Cartoon history of nuns in Ireland needs to be challenged

We know little about the history of nuns in Ireland in the period covered by the McAleese report


The recent comments of two nuns who belonged to a congregation involved in running Magdalene laundries, broadcast on RTÉ on condition that the nuns or their order were not identified, have served to extend reaction to the recent McAleese report.

The confrontational tone of the nuns’ assertions – “all of the shame of the era is being dumped on the religious orders . . . the sins of society are being placed on us” – has been seized on by some as crass and self-serving and by others as offering a necessary corrective to a one-sided narrative.

The polarity of the responses is predictable and understandable, given the emotiveness around this subject recently. The narrative of the laundries with which we have become familiar is one of slavery, harshness and a legacy that includes now mostly elderly women sometimes overcome as they recount cruelties, lost youth, and mental and physical pain.

That the voices of the women incarcerated in the laundries were heard was essential but it is not in any sense to diminish their suffering or belittle their vindication by appealing for more history and less targeting of scapegoats. There is much in the McAleese report that can, will and should be contested and it is to be hoped that in time it will be rigorously dissected to test its accuracy and the logic underpinning its content and conclusions.

In his recent apology, Enda Kenny described the report as a “document of truth”, which is far-fetched; producing a report that would justify that description is an impossibility given the fragmentary nature of the evidence available. The methodology of the report is also open to criticism, particularly in terms of the weight attached to evidence.

To give one example, the contention in the report that the laundries were not profitable is in no way justified, given the acknowledgement that surviving statements of income and expenditure have not been independently audited, and that “the only available direct documentary record held by any of the religious congregations in relation to the organisations and entities which used the services of the Magdalene laundries operated by them relates to the laundry at Seán McDermott Street, Dublin”. That record consists of just a single ledger from the 1960s.

‘Profound hurt’
The report also gives prominence to the assertion of members of the congregations that they “have experienced a profound hurt in recent years . . . their position is that they responded in practical ways as best they could in keeping with the charism [power to inspire devotion], of their congregations to the fraught situations of the sometimes marginalised girls and women sent there by providing them with shelter, board and work”.

That defence can be contested, and nuns of course are not immune from embracing selfish distortions of reality, but it does deserve consideration and context. It is unfair and unhistorical to decide all nuns involved in this area were devoid of humanity, and the “bad nun” version of history needs to be challenged to generate a more nuanced approach to the relationship between State, society and sexuality, and in relation to power and gender in modern Irish history.

Who were the nuns of 20th century Ireland ? How were they trained? What was involved in the discovery and furtherance of a female religious vocation? What did the nuns expect and demand of themselves? What did State and society expect from them? How influenced were they by Augustinianism and its emphasis on the perceived sinfulness of human nature? How significant is the assertion of one nun quoted in the report that “we were institutionalised too”?

How were nuns affected, positively and negatively, by class snobbery and their role in providing what Enda Kenny referred to as a “solid public apparatus” to take the place of personal scruples? How were they affected by the abrogation of State responsibility in a host of areas? How effective and efficient were they as administrators and businesswomen?

The truth is that as a society, we have little grasp on the multilayered history of nuns in Ireland in the period the McAleese report covers (1922-1996). In 1987, historian Caitríona Clear broke new ground in writing the book Nuns in Nineteenth Century Ireland , in which she presented the religious vocation as “the only area” in which there was a career open to talented Irish women. She traced the relationship of nuns to male religious superiors, and examined their social background and the enormous contribution they made to the teaching and nursing professions. Crucially, her book located the nuns in the overall context of womens’ roles in 19th century Irish life.

We now need the equivalent done for the experience of nuns in the 20th century. There were just over 8,000 nuns in Ireland in 35 religious orders and 368 convents at the outset of that century, and as late as 1989 there were more than 11,000 women in 128 religious congregations. That suggests there is an enormous history awaiting research and analysis.

‘Pawns in the struggle’
In the mid 1990s, UCD historian and Dominican nun Margaret MacCurtain, who did so much to pioneer the study of women’s history from the 1970s onwards, made the point that “the nuns’ story is integral to the history of women in 20th century Ireland . . . as a category nuns provide a map to guide the ignorant through the unexamined landscape of where and how women occupied the religious, cultural and economic space assigned to them in 20th century Ireland . . . There is a puzzling complexity about the place they occupy . . . powerful as negotiating tools in the State’s educational and welfare plans, south and north, they became in reality pawns in the struggle for control between church and State, between bishops and departments of government. Why that came about is largely unexplored . . . we need to hear the voices of women religious.”

It would be very valuable to all concerned with historical accuracy if publication of the McAleese report and the voices of nuns and other interested parties advanced that necessary exploration in place of cartoon history built around the notion of nuns as simply ogres in their convent dens.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD