Irish Women and the Creation of Modern Catholicism is the only book-length study of lay Catholic women in modern Irish history. Focusing on the pivotal century from 1850 to 1950, it analyses the roles that middle-class, working-class, and rural poor lay women played in the evolution of Irish Catholicism and thus the creation of modern Irish identities. This project demonstrates that in an age of Church growth and renewal stretching from the aftermath of the Great Famine through the early years of the Irish Republic, lay women were essential to all aspects of Catholic devotional life, including both home-based religion and public Catholic rituals. It also reveals that women, by rejecting, negotiating, and reworking Church dictates, complicated Church and clerical authority. Irish Women and the Creation of Modern Catholicism re-evaluates the relationship between the institutional Church, the clergy, and women, positioning lay Catholic women as central actors in the making of modern Ireland. It also contests views that the increasing power of the Catholic Church caused a uniform decline in Irish women’s status after the Great Famine of the 1840s, revealing that middle-class, working-class, and rural poor lay women fought with their priests, dominated household religion, and led parish rituals, thus proving integral to the development of a modern Irish Catholic ethos and culture.
. The story of modern IrishCatholicism
and lay women therefore is complex, marked by losses and gains. The
complexity is increased still further because the changes documented
by first-hand accounts of IrishCatholicism existed alongside
remarkable continuities. From the desolation of the famine years right
through the first few decades of independence, Catholicism was central
to women’s ordinary daily lives, and women actively participated in
devotional life and the creation of their religious identities.
The role that Catholicism has played in creating modern
leaders in education and philanthropy. As this book has argued,
Catholicism was not a uniformly oppressive and disempowering force
for lay women, and it was not dominated exclusively by the male
Through an examination of Irish Catholic lay women’s lives and
actions from the famine era to the middle of the twentieth century, this
book set out to illuminate a topic that has been virtually ignored in the
historiography not only of IrishCatholicism but also of Irish women’s
history. It also sought to disrupt the overly simplistic interpretations of
-century Irish girls.
Hyland’s narrative also raises questions about the ways in which girls
experienced their Catholic childhoods, a topic understudied in both
Irish women’s history and the history of IrishCatholicism.
Through an analysis of women’s life-writings, including diaries, oral
histories, autobiographies, and memoirs, this chapter explores the
realities of growing up Catholic and female from 1850 to 1950, with
a particular focus on the first half of the twentieth century. At this
time, religion served as the major influence in Irish girls
century, the popular Margaret Cusack, nun of Kenmare, translated
devotional works, wrote histories of IrishCatholicism, composed autobiographical works, and published novels.125 Cusack’s writings paid
particular attention to the proper responsibilities of women and girls.
In Woman’s Work in Modern Society (1874), she focused on the roles
that mothers played in their daughters’ moral and religious education.
If Catholic mothers did not focus their attention on preparing their
girls for salvation, she argued, the results would be disastrous
accompany their wives’, writes Taylor, ‘but it was
almost always the woman who was represented as the instigator’.9 As
Taylor suggests, Marian apparitions were essential to the creation of a
modern feminised IrishCatholicism. Through Marianism, Irish women
emerged as central actors in popular religion.
By the mid-nineteenth century, a uniquely Irish devotion to the
Virgin Mary was flourishing. Irish Catholics, for example, celebrated
May as Mary’s month. Each May, ordinary Catholics decorated Marian
shrines, and pilgrims to these shrines made their way through towns
in childbirth. And she too defied a patriarchal authority: in this case,
the doctor. When faced with difficulties such as childbirth, Irish women
blended Catholic practice into their vernacular customs, making IrishCatholicism more tangible and tactile in the process, and aligning it
with much older systems of belief.
gender and space
Throughout the nineteenth century and into the first decades of the
twentieth century, popular views decreed that pregnancy and childbirth not only left women open to danger but also left their bodies
polluted. New mothers
of modern IrishCatholicism.
In their petitions to their religious superiors, lay Catholic women
often referred to their relationships with their parish priests and
curates.3 This correspondence thus provides a window onto both
women’s agency as letter-writers and petitioners and the complex
relationship between women and the clergy from 1850 to 1950.4 For
some women, in an age of Church revival and renewal, the priest came
to represent a caring and trustworthy authority figure, even a confidant.
The relationship between women and priests, however, was contested
modern phenomenon of
the single-family home and the nuclear family. In his view, the home
became, by the late nineteenth century, the ‘fundamental unit of
culture’ and thus the primary site of religious consumption.25
Acquiring devotional items for the home was a primary duty of
Irish wives and mothers. Thus modern IrishCatholicism, with its
visual and material culture, was deeply wedded to commercialisation
and consumerism. Indeed, the rise of the middle classes in Ireland, as
elsewhere, was accompanied by ‘the rise of commodity culture’.26 In
Lisa Godson’s analysis