Irish Religious Orders and Congregations of Women

Five of these had been established by 1866:

The Presentation Sisters ( l775) by Nano Nagle

The Brigidines (1807) by Bishop Delany of Kildare and Leighlin

The Religious Sisters of Charity (1815) by Mother Mary Aikenhead

The Sisters of Mercy (1827) by Mother Catherine McAuley

The Holy Faith Order (1866) by Mother Margaret Aylward.

The Mercy Sisters became the largest religious community of women dealing with girls' education in nineteenth-century Ireland. There were a number of reasons for this. The Mercy Sisters were uncloistered and the visitation of the sick and poor was part of their work. This meant that they could go into the homes of the poor and persuade parents to send their children to school.

Nano Nagle
Nano Nagle
By kind permission of the Presentation Sisters
The Presentation Sisters were not so lucky in this regard. They could no longer work outside their convents after they became strictly enclosed in 1805 and this helps explain why their schools never became so numerous as those of the Mercy Sisters. The rules of the Presentation Sisters stating that no school fees should be charged, helps explain why most of their schools remained primary schools during the nineteenth century and why its entry into second level education was of a much more limited nature than that of the Mercy Sisters.

Nano Nagle had died in 1784 and it was Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Mercy nuns, who made the greatest impact on the education of girls in nineteenth-century Ireland.

Catherine McAuley
(1778-1841) was an heiress, with a fortune of £25,000 which she had used to build a house in Baggot Street, Dublin in 1827. Here the children of the poor were educated, orphans housed and young women trained for employment. She believed that it was women who would regenerate society through their religious influence and was prepared to make use of any system of education which would bring about this end.Catherine was convinced that:

... no work of charity can be more productive of good to society or more conducive to the happiness of the poor than the careful instruction of women, since, whatever be the station they are destined to fill, their example and advice will always have great influence.
S.M.O'Donoghue, Mother M. Vincent Whitty, Melbourne, 1972, p. 13.
Catherine McAuley formerly commemorated on an Irish banknote
Catherine McAuley
was commemorated on
an Irish banknote.

Her school in Baggot Street was already well-established by 1831 with over 200 pupils to cater for. She had decided to introduce a modified version of the Lancasterian monitorial system to her poor schools in Dublin. The school day began with a twenty-minute religion class followed by the secular subjects: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Spelling, Grammar, Home Crafts and Deportment. Catherine McAuley affiliated her schools with the National Board in 1839. Others quickly followed suit and the number of convent schools linked to the Board grew from 133 in 1868 to over 300 in 1900.
Mary Aikenhead
Mary Aikenhead
Foundress of the Religious
Sisters of Charity

The Catholic bishops banned Catholics from attending mixed denominational Model Schools or Training Colleges run by the National Board in 1863 and this enhanced the growing role of the convent schools in providing monitors and teachers in many girls' schools in Ireland.

These developments suggest that convent national schools were a real force for social mobility by providing job opportunities for girls as early as the 1860s, at a time when the first moves to reform girls' secondary education in Ireland were only getting under way.


  1. Complete the following table:

    Congregation Founded by Year
    Presentation Sisters   1807
      Mother Mary Aikenhead  
    Sisters of Mercy    
  2. The Mercy _____ became the largest ______ _____ of women dealing with ______ in nineteenth century Ireland.
  3. Why did the schools of the Presentation Sisters not become as numerous as those of the Sisters of Mercy?
  4. Discuss the contribution of Catherine McAuley to the education of girls in Ireland.
  5. Summarise the contribution of nuns to primary education for girls in Ireland.


  1. Research any one of the religious congregations involved in girls' primary education in Ireland in the nineteenth century.
  2. Research any founder of a religious congregation which worked in Ireland.
  3. Write an essay on 'The contribution of nuns to primary education in Ireland.'
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