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.

Nano Nagle
Nano Nagle
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.


  1. Churches generally taught that women were ____ to men in the sight of ___ but that they should be ___ and ____ to their husbands.
  2. What were the options for nuns in Ireland after the suppression of the monasteries?
  3. What were the hazards for nuns during the Cromwellian period?
  4. Write a brief paragraph on Nano Nagle.
  5. By 1800 there were about ___ nuns in Ireland living in __ houses belonging to ___ religious orders
  6. Quaker women preachers such as ____ Fletcher and Barbara ___ made tremendous contributions to their movement at first but by 1700 Quaker women were generally ____ out of places of ____ and _____ making, curtailed and _____.
  7. Methodist preacher Alice ____ attracted _____ ____ on a tour of ____ and Barbara ___ became a founder ___ of Methodism in ____, but the Methodist Conference decreed in ____ that women should no longer ____.
  8. Suggest reasons why nuns were enclosed and Quaker and Methodist preachers were side-lined by their churches during the early modern period.


  1. Role play a community of nuns considering their options during the suppression of the monasteries.
  2. Write a newspaper report on a raid by soldiers on a convent during the Cromwellian period.
  3. Write a letter from a Catholic woman to the Pope or a cardinal or bishop in 1805, commenting on the advantages and disadvantages for the poor in Cork of the complete enclosure of the Presentation Sisters.
  4. Write an obituary for Nano Nagle.
  5. Write an essay on 'Church control of active women during the early modern period'.
  6. Research any convent in Ireland or any Irish nun during the early modern period.
  7. Research the role of Protestant clergy wives in Ireland.
  8. Research the role of women in the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers.
  9. Research the role of women in the Methodist Church.
  10. Research Barbara Heck and Methodism in America.
contents index