The exceptionalism of daughters of the Irish clergymen

Daughters were expected to earn their own living. Education was a priority

It is remarkable that some of the very earliest women to graduate as doctors were the daughters of clergymen. Photograph: iStock

It is remarkable that some of the very earliest women to graduate as doctors were the daughters of clergymen. Photograph: iStock

 

At a time when religion is becoming increasingly marginalised in the education system, might there be collateral damage in terms of loss of achievement? That thought occurred to me when I finished reading two biographies – those of Peter Sutherland and Anthony Clare.

Both men drew from their Jesuit education and in particular from one Jesuit. Both men were imbued with a desire to use their talents to the utmost in a spirit of service and not just for material gain.

There may also be a link between religious commitment in the home and achievement, illustrated in a striking way by the lives of several daughters of clergymen.

A clergy background went with a home committed to caring/service. The service ethos is apparent in both professional work and in commitment to voluntary work

It is 30 years since the death of Thekla Beere, one of the outstanding women in 20th-century Ireland. It is 50 years since the establishment of the First Commission on the Status of Women which was chaired by Beere and which represented a giant step forward on the path to equality for women, beginning with equal pay for equal work.

Beere graduated from Trinity in 1923 with a first-class degree in law and won a Rockefeller scholarship to the United States where she continued her studies. On her return, she joined the civil service and in 1959 was appointed secretary of the Department of Transport and Power.

It would be 36 years before another woman became secretary of a government department when Margaret Hayes was appointed secretary of the Department of Tourism and Trade in 1995.

Three years after Beere’s death, Hilda Tweedy, in a letter to TK Whitaker, said that she might attempt a biography of Beere. She said, “I first met Thekla when I was 11 years old, just after she returned from America, having completed the Rockefeller scholarship. We shared the same background, we were both clergymen’s daughters, educated at Alexandra School and College.”

In the event Tweedy did not achieve that goal but a fine biography of Beere was written by Anna Bryson. The title No Coward Soul is drawn from Emily Bronte, herself the daughter of an Irish Anglican clergyman.

It is remarkable that some of the very earliest women to graduate as doctors were the daughters of clergymen. Emily Campbell, born in Tralee and the daughter of Rev William Chestnut, graduated from the College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.

The chief professional interest of Amelia Grogan, daughter of Rev John Grogan and a graduate of the Royal University of Ireland, was psychiatry. Katherine Maguire, daughter of Rev John Maguire, showed particular interest in the social conditions of the poor and worked in public health.

Ella Webb was the daughter of the dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Webb graduated with first place from the old Catholic University in Cecilia Street in 1904. Kathleen Lynn, the pioneering doctor who founded St Ultan’s hospital for children, was also the daughter of a clergyman. And there were more.

Many other clergy daughters were successful in a range of areas from literature to law. Louie Rickard was a novelist; Helen Waddell and Maude Clarke, graduates of Queen’s university, were academics.

Outside Ireland two clergy daughters who became leaders of their country are Angela Merkel, daughter of an evangelical pastor, and Theresa May, daughter of a Church of England clergyman.

Catherine McGuinness, a judge of the Supreme Court as well as Senator for Dublin University and also a clergy daughter, has some interesting observations regarding the achievement of these women.

In a way many priest-teachers were father figures and mentors who helped students to realise their talents

She says that clergy households were not particularly well-off. Daughters were expected to earn their own living. Education was a priority and in Ireland opportunities were available through the Clergy Daughters School at Alexandra College, sometimes followed by scholarships to Trinity.

Emphasis on bible study inculcated habits of study from an early age. A clergy background went with a home committed to caring/service. The service ethos is apparent in both professional work and in commitment to voluntary work.

For example, Beere was active in An Óige which she co-founded, while Tweedy co-founded the Irish Housewives’ Association, a voluntary association of women working in the home.

Among Catholics the nearest one that comes to a clergy daughter is clergy niece. Reading Máire Cruise O’Brien’s autobiography, the importance of her clerical uncles, especially uncle Paddy, is striking.

In a way many priest-teachers were father figures and mentors who helped students to realise their talents. Paradoxically, it may be that when religion is minimised, so is achievement, at least for some.

Dr Finola Kennedy is an economist and author of the 2011 biography Frank Duff: A Life Story

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