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Women Religious: Why Did So Many Women Become Nuns in 19th Century Ireland?

Updated on August 1, 2012
Nun of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, from L. Cibrario, ''Descrizione storica degli ordini religiosi'', vol. II, Turin 1843, pp. 32-33
Nun of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, from L. Cibrario, ''Descrizione storica degli ordini religiosi'', vol. II, Turin 1843, pp. 32-33 | Source

Ireland: The Great Famine, Emigration and Changing Marriage and Inheritance Patterns

At the beginning of the 1800s, there were just over a hundred women who had taken religious vows spread across just a dozen convents in Ireland. By the end of the century, there were eight thousand women and over three hundred convents. What happened during that period to attract so many women to a life so very different from the outside world? Was the religious life such a very good one, or was it true vocation that drew them, or was it more a case that the outside world was so terrible that the decision to enter the religious life was something of a ‘Hobson’s Choice’: that there was really no alternative for these Women Religious?

In 1845 – 1852, the Great Famine in Ireland occurred when potato blight struck the crops that provided the staple food of huge swathes of the population. Disease and starvation killed an estimated one million people, and a further million emigrated. It is estimated that over the course of the nineteenth century, due to famine and emigration, Ireland’s population plummeted by up to fifty percent.

Although people from every walk of life emigrated from Ireland – to escape the ‘Great Hunger’, or to find employment, or simply in search of opportunity – changing inheritance patterns whereby only the eldest son inherited the family fortune meant that a large proportion of those who left Ireland’s shores were young ambitious men.

In general, it is thought that since this left a large amount of women with no prospect of marriage, and since in the nineteenth century women had few other opportunities, because a woman’s role was limited to home and family, convent life then became the only alternative to remaining in the confines of the parental home.

Founding Religious Orders in Early Nineteenth Century Ireland

However, whilst the above might be a reasonable explanation of why women in the later half of the century flocked to the religious life, it does not explain another curious feature of nineteenth century Ireland – that in the first half of this period many religious orders were founded by wealthy middle-class Catholic women, and these orders attracted many more wealthy women from influential families. These women had money, confidence, and a certain amount of education, so that their opportunities were not truly ‘limited’ – they had no real need of marriage, and did not have to rely on finding a husband to obtain financial security.

The Industrial Revolution, Philanthropic Women and Evangelism

As in England, during the Industrial Revolution the middle classes of Ireland expanded. Where previously wealth had been held by just a few families, suddenly there were merchant classes springing up, and with a growing wealthy population came a growing need for more professionals – more people could afford the services of a doctor, and more people could pay to have their children educated, and so the professional classes also expanded in response to demand. More urban centres meant more tradesmen, and factories and mills became a feature of towns and cities.

But for women, their opportunities were still limited. As in England, in Ireland there were few ‘suitable’ jobs for middle-class women. A woman could take no part in public life, female suffrage would not be granted until 1918 in Britain (which until 1922 included Ireland), and even then it would be limited to women of property over the age of thirty.

But many middle-class women in Ireland wished to find suitable meaningful work. With all other avenues closed to them because of their gender, many thousands took up philanthropic work: ministering to the elderly and the sick, providing education and food to the poor, and whilst they were carrying out their work they evangelised, believing that in spreading their own beliefs they were bringing salvation.

Charitable work was considered by society to be suitable work for a woman. Women were believed to be morally superior, and to be naturally nurturing and caring. Coupled to this philanthropic tendency was the perception that Catholicism was inextricable from charity. To be Christian at all was, to nineteenth century eyes, to be charitable.

And so a number of wealthy ambitious Irish women who were drawn to Catholicism, and who had no other outlet for their intelligence and enthusiasm, began to found religious orders.

In these nineteenth century convents, there were two ‘classes’ of sisters – the choir sisters, who took vows and remained in the convent for life, and the lay sisters, whose duties were domestic: lay sisters were the domestic servants of the convent, although it would be a disservice to history not to say that a great many working-class women at the time were to some degree content with that role and sought it out eagerly, in convents especially because of the ‘status’ that even menial religious life brought. Whilst abuse occurred within the convent system – and research has uncovered that the higher echelons of the convents later expressed regret and embarrassment at the hierarchical nature of the class system of ‘lay’ and ‘choir’ sisters - to overemphasise this aspect is to look at the past with ‘modern’ eyes and attitudes, and whilst lessons of tolerance and equality need to be learned from past mistakes, history should also be looked at on its own terms in order to understand more deeply.

St Finbarr's Cathedral in Cork, Ireland
St Finbarr's Cathedral in Cork, Ireland | Source

Financial Maturity of Convents: Dowries and Admittance Patterns

Choir sisters were drawn from the middle classes. To join a convent as a choir sister in the first half of the nineteenth century, the hopeful girl or woman had to pay her dowry to the order, and the minimum was a considerable sum that only the middle classes could afford.

A woman’s dowry was handed over to the convent when a woman joined the order, and this money supported her while she lived in the convent. On her death, it belonged to the convent or order. Thus over time, the religious orders founded in the first half of the century accumulated large sums of money, and became wealthy by the second half of the century. At the same time as the orders were reaching financial maturity, the events of the Great Famine and changing inheritance patterns was severely restricting the marriage opportunities of many women in Ireland. This meant two things: that the convents were in a position financially to admit women with no dowry (or a greatly reduced one), and that women from much wider social backgrounds, who were facing minimal employment prospects, emigration from their homeland, or else remaining in the parental home, had another opportunity open to them – to join a convent that would provide them with a rich social life that was not the patriarchal one they faced in the outside world, and which would give them status, the opportunity to work on changing society (which was what many women of the time most dearly wished to do both out of compassion for the poor and an urge to evangelise their faith), and a framework – that of the religious order and convent they belonged to – in which they were able to exercise their ambitions by moving upwards in the hierarchy.

St Brigid of Ireland
St Brigid of Ireland | Source

Opportunities for Women Religious: Employment, Respect and Status

So why did so many women join convents in the nineteenth century in Ireland? In large part because it brought them employment, respect and status that they could not find elsewhere. Society did not have a social structure for women – men had employment, business, professions, public life, pubs, clubs, and many more opportunities to work and socialise, whereas women were expected to marry, have children and then devote their lives to raising them. For many women this was simply too constricting and limited, and a life largely free from the constraints of a male-dominated society was a very appealing one. And as the convents became wealthy in the later decades of the century and could admit more women through its doors, many more women availed themselves of the opportunities, denied to them in wider society, that a religious life offered.

For a fascinating look at the the work of nuns in nineteenth century Ireland, read Mary Peckham Magray’s The Transforming Power of the Nuns, published by Oxford University Press.


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