecrated life. Through their pledge to follow Christ more closely, virgins are consecrated to God, mystically espoused to Christ and dedicated to the service of the Church, when the diocesan Bishop consecrates them according to the approved liturgical rite.”
What, I ask at one point, is 'the smoke of Satan'? 'Modernity' is the answer
"In 1990, Archbishop Joseph Cassidy received my vows," she says, maintaining that she was the first in Ireland to make vows under Canon 604.
Both nuns assume that I have a close familiarity with canon law, and various liturgical readings, which I do not. This slows down the interview, as they take turns in reading passages from canon law to me, and show me symbolic pictures – some of which they have painted themselves – by way of trying to explain the various sources of their particular faith.
It’s complicated and the language is sometimes baffling. What, I ask at one point, is “the smoke of Satan” Mother Irene previously referred to? “Modernity” is the answer.
Prior to living in rural Cork, Mother Irene lived in the Irish midlands. She sold a property she owned there, and with it, bought a piece of land near Leap, at Corran, a couple of years ago. She says she had found it difficult to maintain a contemplative life in the middle of a town.
“I decided to move because it was in a very built-up area and not conducive to solitude. It didn’t have land. It was just OK for me, but not for a religious community and I was longing for the country, and that more people will come would come to join me.”
About the time she moved to Corran, she received a letter from Sr Anne Marie, from New Zealand, asking if she could join her.
Sr Anne Marie serves us coffee, and explains what drew her to Ireland and to Mother Irene’s place in particular.
“When I was 12 years old, I first had a desire for the contemplative life. I had been planning and hoping to be married, but after I had been listening to preachers, I began to wonder what God wanted of me.” She decided that God wanted her to join a contemplative community.
“My parents wanted me to wait until I was 15, so I did. When I was 15, I started writing to different convents around the world: in America, Austria, Germany. My parents were very supportive. They are very religious-minded and Catholic, and they were pleased that one of their children was wanting to dedicate herself to God.”
Did she consider first finishing her education, or going to college, before committing to this challenging life? “I was home-schooled,” she explains. “We were focusing more on practical skills: cooking, sewing, gardening, woodwork, building. It develops the skill set that will be useful for your future life.”
“Sister does all the cooking,” Mother Irene says.
Aged 18, Sr Anne Marie came in contact with a priest from Ireland who was familiar with Mother Irene. He suggested she might be open to being joined by another nun.
“We wrote back and forth and this time, it did work out,” she says. “When I was 18, the ticket to Ireland was booked.”
“I could tell from her letters that she came from a very solid traditional Catholic family,” Mother Irene says.
Was she not daunted at the thought of sharing her space with someone else, after being on her own for so long?
“We are like mother and daughter,” she says. “We wouldn’t have survived if we talked all day long, but the fact is, we have a life of silence and we have our own space. And we spend a lot of time in the cells.”
Does Sr Anne Marie miss her family, country and culture? “God takes the place of everything else,” she says. She writes a letter to her family once a month.
At noon, Sr Anne Marie rings an Angelus bell, and they explain to me that they will be retreating for a couple of hours for prayer, and lunch, taken in their “cells”.
On an ordinary day, which begins at 4am and ends at 9pm, they rarely break silence, other than for one hour in the evening. They have made an exception to talk to The Irish Times.
What about free will or a future where a decision made may not turn out to be the right one later on? 'Everyone has free will, but that doesn't make it right to leave'
I volunteer to also have lunch in a vacant cell. Sr Anne Marie brings a tiffin tin of spiced rice and vegetables to a structure not unlike a garden shed. They were all flat-pack wooden builds, which came as kits.
My cell has a bed, a desk and chair, and a stove. There are six of these cells, and originally, the plan was to make the other four available to members of the public who wished to join their contemplative life for a couple of days.
But then the nuns ran into legal difficulties with the local county council, as none of the structures they erected on the site – one the size of a barn – had been approved for planning permission. There were local complaints about the unauthorised structures on the land.
Cork County Council then prosecuted Mother Irene for being in breach of planning laws, and the case was subsequently heard at Skibbereen District Court in May of this year. The case was then adjourned until December 10th, to give the nuns an opportunity to find a buyer for the land, as proposed by their solicitor, Letty Baker. When I visit Corran, there is a prominent For Sale sign at the entrance to the property.
It’s 2.30pm before we meet again, in the oratory building. In May, Sr Anne Marie made vows for three years. If she wishes to remain, and if Mother Irene considers her suitable for religious life, she will take final vows and be fully professed.
“I myself am fully professed,” Mother Irene says. “I cannot turn back the clock. I cannot leave.”
What about free will or accommodating a future where a decision made at a certain stage in one’s life may not turn out to be the right one later on?
“Everyone has free will, but that doesn’t make it right to leave,” she says. “When you make vows, you make them for life and you have to be very careful.”
The nuns are coy about explaining how they make money to survive on, although I see home-made cards for sale in their oratory, but they do say they receive “donations” occasionally.
They would prefer to have even less contact with the outside world than they currently do, but they have to leave occasionally to shop, depending on lifts to Leap or Skibbereen from neighbours. They also leave to attend a Latin Rite Mass on Sundays.
Over the time I spend with the nuns, it becomes gradually clear to me that what they consider of most importance in establishing a new location of their “hermitage” is proximity to a priest who still conducts the pre Vatican II Latin Tridentine Mass.
“We refuse to go along with modernism,” Mother Irene says.
There had been such a priest in Athlone, Co Westmeath, where Mother Irene previously lived. There is a priest, Father Giacomo Ballini, who says a Latin Rite Mass on Sundays nearby, which is why the Corran location was chosen as a base.
'More than ever, people today are living only for this world; as if they had no souls and as if there was no heaven and no hell'
Mother Irene counts the number of priests she is aware of in Ireland who say a Latin Mass, most of whom are in Dublin, and stops at seven. “None of them are Irish, now that I think of it,” she remarks. “Most of them would not be under their local bishop.”
They show me another liturgical reading, which emphasises that Mass should be heard every day; something that is not possible in Corran, as Father Ballini says the Latin Rite Mass only weekly.
Mother Irene wants to build the community up, to at least another six nuns. “I get inquiries all the time,” she says. “But when they hear we don’t have the Latin Mass every day, they go elsewhere. We could move somewhere else and travel to Mass once a week, but we would never get vocations with that kind of a set-up, because potential novitiates want the whole thing. And we can’t offer a full liturgical life to them.”
“We have been hoping and praying for more women to join us,” Sr Anne Marie says.
At the end of our day together, I ask about the core philosophy behind their chosen lifestyle. Sr Anne Marie says, “Our fight is for the salvation of souls.”
“That is at the heart of it all,” agrees Mother Irene. “Our vocation is to pray to save souls from sin.”
“More than ever, people today are living only for this world; as if they had no souls and as if there was no heaven and no hell,” says Sr Anne Marie. “So the devil seems to be winning. This is the great warfare between good and evil.”
“The only way to fight it is through prayer,” Mother Irene stresses.
“We have to have courage to swim against the current, but that is what the martyrs had to do, and that is what we are doing.”