A new book sees nuns reflect on their life-changing decision and how it affected them. Michael Clifford met the author, herself a former nun
“IN my leaving certificate year I was sitting at the back of the class with Brid, who is now also an old nun like myself, and she told me she was entering the convent and she said: ‘I think you should go too.’
What did I do? I made a novena, nine days, a Mass novena, and, during the novena, I was hoping the priest wouldn’t come one of the days so that I would break it, but, mind you, he came every day. I decided to enter.
“There was more than that. At the back of my head, I was worried about the family. How would they struggle with life? I felt that perhaps if I did something, a sacrifice, get nearer to Christ, he would bless them. Nobody in the house knew. I’m just saying it now.”
On such a premise, Nora entered the nuns some 70 years ago. She made a covenant with God. She’d give her life over to the church and He’d bless her family. All would be well in this world, and everybody close to her sorted for the next.
Nora is a pseudonym for a woman who is now living out her life in a convent. She is one of 10 nuns who were interviewed for an arresting book that is destined to take its place as a historical document of religious life in the 20th century in this country. It represents the first time that a number of serving nuns have reflected on their calling, their lives in service, the good, the bad and the ugly about the system in which they served, and its role in shaping the State.
Camillus Metcalfe is the author to whom these women opened up. Her background as a psychoanalyst probably helped, but her main point of access is her former life as a nun herself. In 2005, she left the midlands convent to which she had been attached for 40 years. Her tome, For God’s Sake, The Hidden Life of Irish Nuns, is the product of her pursuit of a Phd.
Between the lines of the first-person testimony it becomes obvious that many of these women were reflecting for the first time on their lives.
On the cusp of adulthood, they had entered a world where feelings were to be suppressed, obedience a way of life, and reflections confined to prayer. And here they are, leafing through life’s back pages, some content; others, like “Clare”, musing over a world where the certainties of her youth disappeared into thin air.
“The spirit that motivated the early sisters to work for the poor seemed to disappear and we became established, and it all became automatic and you worked on autopilot... Now, I think there are a lot of unfilled lives,” she said.
“There was status then, but there’s not now... For the people in charge now it’s more management of a dying structure than leading a vibrant group and, yet, sometimes when you get a group together at a big meeting you say there is great life yet. My final words: ‘If there is no God, I’ll be rightly stuck’.”
The life choices taken by many who entered orders in the early and middle decades of the last century must seem to be from an alien planet for today’s young women. The notion of a “calling” from God was liberally interpreted. Joining the nuns was as much a career choice as anything else, in a country where women had few real choices.
For others, there was an element of entering the family business. Only the youngest of the 10 interviewees didn’t have a close relation in a convent when they entered.
It was a popular choice. In 1800, there were just 200 nuns in Ireland. By the beginning of the 20th century this had ballooned to 9,000, and by the mid-1960s, the number had grown to 16,000.
“There’s wasn’t much going for women at the time,” Camillus Metcalfe says. “And everybody who went into a convent had professional status, according to the state. It didn’t matter what you were doing in the convent, even if you were just filling in a form. From the outside, everybody in there had professional status. The inside was different.”
Mainly, the inside consisted of hard work, and obedience. One of the nuns was based two miles from her home, but wasn’t allowed home for her father’s funeral.
A photograph of her father laid out was sent to another sister, who was serving in a convent in England. Behind the convent walls, there was a strict hierarchical structure.
“At dinner, you had the superiors at the top table, then the senior sisters, then the ordinary, then the novices,” Metcalfe says. “The lay sisters never ate in the community. They had to dine separately.”
The lay sisters were effectively second-class sisters. They tended to be uneducated and poor. In the early decades of the last century, nuns brought a dowry to the Church. For those who had neither education nor money, the point of entry was as a lay sister.
For the older nuns, Vatican II in the 1960s changed everything. No longer were they blessed with special powers.
“Before that, you were special,” Metcalfe explains. “You would get to heaven and you would bring anybody you prayed along with you. Your vow of chastity was special. It singled you out.
“After Vatican II, you were a lay person, so you lost that function of a mediator with God. You no longer has a special line to heaven.”
The new regime under Vatican II cast a long shadow across convents, but worse was to come with the revelations of the Ryan Report into abuse in industrial schools.
For Camillus Metcalfe, the dynamics that saw some nuns turning cruel had all to do with power. Many of those who were involved in the industrial schools were drawn from the army of lay sisters, who knew their place within the convent walls.
“It was all about power, and this is another reason why things went so wrong. People were powerless in convents, and then when they got out they were powerful. If you were at the bottom rung in the convent and nobody had much regard for you and you were treated differently from everybody, else and then you were out and were dealing with kids, cast-outs from society, you were powerful and could use you power. And disturbed children are going to evoke all kinds of things in you and if you can’t manage that, well.” She lets the sentence trail off.
She doesn’t seek to excuse any of the abuse that occurred, but feels that it must be put in context. The nuns at the frontline were carrying plenty of baggage.
Now, as many of them reflect on what stones of history have been upturned, the lives damaged, what was believed to be a higher calling sullied, many of those who were not involved in any of the abuse feel their own pain.
“People must be very hurt because all their good work now seems like bad work. Most if not all of them worked very hard.
“But the biggest thing, this idea of no friendship and this woman [one of the interviewees] who says no feelings. You can’t have no feelings, but then you are not able to empathise and you can be cruel and it doesn’t affect you.”
Metcalfe was particularly taken by the sadness that seemed to settle over the women as they reflected on the lives they had led, the choices taken.
“Was it regret? I don’t know. The sadness was a complete surprise to me. I never picked up on it when I was living there. The real sadness came to them in looking back. I don’t think they had ever done it before. I don’t know if it was regret.”
For her own part, Metcalfe says she has no regrets. None about entering the convent, and none about leaving when she did.
Her professional calling of psychoanalysis has probably helped her along the way.
Does she believe that her own contentment after 40 years in the convent is typical or atypical of many of her former sisters. After a pause for consideration, she replies in a quiet voice, as if reluctantly spilling a secret: “Atypical.”
For God’s Sake. The Hidden Life of Irish Nuns by Camillus Metcalfe is published by The Liffey Press
“Mary Rose was instrumental in getting me to go to her convent. She was a novice there and she came from our village.
I had letter after letter from her say, ‘Please come and join us’. I hadn’t a notion of joining these sisters, not a notion in the wide world. In the heel of the hunt I entered there. Why I don’t know why?”
“You got your white veil at reception and at first profession you were given a black veil. The clothing of the day was extremely heavy… it was a miracle a lot of people didn’t die of heat, especially in the summer. The clothes were no lighter in the summer than they were in winter. So that was that.”
“In convents, in religious life, you were treated as a child. There was a great respect for the superior and you were kept more as a child.
“The call was at twenty to six and you had to be down for Morning Prayer at five to six, and if you were late you did a penance. You had to go out in front of everyone, kiss the floor and say you were sorry for being late.”
“The women were not paid for their work and the nuns were also working down there in the laundry. Some of these nuns who worked in the laundry were not educated. I’d say the kind of abuse the Magdalenes complain about was something that maybe the rest of us were suffering too. The life they were living was very like our lives. Like them, we were often in dormitories in the novitiate with just screens between us.”
“There are little things I remember from my childhood in the late 1930s, going along the road for walks with my mother while she pointed out the flowers, my dad making little toys for us, a cheese box or a butter box with wheels on it. Now the wheels were empty thread reels and there was a bit of twine to pull it around.”
“As postulants, at 18 years of age, we were sent out to teach. The Novice Mistress said, ‘you with the frilly bonnet, Margaret, now you take the Inter Certs, teach them geography, get them honours.’ She knew that I got honours in geography. I had no teaching qualification.
“And she said, ‘you are the real thing, be cross’, and I was as cross as could be. That was the definition of a good teacher, to be as cross as could be. I kept that up for a long time, you know. Control, that was it.”
“When I entered they were putting numbers on clothes. My number was 253 and I thought, imagine, I am only a number! Well, if I feel like this after a few weeks I’m not staying here. If I have this bad feeling, or this uncomfortable feeling, I’ll know it’s not for me. Well, anyway, one morning I got up and there was no feeling and I thought, oh, this is all right. Everybody seemed to know what they were doing except me.”
“I said I wanted to do childcare, and I got what I wanted. I was sent to St Mary’s and I had a dread of St Mary’s, an absolute dread. There were kids running loose and there were places being set on fire and people were blaming the children in care and I thought this must be an awful place. There was nothing in the house… the children had broken everything. Eighteen sisters had passed through this particular house, and they didn’t stay because this house was called a madhouse. It was so chaotic. There was butter on the walls and the children used to throw things.
They used to break furniture and everything. One night when I was in bed, they were all getting up to break the furniture and I gave them all a hurley and I said, ‘Break all you want and then when we have it all broken we won’t have anything and we won’t have to worry.’
“The only way I pulled it together was doing good things with the children, doing things that they’d remember, and that might bring them round. I just settled into it and I was there for 18 years. I got great praise from the provincial as I pulled it together.”
“In those days we were doing night duty in the convent as well. We had older sisters and we had to get up to get them out to the loo at night and we did that for 13 consecutive years. We did that and we went to school the next day and we were let go to bed at seven o’clock the next evening. We got a fry for supper but that was it.
“I was still being a very good girl, keeping all the rules and regulations, tearing my hair out with frustration.”