There were 122 nuns in Ireland in 1800. There were 8,031 nuns in Ireland in 1900. In the hundred years in between, the number of religious congregations had grown from 6 to 35 and the number of convents from 11 to 91. A similar trend was found in other European countries, so Ireland was not unique in this expansion.
Religious orders such as the Dominicans, Franciscans, Poor Clares, Benedictines and Carmelites had been established in Ireland before the Reformation. They took refuge on the Continent during times of religious persecution, especially during the Penal Laws but many returned from time to time.
Several new Irish congregations were founded during the nineteenth century.
The Presentation Sisters became a religious congregation in 1805. Nano Nagle (1718-1784) had organised a group of women engaged in a variety of charitable activities in Cork in the 1750s. After her death the remaining group submitted to strict enclosure as a religious order and were no longer free to leave their convents until after Vatican II in the later twentieth century. In the meantime, they devoted themselves to education.
The Religious Sisters of Charity were founded in 1815 by Mary Aikenhead (1787-1858) to offer service to the poor in schools, hospitals and refuges for women. These sisters took simple vows and did not have to submit to enclosure.
The Loreto Order was founded in 1821 by Frances Ball (1794-1861). They opened schools for middle-class and poor girls in Rathfarnham and several country towns.
The Sisters of Mercy founded by Catherine McAuley (1778-1841) became the most widespread religious congregation for women in Ireland. They began as a group of women devoted to the care of the poor in Dublin in the 1820s and later became a religious congregation with simple vows and no enclosure like the Irish Sisters of Charity. These two orders were known as the 'walking nuns' because they were free to visit the poor in their homes.
Other female congregations founded in Ireland included the Brigidines, founded in 1807, the Sisters of the Holy Faith, 1867 and the Sisters of St. John of God, 1871.
Many congregations came to Ireland from abroad, mostly from France. They included the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, the Faithful Companions of Jesus, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the Sisters of the Holy Cross and Passion, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, the Sisters of La Sainte Union, the Sisters of St Louis, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Poor Servants of the Mother of God, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart and the Ursulines.
Convents came to be established in a variety of ways. Nano Nagle and Catherine McAuley were wealthy women in their own right dedicated to the service of the poor in religion. Some foreign congregations were invited because they specialised in particular areas such as providing upper middle-class education. Wealthy Catholics put up money by donation, by will, through dowries or by offering accommodation to attract nuns to their areas. Most convents began in a small way but eventually developed into large imposing buildings. They were more comfortable and spacious than the original homes of the majority of the nuns, but were rather austere behind the imposing parlours where visitors were welcomed.
Courtesy Sisters of Mercy
Religious life attracted women for complex reasons.
Most women entering convents brought substantial dowries with them and became choir sisters. Women from less privileged backgrounds became lay sisters. Choir sisters had higher status, often received higher education and were eligible to vote for and to achieve higher office in the convent. Lay sisters did domestic and farm work, usually had separate accommodation, distinctive dress and were often addressed by different titles. These distinctions were abolished in most convents in the 1960s after Vatican II.
Women entering convents had to spend some time as novices. They marked their seclusion from the world by taking a new name, often that of a male saint. In order to become permanent members of the community, they took final vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. This meant they gave up the right to own personal wealth, form intimate relationships and have major control over decisions about their own lives. They placed themselves under the command of the congregation and of the church.
In general, the Church exercised more control over female religious than over males. Many congregations of nuns were forbidden to remain united and centralised as they wished and most convents were placed under the authority of the local bishop whose permission might have to be sought even for trivial changes of lifestyle.
Nevertheless, nuns networked as few other groups of women could do in the nineteenth century. They exchanged information about developments and opportunities in Ireland, they had international contacts, their convents provided security against want, they were motivated and they provided considerable leadership.
St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin founded by the Irish Sisters of Charity in 1834 was the first of many religious-run voluntary hospitals in Ireland and nuns began to nurse in workhouse infirmaries from the 1860s. They were soon predominant in the Irish nursing profession but were prohibited by Rome from acquiring the 'forbidden skills' of surgery and midwifery, even when missionary bishops pleaded on their behalf - the activities involved were considered immodest and unsuitable for women in religion. However, Mary Martin founded the Medical Missionaries of Mary in 1936, devoted to health care and eventually her Sisters were allowed to qualify in all branches of medicine.
Nuns were also predominant in the teaching of Irish girls. The state benefited immensely because nuns raised buildings from voluntary subscriptions and by investing their own salaries. But vocations to the religious life peaked in Ireland in the 1950s. A large increase in student numbers during the 1960s and 1970s coincided with a decline in vocations and with a period when many sisters opted out of the religious life. Nuns had traditionally managed their own schools but now they retreated gradually from management and handed over to lay people, while still maintaining considerable control over appointments and ethos. A survey in 1989 revealed a total of 11,415 nuns in Ireland of whom 57% were over 60 years of age.
During disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1870, the right to hold parochial office was taken away from Protestant women. After two failed attempts, these rights were restored again in 1920 but women would not become eligible for all lay offices until 1949.
Mary Townsend from Kilkenny founded the Girls' Friendly Society in England to cater for the welfare of girls migrating to cities or emigrating abroad and it was introduced to Ireland in 1876. The Mothers' Union was founded in Ireland in 1887.
Church of Ireland bishops in 1970 declared that they saw no theological barriers to the ordination of women but the General Synod did not agree to take the decision until 1990, after which Kathleen Young and Irene Templeton were ordained in Belfast. Ginnie Kennerley became a Canon when she was elected to the chapter of Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin in 1996.
An order of deaconesses was founded in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in 1909 and women are now admitted to the Synod and General Assembly from which they were formerly excluded. Various women's organisations joined together to form the Presbyterian Women's Association in 1971. Women have been ordained as elders since 1926 and Rev. Ruth Patterson was the first woman to be ordained as minister in 1976.
Women were admitted to membership of the Conference of the Methodist Church in Ireland in 1910. Two Irish women, Irene Morrow and Elizabeth Maye were admitted to the ministry in England in 1974 and the Conference in Ireland accepted Ellen Whalley for the ministry in 1977.