Churches generally taught that women were equal to men in the sight of God but that they should be subject to, and obedient to their husbands. Women were excluded from authority and decision making positions in church but were encouraged to assist in religious and charitable activities usually directed by male superiors.
About thirty convents of nuns in Ireland closed during the general suppression of monasteries in Ireland in the sixteenth century in the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Some nuns got pensions, others remained secretly in the community or returned to their families.Many emigrated to join convents in Flanders, France, Spain and Portugal and some returned later when persecution quietened down.
Convents were then prohibited by law in Ireland but several existed in secret or were tolerated as long as they were not too obvious. Irish nuns set up a foundation of Poor Clares in Dunkirk in 1626 and moved to Dublin a few years later. Records also exist of other Poor Clares, as well as Carmelite and Dominican nuns in Dublin, Drogheda, Athlone, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Loughrea and at Nun's Island in Galway and in a few other places in the seventeenth century.
Nano Nagle (1718-1784), born into a wealthy Catholic gentry family, was educated in Paris and returned to Cork where she set up several free schools for poor Catholics in the 1750s. She founded a small group of women engaged in educational, charitable and social activities, living a non-enclosed life with simple vows. She was flouting the Penal Laws but she acted discreetly, though her 'throng of beggar brats' aroused some opposition in the local area.
By kind permission of the Presentation Sisters
Her group became the congregation of the Presentation Sisters after her death and, in accordance with Catholic church rules for women's congregations with solemn vows, had to submit to strict enclosure in 1805. Now the nuns, no longer free to leave their convents, had to give up any social and charitable activities that involved going out to meet people, so they concentrated on teaching girls in their own enclosed buildings.
By 1800 there were about 120 nuns in Ireland living in 11 houses belonging to 6 religious orders. Nano Nagle's foundations marked the beginning of a period of spectacular expansion for female religious congregations in Ireland.
Quakers also known as the Society of Friends, had about 780 members in Ireland in 1680. Women preachers such as Elizabeth Fletcher and Barbara Blagdon travelled around Ireland spreading the ideals of the Quaker movement. Many Quaker women suffered harassment and imprisonment for their refusal to pay tithes or to swear oaths and also for preaching, since they did not conform to the Established Church. Their founder George Fox (1624-91) wrote in 1656,
|May not the Spirit of Christ speak in the female as well as in the male? Is he there to be limited?
Quoted by Phil Kilroy, 'Women and the Reformation' in Margaret MacCurtain & Mary O'Dowd, Women in early modern Ireland, Dublin, 1991, p.180.
Women were eventually side-lined, however.
|Yet by 1700 the picture changed and Quaker women were generally edged out of places of influence and decision making, curtailed and controlled.
Phil Kilroy, 'Women and the Reformation' in Margaret MacCurtain & Mary O'Dowd, Women in early modern Ireland, Dublin, 1991, p.188.
The women who married Protestant clergymen might find the role of clergy wife either restrictive or fulfilling. They were hostesses, confidantes and often deeply involved in welfare through charitable organisations, schools and orphanages.
In the early days of the Methodist Church, Alice Cambridge from Bandon attracted huge crowds in Ulster during the lifetime of John Wesley who wrote giving her cautious encouragement when she encountered opposition. But after Wesley's death, the Methodist Conference in Ireland in 1802 forbade women to preach on the grounds that it was contrary to scripture and prudence and Alice Cambridge was excluded from membership. Anne Lutton from Moira, Co. Down avoided opposition by preaching mainly to women in Ireland and England. Barbara Heck (1734-1804) emigrated with her family and friends from the Palatine settlement in Limerick to America in 1760 to become a founder member of Methodism there. She later emigrated to Canada and her home, called the Heck Settlement became the evangelising base from which Methodism spread in Canada.