Most Irish nuns in the seventeenth century emigrated to join convents in Flanders, France, Spain and Portugal. They came mainly from Catholic gentry families and would have had dowries, as well as male contacts receiving education in one of the Irish colleges in Europe at places as far apart as Douai and Salamanca, or serving in Continental armies.
Several convents were supported by continental royalty and aristocrats. Irish Poor Clares founded a convent at Dunkirk in 1626 and the Irish Dominicans were established at Lisbon in 1639. Other notable Irish convents were founded by the Benedictines at Ypres and by the Franciscans at Louvain.
|We are fortunate in having records of a convent for Irish Dominican nuns founded in Lisbon in 1639 by the Dominican friar, Dominic O'Daly ... fully cloistered in their spacious well-built convent of Bom Sucesso in Belem, near the mouth of the Tagus. The ability to read and write, the reading of Latin, and the mastery of plain chant for liturgical celebration (often attended by members of the royal family of Portugal) were required of the nuns. Three vernaculars [modern languages], English, Irish and Portuguese were used and the impression of a lively, well-educated community emerges from the early annals.
Margaret MacCurtain, 'Women, education and learning' in Margaret MacCurtain & Mary O'Dowd (eds.), Women in early modern Ireland, Dublin, 1991, p.169.
A journey home to Ireland could have placed the freedom of these nuns or even their lives in danger.
Religious life gave women opportunities to develop their spiritual and devotional lives and render service to society. It provided an alternative to marriage and child-bearing and to the insecurity of single life for women in those days. However, the general tightening of discipline in the Catholic Church during the Counter Reformation had a major effect on the lives of nuns. Women religious with solemn vows were strictly enclosed or cloistered (confined to their convents) and placed firmly under the authority of bishops and clergy in the sixteenth century after the reforms of the Council of Trent. Their service to society was severely limited because they could no longer leave their convents.
In 1544 the Ursulines founded by [Angela Merici] received approval and were not subject to enclosure ... Unfortunately their freedom of movement did not last. They were obliged to accept enclosure, and shortly afterwards, in 1566, the Holy See ordered the suppression of all female congregations not in enclosure and subject to solemn vows. The Ursulines, who up to then had dressed like anyone else, were required to adopt a religious habit. It was the triumph of legalism.