devotional items including the rosary beads so beloved by Dublin’s
mothers in the 1940s and 1950s.
Notably, lay Irish women played important yet understudied roles
in the Church from 1850 to 1950. Women dominated daily lived
religion and challenged the established patriarchy through their traditional socially constructed gender roles: church-goers, managers of the
holy household, moral-imparting mothers, consumers and creators of
devotional culture, correspondents, gossipers, philanthropists and
activists, and community members. Amidst enormous political
7 Over time, Rome became more tolerant of simple-vowed women religious, and
in Quamvis justo (1749) congregations were given legitimate and juridical
authority although their members were not considered ‘true nuns’.
8 Catherine C. Darcy RSM, The Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas:
The Canonical Development of the Proposed Governance Model (Lanham:
University Press of America, 1993), p. 23.
9 Nicholas Atkin, The Politics of Legality: The Religious Orders in France, 1901–
45’, in Frank Tallett and Nicholas Atkin, eds, Religion, Society and
– books and
periodicals – to read. And by this time, Catholicism had become solidified as the central focus of girls’ lives and education. As part of their
religious education, Irish girls absorbed the vast prescriptive literature
of the era.
The conduct literature of Catholic commentators in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, did not represent a
simple or uniform patriarchy. The messages involved were complex,
reflecting anxieties about lay women’s real-world roles. Whereas
Church leaders, public political figures, and much of Ireland’s print
reveals, is that Irish women – rural and urban, lower-class and
middle-class, and across a century of unprecedented political and
economic change – were consistently active in the creation of modern
Catholicism, emerging, in the process, not as mere symbols but also
key contributors to the family, community, faith, and future.
1 Eamonn McKee, ‘Church-state relations and the development of Irish
health policy: the Mother-and-Child Scheme, 1944–1953’, Irish
Historical Studies 25: 98 (1986), p. 171.
2 Letter from Catholic hierarchy to the
religious of the nineteenth
century have yet to be written.
Jo Ann Kay McNamara, Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia
(London: Harvard University Press, 1996).
The penal laws were a series of legislation issued after the English Reformation
and directed against Roman Catholics that penalised, both politically and
economically, those who practised the Catholic faith.
of the penal laws was not so easily forgotten by Catholics, and Protestant
attitudes towards Catholics and Catholicism were not easily altered. The
zeal for education, and trained numbers of the teachers under the New
System’.26 In 1852, the Catholic Poor School Committee began subsidising
the teacher training school run there.27 The Sisters of Charity of St Paul the
Apostle designated their Selly Park novitiate as the house of studies. Teacher
24 J.L. Altholtz, The Political Behaviour of English Catholics, 1850–67’, Journal of
British Studies, 4 (1964), 89–103 (p. 92). The Committee of the Privy Council
became the Department of Education in 1856.
25 John P. Marmion, ‘The Beginnings of the Catholic Poor
. According to Elizabeth Rapley, the French
aristocratic elite ‘accepted the principle of active religious life for women, on
the understanding that their own daughters would not be affected’. These
daughters entered the older, higher-status contemplative orders. Their status
as nuns was higher than that of the active, simple-vowed sisters; they were
not a part of the movement of the filles séculières.10 This type of class
8 Claire Walker, Gender and Politics in Seventeenth-Century English Convents:
English Convents in France and the Low Countries (Basingstoke: Palgrave
Whatever the doctor will say,’ said Neil Pheig, ‘I will not be here
looking at her in the distress she is in; I will loosen the bindings.’
She undid them, and she got a scapular of a woman that was
there, and she placed it on the woman in labour, and without
much delay the child was born.38
This narrative demonstrates how continuities sometimes characterised
Irish women’s lives even across a century of enormous political and
economic change. Just as O’Sullivan’s parishioner had in the mid-
nineteenth century, Neil Pheig utilised the scapular to protect a woman
of women religious and
their approved rule and constitutions provided the legitimisation needed to
7 Alison Milbank, ‘Josephine Butler: Christianity, Feminism and Social Action’,
in Jim Obelkevich, Lyndal Roper and Raphael Samuel, eds, Disciplines of Faith:
Studies in Religion, Politics and Patriarchy (London: Routledge, 1987), pp.
154–64 (pp. 155–6).
8 Susan Mumm, ‘“I Love my Sex”: Two Late Victorian Pulpit Women’, in
Women, Scholarship and Criticism: Gender and Knowledge c. 1790–1900, ed.
by Joan Bellamy, Anne Laurence and Gill Perry (Manchester: Manchester
Women, priests, and power
From January 1879 through December 1880, Edward McCabe, the
Catholic archbishop of Dublin, received eighty-three letters written by
lay Catholic women.1 In their letters, Dublin’s Catholic women wrote
of poverty, family, and politics. They requested McCabe’s assistance
with making ends meet and mediating neighbourly conflicts. Many
sought their archbishop’s help in negotiating their relationships with
their priests.2 These women also, however, asserted their own wishes
and desires, declaring that they were in fact central actors in the