Enclosures and Exiles
Faced with these names, my own country and the international complex to which it belongs, I find myself immediately reverting to a question I’ve sometimes been asked, and which may not seem at first to have a connection: why have I written so many poems about nuns and convents? No answer seems entirely adequate, but let me try to answer in terms of my own experience, of an Irish person travelling inside the history that we share.
Ireland and Europe: these are categories that overlap and are transparent, like the tracing paper of my schooldays. Ireland is part of Europe, and also part of ‘Europe’, a political entity and an emerging legal and financial system. This island plays a part also in a historical and cultural and religious pattern: of developments, divisions, exile, translation; and for me these implications constitute the most poignant meaning of the juxtaposition with the Continent. I don’t know which strikes me more forcefully, the three Irish assassins who made the journey to Protestant Switzerland in 1664 to murder Sir John Lisle, a refugee because he had signed the death warrant of Charles I, or the poet Pádraigín Haicéad, probably in Leuven around 1650, enraged by a rule that friars were no longer to write verses or songs.[i] At least the assassins, Cotter, Riordan and Crilly, were paid by the government in London.
Like many Irish people of my age, I first encountered the idea of Europe as not-England. Although my first English experience was very brief, a couple of nights on my way to the Continent with my parents, it offered the outlines of a structure of difference. Here was a place where people spoke English with a strange accent, drove on the left but had signposts in only one language, where the food was bad and the pubs were shut. I was twelve; it was 1955. War damage was still very visible. The only monument we paused to visit was Gloucester jail; my mother wanted to see it because her father had been imprisoned there in 1918-19, as a member of the Executive Council of Sinn Féin. We crossed from Dover to Calais where the war damage was much worse, but the food in the convent where we visited my father’s sister was delicious, and it was offered with ceremony that was French but also familiar.
So, clearly, Europe for me has meant Catholic Europe, later to some extent republican Europe, the tradition linking Machiavelli to Mazzini. Convents were a large part of my youth; I had aunts whose sojourns at different periods dotted the map of France and Belgium, and of course I went to a convent school. I was well up on the differences between enclosed and open convents, between the contemplatives and the active, though not aware until much later of other historical gaps and connections. Life in religion appeared a natural choice to girls of the period – a period that in fact was just about to end. That first European holiday included a couple of days in a convent near Tournai where another aunt was Mother Superior; a few weeks after that, my mother fell getting off a ferry from Ischia to Naples, got concussion and was whisked off to a hospital run by Irish nuns. A couple of days later we were in Rome, and when my father’s mosquito bites flared up alarmingly; we found ourselves at the Calvary Hospital in Via S. Stefano Rotondo, also staffed by Irish nuns (though their order had been founded in England). It was in their parlour, in the heavy Roman heat, that I first tasted Coca-Cola.
Exile and religious allegiance were intertwined, and for me the link with women’s history, and with women’s arts of living, has been a long-term source of fascination. Although the nuns I knew lived in a female community, their work brought them into contact with men, and they knew how to cultivate connections that were useful to that work, as well of course as relying on, and finding solace in, family relationships. In Irish society some men were resentful of them because of their renunciation of sex, others were comfortable. I think now of two quite different men, both poets, how they spoke to me of the place of the convent in their aesthetic experience, the ‘warmth’ of religious services in a small-town chapel in Kerry, the exotic air of processions around convent grounds in a poor part of Cork city. Something they remembered from childhood, that they would not have experienced otherwise, a gift to the world from the sisters who lived both in and out of it.
The aesthetics of convent chapels could be demanding. When an aunt died in the 1990s I made the mistake of sending flowers to put on her coffin. I was unable to attend the funeral in the convent where she died, but my husband got there and said there was no sign of the flowers. They had undoubtedly been diverted, on the orders of yet another aunt, a nun, to the High Altar. The last of the lay aunts died four years later and I made sure to bring the flowers myself; the surviving nun said sadly ‘Beautiful – they must have been expensive.’ Much more beautiful, slightly sinister, and lasting, are the Harry Clarke stained-glass windows of the Presentation Convent chapel in Dingle, Co. Kerry. The recently-restored Oratory of the Sacred Heart in Dun Laoghaire, painted by a nun, Sister Concepta, over sixteen years, has a wildness and elaboration, of detail and colour, that speak to the human need for extravagance, the basis for high art.[ii] From the stunning Correggio frescoes in the Abbess’s chamber in the monastery of San Paolo in Parma, to the cruder depiction of St Patrick’s Purgatory in the chapterhouse of the Poor Clares in Todi,[iii] I recognise a continuity with those Irish chapels, as places where mental adventures are licensed to begin.
The sheer naturalness, or so it seemed, of the place that convents occupied in Irish life was replicated in Europe. A ballad, perhaps in part ironic, celebrates the midland town of Mullingar, its barracks, railway station, and “Five schools, a nunnery and a thriving tannery”. Travelling in recent years with my own family, I discovered that my husband and son had perfected routines to distract me when they saw that I was about to surrender to the fascination of ecclesiastical architecture in Italy; but in spite of them I became expert in spotting just where in a town one might find the high walls and the suspiciously curved upper storeys that betrayed the presence of a convent. A poem “The Cloister of Bones” was written about this skill. It ends, “If I guess right I hope for / a runner of garden, the right length / for taking a prayerbook for a walk, / a small stitching of cemetery ground, / strict festivals, an hour for the tremble / of women’s laughter, corners for mile-high panics: // and to find the meaning of the Women’s Christmas.”[iv]
In other poems over five decades I have revisited the space of convents and the life lived there. However it took me a while to realise the historical factors that determined these lives, these places, in both Ireland and Europe. Research on the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century led me to Tridentine codes which aimed to segregate nuns from the life surrounding them. But the letters of Galileo’s daughter, a Poor Clare sister, show her firmly on her father’s side in his encounter with the Vatican, and engaging in business deals on his behalf, as well as more womanly work of preserving fruit and embroidering linen for her brother.[v]
Nuns had to be competent as they moved between Ireland and Europe in response to the waves of war and prejudice. Convents were illegal in Ireland after the Williamite wars of the late seventeenth century. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, expelled from France and Germany, threatened in Spain with compulsory ‘elevation to motherhood’, nuns, the French orders especially, flourished in Ireland as the Catholic majority was gradually released from the exclusions and disqualifications of the Penal Laws and Ireland moved towards political independence.
While all Catholic nuns were expelled in theory from Irish soil under the penal legislation of 1697, small groups did exist in various towns a few decades later. What strikes me now is the phraseology used to describe them. “Mrs Bellew’s family in Channel Row” was a Dublin convent of Dominican nuns who educated the daughters of Catholic nobility and gentry and had a fine chapel with an organ; the naming of them in terms that concealed their real identity suggests a deliberate blurring of a lens. Their records were kept in language which if they had been arraigned in court gave no evidence against them. An attempted prosecution failed, perhaps because of the influence of the Duchess of Tyrconnell, or because, in the words of the Dominican historian Sister Mary Genevieve, “[some] say it was found, to the dismay of the officials, that the laws invoked against them did not apply to women.”[vi] It’s as if the newly Anglicised government had difficulty in perceiving Catholic women, but could pin down rank: “Mrs Bellew” is a gentlewoman; a Duchess (although a Papist widow, and poor) is a Duchess.
In Cork city in 1775, the Protestant establishment was alarmed by the presence of a group of Ursuline nuns “brought in from the continent;” though they were in fact Irish women, they had passed their novitiate in Paris. A Protestant banker, ex-sheriff and later mayor of the city, Francis Carleton, reframed the situation: “no threat was hidden in the meeting of some pious ladies, who chose to live together, say their beads and drink tea.”[vii] The Ursulines tartly recorded that they did not in fact drink tea, but the tea was important in Carleton’s reimagining; it was connected with the familiar stereotype of women’s meetings being given up to harmless gossip. “Pious ladies” saying their beads again suggested the weakness of the female brain, in thrall to custom, rather than theological aggression. It was local, not continental. These old dames could safely be left to teach catechism to children. The remarkable energy of Miss Nano Nagle, the lay woman who had imported the nuns, who founded a separate order to educate the poor, and who successfully circumvented the Catholic male clergy’s attempt to control her, was decently obscured. A masculine society, which no longer wished to lock women away, but was uneasy when they showed signs of original enterprise, had to be constantly placated. Ironically, nuns in Ireland ended up freer than in Europe from ecclesiastical control.
All this intercourse and exchange takes place in the context of urban life. Early Irish Christianity was clustered around monasteries, hermitages, holy wells; the internationalising, mobile culture of the convents I knew belonged to the history of cities. Jerusalem, Damascus, Taranto, Leuven – their histories of permanence and catastrophe, of expulsions, takeovers, siege and sack, of rock-deep persistence, of shifting borders, language change and ancient strata of worship, are the frame. Beggarly half-naked children swarm in their streets, contemplation flourishes behind their high walls, men squabble in council chambers, and women of vision insist on moving between street and cloister. Exile evolves to reinvention, even the appropriation of an ancient place: the church of San Clemente in Rome, home of the Irish Dominican priests, is a medieval basilica which overlies a fourth-century Christian church, in turn built on top of a Mithraic temple. The women never got anything as solid as that; rather, they shifted, barely visible at some times, then resurfacing. Their lives are for me one of the most interesting elements of the Irish relationship with Europe.
[i] Brian Ó Cuív, ‘James Cotter, a Seventeenth-Century Agent of the Crown’, in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 89:2 (1959), 135-159; Pádraigín Haicéad, ‘Do chuala inné’ in Sean Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella (eds), An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed (Mountrath: Dolmen, 1981), 92-93.
[ii] David Gunning, Nigel Curtin and Marian Thérèse Keyes (eds)., Divine Illumination: The Oratory of the Sacred Heart, Dún Laoghaire (Dublin: New Island, 2019).
[iii] Noel Mac Tréinfhir, ‘The Todi Fresco and St. Patrick's Purgatory, Lough Derg’, in Clogher Record 12:2 (1986), 141–158.
[iv] Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Selected Poems (London: Faber, 2008), 95.
[v] Dava Sobel (translator) To Father: The Letters of Sister Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623-1633 (New York: Walker, 1997).
[vi] Sister Mary Genevieve, ‘Mrs. Bellew's Family in Channel Row’, in Dublin Historical Record, 22:3 (1968), 230–241; 233.
[vii] T.J. Walsh, Nano Nagle and the Presentation Sisters (Dublin: Gill, 1959), 84-85.