In 2005, Nano Nagle – the founder of the Presentation Sisters – was voted ‘Ireland’s Greatest Woman’. Today, such has been the relentless focus on the minority of nuns who betrayed their vocation and inflicted abuse on those in their care, it’s hard to know whether she would even make it to a shortlist.
The 18th-century nun left a remarkable legacy in Ireland and throughout the world. Growing up under the harsh Penal Laws, her well-to-do Catholic family had remarkably managed to hold on to their land. She was educated in France and was part of high society in Paris before entering a convent there.
She soon returned to Cork and opened a network of schools that prioritised the education of indigent boys and girls in the city. She became the first woman since St Brigid to found a congregation of women religious in Ireland.
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Nano herself died of TB in 1794, but her charisma spread far and wide and there were soon schools all over Ireland, North America, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Years before the State saw fit to provide free secondary education in 1968, the Presentation Sisters were pioneers – particularly in the education of girls.
Nano was not alone: Mary Aikenhead founded the Religious Sisters of Charity and some of her earliest followers died having contracted infectious diseases from the poor people they worked with. Catherine McAuley founded the Sisters of Mercy as a corps of social workers to care for the forgotten poor all over Ireland.
In 1800, there were just 120 nuns in Ireland. By 1900, there were 8,000 working in communities all across the country – the vast majority of them doing nothing but good.
Notwithstanding the horrendous and heart-breaking abuse revealed in recent years, religious congregations made an incalculably positive contribution to the people of Ireland and formed those who would go on to take up leadership positions in the fight for emancipation and Independence and in the nascent state.
But if you were a visitor from Mars watching Irish television, you’d be forgiven for thinking that nuns were a nasty cult rivalled for brutality only by the British.
I never expect too much from RTÉ historical dramas. They’re usually well-produced and acted, but rarely do justice to complex history. Take ‘Resistance’ on Sunday night, which takes on to tell the story of the post-Easter Rising fight for Independence.
It wasn’t bad overall, but couldn’t resist the temptation to throw in nuns in the role of pantomime villains, taking a baby from a young woman and selling the child to wealthy Americans. The scene prompted one prominent journalist to observe on social media: “Brutal Brits, rotten bankers, saintly rebels and nasty nuns. No cliché left unturned.”
The cliché of the nasty nun or deviant priest is now a staple of Irish cinema and television.
Some of this is inevitably justified, the history of the Church in Ireland hasn’t been all great and too many men and women betrayed their commission and abused and neglected those in their care.
But, when was the last time you saw a priest or a nun portrayed in a positive light? This is despite the fact that it is self-evident that the overwhelming majority of clerics and religious lived lives of heroic self-sacrifice and brought immense good and consolation to those they served – often in difficult circumstances.
Our nearest neighbours have been better at the balancing act. The BBC adaptation of ‘Les Misérables’ portrays the priest as not only good but saintly. Similarly, the new ‘Poirot’ is revealed as a former cleric who distinguished himself in wartime Belgium. Add to that the charming nuns in ‘Call the Midwife’, and Britain has more than enough positive portrayals of religious life to balance the bad eggs.
One of the reasons why history remains so contentious is that it informs the present. Just a few years ago, it would’ve been entirely uncontroversial to say that the good the Church has done in Ireland far outweighs the negatives. Today, many people would likely dispute that claim despite the clear evidence.
I’ve been in Killarney this week where I’ve spent a few days with the priests of the Kerry Diocese looking to the future. I experienced, to a man, a bunch of dedicated, committed and humble priests. As well as their usual round of duties, they spend their days visiting the sick, comforting the dying, consoling the bereaved and talking down the suicidal. So much of their ministry is hidden from view since very often people never see the value of a priest until they need one.
The priests I met are tired. Many of them are being pulled from pillar to post serving ever-greater geographical areas with fewer men coming after them.
They’re also tired of negative caricatures of themselves and other religious sisters and brothers in the media. They are as let down and horrified as anyone at the rotten behaviour of some of their confrères and the Church’s cover-up and obfuscation. But, they’re also sick to their stomach about the constant negative portrayal of what they do.
People in the pews are, too. Catholics know all too well that the priests and nuns that they know are selfless people who desire nothing other than to serve the people and try to make the world a better place.
In the midst of our ongoing crisis in homelessness, it’s not for nothing that the names that immediately come to mind are Sister Stan, Brother Kevin and Fr Peter McVerry. It’s high time that we corrected the balance sheet in Ireland and stopped scapegoating the vast majority of good and decent priests and nuns.
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