At the beginning of June, I made my way to Galway for the Historians of Women Religious in Britain and Ireland conference, organised by Dr Bronagh McShane and Professor Marie-Louise Coolahan. The theme was ‘Space, Place and Women Religious’ and the Irish diaspora had a large presence in the proceedings, not just in subject focus but also in where the presenters were based. Women religious (the catch-all term for female members of religious orders – we use the term because of the historic hierarchies and separations between sisters and nuns, those who work and engage with the wider world, those who focus on prayer and isolation, and those who did housekeeping work within a convent) played a central role in the Irish diaspora, particularly in the century after the Famine. They were and are teachers, nurses, doctors, activists, carers. Irish women religious often created the social support systems that Irish migrant communities relied upon. Before the Famine, these women were transcribers, interpreters and smugglers, as well as nurses. However, too often they have been ignored in mainstream histories of the Irish diaspora. The knowledge of these women who played such a vital role in Irish diaspora history remains in religious history. The H-WRBI conference and the #nuntastic hashtag on Twitter helps to bring their histories into the mainstream and create interdisciplinary conversations.
The conference was wide ranging, so this review will focus on the papers that directly addressed Irish diasporic communities and then widen it to consider some of the big questions which emerged. A number of nuns did attend the conference, and gave fascinating papers, but the theme that kept coming up was the international nature of their training in the 1950s and 1960s. A number of the sisters who attended and who had been based in Ireland for most of their lives, also did stints in the United States, attending American universities in order to improve their teacher training or to carry out work there. Sr Alberta Ní Mhaolalaidh, based at the Dominican Convent in Galway, joined other attendees in speaking of her sisters and cousins who migrated from Ireland, both as families and as members of religious communities.
Catriona Delaney’s paper on the Irish Presentation Sisters explored how the Irish origins of the community influenced convent schooling around the world. It was a fascinating paper which considered how religious orders tried to maintain consistency in their teaching regardless of where they were based. These themes were picked up in the ‘Nuns and Education in America and Ireland’ panel where Sophie Cooper explored the Irish Sisters of Mercy’s teaching philosophy and how that was translated in Chicago during the 1890s. Cooper’s paper studied girls’ schools and the magazines that the girls produced under the guidance of Irish Sisters of Mercy (featured image) and within the wider context of labour, teaching, and religious activism by Irish and Irish-American women. This theme of religious activism and the promotion of women’s actions was continued throughout the whole conference.
Taking us back to the seventeenth century, John McCafferty explored some of the stories of women religious forced to leave Ireland after the Reformation. One of the themes that came up in McCafferty’s paper on ‘The Place of Female Religious Life in the Writings of Seventeenth Century Irish Capuchins’ was exactly that – the erasure of women religious from male writings. The place of Irish women religious in the world and in the record was also the focus of Edel Robinson’s paper on the Franciscan Missionaries of Divine Motherhood (FMDM) – trained medical professionals, focusing on Mother Francis Spring, missionary and film maker. Robinson’s paper argued that missionary films are overlooked as part of non-theatrical film history, but they were important parts of missionary and film life until 1993. You can find many of these films stored in the Irish Film Institute in Dublin.
Thanks to the organisers for all their hard work!
Dr Sophie Cooper is a historian of Irish diasporic communities in Melbourne and Chicago during the nineteenth century. Her work emphasises the importance of considering women in creating and sustaining Irish ethnic identity abroad, and a key element of this research is looking at Irish women religious and their roles as teachers and nurses. You can contact Sophie through this website or on Twitter @SophcoCooper.