Chapter 5 investigates women’s roles in devotional places and spaces. This was an age in which Catholic officials urged that women’s roles be essentially domestic and private and when, increasingly, women’s bodies were contained and controlled in disciplined spaces, including the Catholic chapel. Still, women resisted the civilising mission of the ‘devotional revolution’ by maintaining their commitment to vernacular landscapes and traditions. They also made themselves essential to the construction and upkeep of newly built chapels and became the main congregants at the chapel-mass. By demanding a central place in religious spaces, women complicated the divide between private and public and challenged the patriarchal consensus.
Chapter 4 offers a case study of the Irish Catholic home and material culture. This chapter looks further at religious iconography and Catholic artefacts. Exploring gender and consumption, it reveals that the growing power of home-based Catholicism depended on women’s consumerism and financial management. It also examines the central roles that mothers and grandmothers played in household devotions and prayers. The ways in which Irish women shaped religious experiences for themselves and their families during several key moments, such as the rosary and the station-mass, show how lay women created and maintained Catholic households and thus ensured the future of the Catholic nation.
Most historians of Catholicism have either ignored women or focused on the ways in which the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Church curtailed Irish women’s freedoms and opportunities. The Introduction to Irish Women and the Creation of Modern Catholicism suggests a different reality, establishing lay Irish Catholic women as actors, not observers or victims. It also examines the existing literature on women and Catholicism in Irish history, a literature that is scarce and suffers from the authors’ assumptions that Catholicism disempowered women. Lastly, the Introduction explains the research that has made this book possible and assesses the records that the author examined from archives in Ireland.
Catholic memoirists and diarists from the 1850s through the late twentieth century affirmed their affection and awe for their mothers, whom they depicted as self-sacrificing and martyr-like. In recent decades, however, scholars have assigned to the Irish mother a more sinister role, indicting her for colluding with priests and thus helping to instil a repressive and damaging Catholicism in future generations. Chapter 3, ‘The Irish Catholic mother’, debunks the martyr/villain trope through a detailed analysis of Irish Catholic motherhood. It compares constructions of motherhood (both contemporary and scholarly) with mothers’ real-life experiences. Mothers’ own words, particularly evident in their letters to bishops, demonstrate that they did not always work in tandem with the Catholic clergy but frequently negotiated the authority of clerics. Women asserted their autonomy within the home and over their children even as they made use of their status as mothers to demand that priests and bishops respond to their needs and wants.
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.
Chapter 1 analyses the construction of nineteenth- and twentieth-century lay Irish Catholic womanhood. It demonstrates that women and girls were bombarded with messages on Catholic womanhood from an early age and reveals that the Church hierarchy’s sustained and determined attempts to define the ideal woman were linked to not only the evolution of Catholicism but also to the creation of the modern Irish nation. Chapter 1 also exposes the ideal as pervasive but essentially fragile. It demonstrates that constructions of Irish womanhood sometimes were more wishful thinking than reflective of reality and, in fact, demonstrated deep-seated anxieties about the changing roles of women in the modern world. Women themselves, meanwhile, through their writings and consumerism, did much to fashion and, in some cases, contest the Catholic model of womanhood.
Chapter 6 illuminates the relationship between lay Catholic women and priests. This chapter demonstrates that the relationship between priests and women was one of both closeness and conflict. Interactions between women and priests were complex, often defined by struggles for power and influence. Priests and lay women denounced each other at mass; meanwhile, women used oral traditions and legends in rural areas to poke fun at their priests and undermine clerical authority. By writing letters to bishops and priests in which they complained about their own parish priests’ behaviour, literate women used their words to challenge the authority of the priest.
This chapter analyses some of the issues surrounding the identity of women religious and their authority and governance. It examines the source and nature of the authority that congregations and women religious wielded in the public sphere. Almost three-quarters of the simple-vowed congregations that made foundations in England in the nineteenth century were pontifical rite. Susan O'Brien hailed this papal form of government an 'important innovation' as it allowed a female superior general to receive her authority directly from Rome. Many bishops supported the authority of women religious to manage their congregations. In some narratives, it is the collaboration of bishops and mother superiors that resounds through the texts. Women religious, however, faced with intransigent bishops or clergy, used the tools at their disposal to manage episcopal and clerical authority.
The Catholic Truth Society published many histories of women religious and religious institutes in the nineteenth century. This chapter examines the expansion of these religious institutes, paying special attention to the growth of simple-vowed congregations in England. Monasticism survived after the Reformation in England but evolved in a unique manner owing to Henry VIII's formation of the Ecclesia Anglicana with himself at its head. The growth of the numbers of women entering religious life in England was influenced by a variety of factors, but one was pivotal: women were attracted to religious life. As Susan O'Brien has established, the initial migration of women's orders from the continent marks the beginning of a new phase in the history of religious life in Britain. The next phase of religious life in England began in 1830, with the arrival of the first of the 'modern orders', the Faithful Companions of Jesus.
This chapter examines how the family metaphor was utilised by women's congregations and adjusted to mould the behaviour and attitudes of women religious. The family metaphor was useful and perhaps even lived in some convents, but as congregations grew, the more useful tool used to assimilate a disparate group of women was a corporate identity. As missionary entities, women's congregations expanded from their origins on the continent and in England and Ireland, to North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Africa. Particular friendships were discouraged because congregation leaders believed they could presage the denouement of religious life on an individual and, more detrimentally, a corporate level. Although particular friendships were taboo, camaraderie and merriment did have their place in the convent. The pattern of convent expansion suggests that there was limited competition with regard to convent locations as the needs of Catholics in England were so great.