The 20th Annual Sir John T. Gilbert Lecture - Transcript
Published on 16th February 2017
The following is a transcript of the twentieth Annual Sir John T. Gilbert 20th commemorative lecture, 'Gentlemen’s daughters in Dublin cloisters: The social world of nuns in early 18th-century Dublin', given by Bernadette Cunningham at Dublin City Library & Archive on 25 January 2017.
Welcome to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archives Podcast. In this episode, "Gentlemen’s Daughters in Dublin Cloisters", Dr Bernadette Cunningham examines the social world of nuns in early 18th century Dublin. The twentieth annual Sir John T. Gilbert Commemorative Lecture, was recorded in front of a live audience at Dublin City Library and Archive, Pearse Street on the 25th of January 2017.
Good evening everybody, Deputy Lord Mayor, City Librarian and friends. My topic this evening is the social world of the communities of Poor Clare and Dominican nuns who established themselves in the Oxmantown and Smithfield area of Dublin in the early eighteenth century. Their story is, in many ways, a microcosm of the social history of eighteenth-century Dublin, more broadly at a time of rapid expansion of the Catholic population to the north of the River Liffey. These convents did not exist in isolation, and their archives offer glimpses into the wider social networks of the gentlemen’s daughters from many parts of Ireland who lived, by choice or necessity, in Dublin cloisters.
As a northsider himself, if John T. Gilbert had written a fourth volume of his history of Dublin, he might have ventured home north of the Liffey and he would surely have explored the three 18th-century north-side parishes of St Mary, St Michan and St Paul. At St Michan’s he would have seen the Linen Hall, the medieval parish church of St Michan. In St Paul’s parish he would have seen the Blue Coat Boy’s Hospital and the original St Paul’s church, built in 1702 at the northern end of Oxmantown Green; And he would have seen and written about the imposing structures of the military barracks on a large, elevated site above the river.
Somewhat less distinctive would have been the convents of the Dominican Nuns and the Poor Clares, one on Channel Row, now called Brunswick Street North the other nearby on King Street North. This evening, I would like to bring you to this northern edge of the city, between Smithfield cattle market and Grangegorman Lane, in search of two communities of Catholic women who made their home there in the early decades of the eighteenth century.
John Rocque’s detailed map of the city in 1756 shows us where to look. He marked one ‘nunry’ on the north side of Channel Row, facing the junction at Red Cow Lane, which was the Dominican convent. It was set alongside a landscaped garden, that would have formed the convent grounds. Beyond it to the north were fields rather than streets, the area known as Grangegorman, then owned by Christ Church Cathedral, (the landlord of properties on Channel Row), a pleasant landscape, on good land on a south-facing incline.
John Rocque marked a second ‘nunry’ a short distance away, between Channel Row and King Street, in a more built-up area, with a gate leading to some green space immediately adjoining, again presumably the convent garden. This seems to have been the location of the convent of the Poor Clares.
The convent buildings are long gone now. The Dominican convent was converted for use as part of the Richmond Surgical Hospital in 1811. Both the main convent residence and the adjoining chapel were remodelled c.1810; one ward was known as the ‘chapel ward’. The manner in which the convent buildings were reused can be seen from architect William Murray’s plans of the surgical hospital as built, drawn in 1830 when further changes were made. These buildings were demolished as unsafe in November 1944. A modern apartment block now occupies the site. The site, which faced Red Cow Lane, is not to be confused with other later red-brick hospital buildings closer to Church Street, used until recently as a district court house, and currently being redeveloped.
Nearby, the presumed location of the former Poor Clare convent on a site set back from King Street north, accessed via a laneway opposite Brown Street, is awaiting redevelopment. The convent site and garden seem to be occupied now by St Paul’s school, accessed from Brunswick Street.
While there is little trace of the convents now in the Oxmantown streetscape, some fascinating archival records survive in the convents that succeeded them, with microfilm copies available in the National Library of Ireland. They allow us to look inside the walls of these nunneries, to see who was living there, how they lived, and what their connections were with the wider community.
2. Catholic Dublin in the early 18th century
In the early eighteenth century, Oxmantown was a rapidly expanding suburb. The Hearth Money returns of 1705 for Dublin recorded 7,369 houses in the city of which just 1,336, or 18 per cent, were on the north side. By the time of Rocque’s map in 1756 the developed area north of the river was almost equal in extent to the south side. The northern suburb was more neatly laid out and less densely populated than the medieval core. It was a distinct area. The people of Oxmantown and Smithfield in the eighteenth-century considered that they resided outside the city of Dublin - a pleasant alternative to living in the medieval city.
Some of the political and social elite built new houses on the north side, but generally the area was home to the middling sort of merchants and tradesmen. It was distinctly more Catholic than the south side. Many residents had come from outside the capital, and these included the women religious who lived in the convents there. The first nuns in the Poor Clare and Dominican convents in Dublin were all newcomers to the city, as were most of the lay women who lived with them as ‘parlour boarders’.
The area was divided into three civil parishes – shown on Brooking’s 1728 map. Similarly, new Catholic parishes were created to cater for the expanding population. The Catholic archbishop of Dublin actively encouraged the expansion of religious institutions in the area. By 1708, a Mass house was functioning in St Paul’s parish. Located to the rear of 11 Arran Quay, this make-shift structure would collapse in 1729, killing several parishioners. After that calamity, a nearby warehouse was converted into a chapel and remained in use until a Catholic church was built at Arran Quay in the 1830s. In St Mary’s parish, there was a well concealed, but internally elaborate, chapel in Liffey Street. Among religious orders of men, the Capuchins established a house at Church Street, and their chapel was built at Church Street West in St Michan’s parish in 1720.
A convent of Benedictine nuns had been established in Dublin in the late 1680s, occupying a substantial building on Channel Row. The foundation stone, dated 1688, found near the site, is now preserved at Kylemore Abbey, County Galway. That Benedictine initiative proved unsustainable in the changed political circumstances that followed the defeat of King James at the battle of the Boyne, and the Irish nuns returned to their former continental convent at Ypres in the 1690s.
3. Establishment of several convents of nuns in 1710s
In 1712, a group of Poor Clare nuns moved to Dublin from Galway, to the newly created Catholic parish of St Paul. They came from a Galway convent that had existed since the 1640s. The community in Galway had grown too large to be sustainable, and this may have prompted the formation of a new convent in Dublin. They initially occupied the former Benedictine convent at Channel Row, but soon moved to nearby King Street where the Poor Clares remained until 1826.
A few years later, some Dominican nuns arrived, encouraged by Fr Cornelius Nary. They likewise transferred from a Galway convent to the same Dublin parish of St Paul. Eight Dominican nuns moved to Dublin in 1717, and by the end of that year they were residing at Channel Row in the convent vacated by the Poor Clares. They probably obtained a 31 year lease on the premises.
These communities of religious women were part of an international network of religious houses. In 1721 the Dublin Dominican convent was officially recognised by the general chapter of the Order and the nuns were granted permission to elect their own superior. At another general chapter at Bologna in 1725, it was recognised that the Irish Dominican convents in Galway and Dublin were viable, and it was resolved that those Irish women living in Dominican monasteries abroad should return to Ireland, though that did not happen. Two other Dominican convents were established at Drogheda and Waterford in the 1720s and 1730s, which is evidence of further demand for such institutions.
Gradually, through the early eighteenth century, the political environment in Ireland became less hostile to Catholic communities of nuns, and while they were not officially permitted to live as cloistered religious communities, their presence was usually tolerated. As Maureen Wall explained in respect of the Penal Laws, ‘limited toleration, by connivance, of the Catholic religion’, while maintaining protestant supremacy, was deemed to offer the best prospect of political stability in Ireland.
Both the Poor Clares and the Dominicans took in lay women as boarders, usually referred to as pensioners or parlour boarders. The income from this source helped finance the convents. Both also ran small boarding schools for girls.
The existence of other boarding schools in the city offered a context in which convents of women could function without attracting undue attention. In the Flying Post of 30 June 1707, Mrs Dawson’s boarding school announced a move from Meath Street to St Mary’s Street, described as being in Oxmantown near ‘Caple Street’. Here ‘all young ladies may have boarding and schooling.’ The emphasis was on needlework, along with ‘dancing, writing and pastry’, ‘and all manner of work done for gentlewomen and others’.
The curriculum in the convent schools was probably similar, and the convent accounts mention the hiring of a dancing master on occasion. By offering a boarding house for women, and also offering a place of education for girls, the Dublin convents had a public image that helped at least partially disguise the primary religious purpose of their institutions.
Significantly, the lay women and young girls who lived in these convents were not randomly chosen. For example, one of the parlour boarders who lived in the Dominican convent from the late 1720s until her death in the early 1740s, was Mrs Mary O’Gara. Mrs O’Gara was the daughter of Randall Fleming, 16th Baron Slane, and was the widow of Captain Richard Fleming of County Meath and latterly of Colonel Oliver O’Gara, of Moygara in County Sligo. Following the death of her second husband, in the mid-1720s, she returned to Ireland after many years in France. Among the children in the boarding school in 1728 were two Plunkett girls who were Mary O’Gara’s granddaughters, the daughters of Bridget Fleming and Randall Plunkett, 11th Lord Dunsany. Mary’s daughter from her first marriage, Bridget Fleming, who had married Lord Dunsany in 1711, also became a parlour boarder for a time in late 1741, in the final months of her mother’s life. Bridget herself was widowed by then, but may have resided in the convent to take care of her dying mother.
Others living there in 1741 included ‘Mrs Aylward and daughters’ - another family group of women and children among the boarders. Miss Nagle and servant and Mrs Nagle and servant were both listed in the accounts – possibly a mother and daughter – while Sara and Mary Kelly were among the siblings living in the house in the same year.
It is likely that similar family connections were commonplace among the other women and girls connected to the Dominican convent. The presence of lay women and children was not unusual. In convents throughout western Europe at this time, accommodating boarders and schoolgirls was the norm. It was a means of ensuring the financial viability of communities of religious women. While the parlour boarders in Dublin had better furnished and more luxurious rooms than the cells assigned to the nuns, they would probably have attended many of the religious services that were a central part of the daily convent routine.
4.What was the social background of the nuns?
The family backgrounds of most nuns in both the Dominican and Poor Clare convents can be described as Old English Catholic. The first four women in the Dublin convent of the Poor Clares were Mary Augustine Lynch (d.1744), Margaret Clare Kerwin (d.1735), Bridget Antony Daly (d.1737), and Margaret Antony French (d.1754). The family names of the Anglo-Norman ‘tribes of Galway’ were prominent. Thus, it was not a case of Dublin women returning to Dublin. Encouraged by Catholic priest the Revd Cornelius Nary as well as by the Franciscan provincial, these west of Ireland nuns were on a mission to enhance the Catholic institutional presence in the capital, a task in which they succeeded.
The young Dominican women who moved from Galway to Dublin were also drawn from Anglo Irish families. Their surnames were Bellew, Browne, Keating, Plunkett, Rice, Vaughan and Weaver. Apart from the first superior, Mary Bellew, professed in 1703, the others had all been professed in the years 1709 to 1714. Thus it was a very young Dominican community of women drawn from prosperous families that formed in St Paul’s parish. They were known publicly as ‘Mrs Bellew’s family’, disguising their true purpose of living in religious community inspired by the life of St Dominic.
Some snippets of information about the early experiences of the Poor Clares are recorded in their convent chronicle compiled in the 1820s. A story is told about bailiffs coming in just as Mass was concluding on 7 Sept 1712, and two the nuns being apprehended. An officer allowed Margaret French to escape, perhaps indicating some sympathy with the nuns. More significant is the fact that, although only recently arrived from Galway, this nun Margaret French had friends in Dublin to whom she could go for help. When she escaped, we read that ‘She made off to Colonel Donelan’s on Cuckoo Lane, his lady [wife] being her relative, and from thence she sent for her uncle, Mr Francis Lynch, an eminent merchant on Merchant’s Quay’. The same narrative had earlier recorded that this nun, Margaret French, was ‘daughter to James French of Porterron, of one of the most ancient families in the west of Galway’. Her mother was a Lynch.
Francis Lynch of Merchant’s Quay, no doubt originally from Galway, continued to provide protection to the Poor Clares in Dublin. After the 1712 raid, the nuns were allowed live in the convent, but according to their historical narrative: ‘Mrs Kerwin and Mrs Daly were obliged to appear at the King’s Bench and have bail entered for them every term. This was entirely effected at the expense of Mr Lynch, for which he has had the constant prayers of the community’.
Even more routinely, in many instances the financial management of the dowries of the nuns and the quarterly or annual payments of interest on bonds were often managed by male relatives – fathers, brothers, or uncles of the women concerned. Dowries were in the range £200 to £300 each and convent investments required management.
The mercantile, landed, or professional networks of the nuns who joined the Dublin Poor Clares after 1712 is clear. Margaret O’Kelly, who joined the Poor Clares in June 1714 was daughter of Captain William O’Kelly. He was described as ‘proprietor of the great estate of Gallagh’ [Dunmore Barony, Co. Galway], and his wife was one of the Dillons who owned the large Clonbrock estate in the same county. Mary Claire Cruise who joined c. 1715 was daughter of Peter Cruise and his wife Elizabeth Dillon of Co. Meath. Jane Crilly was daughter of Captain Crilly of Co. Louth; her mother was a Clinton. Mary Joseph Chievers was daughter of Councillor John Chievers of Carlingford, Co. Louth. Amongst the other novices who joined in Dublin were Clare Sexton, ‘a merchant’s daughter from Co. Clare’ and Catherine Arthur, a member of the Arthur family of Limerick city. We learn that in June 1718 a young nun who was ill in the convent was a niece of Lord Dunsany indicating that that particular family had relatives in both the Poor Clare and the Dominican convents.
Over the next few years the Poor Clares continued to accept new members into their new Dublin communities, almost all of them drawn from propertied or merchant families. While they had taken a vow of poverty, their relatively wealthy backgrounds and genteel upbringing shaped their manner of living. It has long been recognised that the financial support from their families in the form of dowries and gifts to the convent was crucial to the viability of the convents. In practice, though, they never balanced the books – month after month, year after year, their outgoings exceeded their income.
Perhaps, too, the legislative restrictions on the functioning of Catholic religious houses may have strengthened the ongoing links between the nuns and members of their extended families. It meant, for example, that merchant Francis Lynch had a direct and continuing practical role in assisting with the financial and legal affairs of the nuns in the Poor Clare convent – not just his niece, Margaret French, but others also.
The difficulties created by the legal status of Catholics were challenging. Catholics were not legally permitted to live in religious communities in eighteenth-century Ireland, and the nuns were obliged to disguise the nature of their establishment. Within two years of their arrival the Poor Clares had moved from the former Benedictine convent in Channel Row to more concealed premises nearby, but in June 1718, their more discreetly located house was again raided by the authorities. The bailiffs came to check that the building was operating merely a residence for pensioners and not as a convent, that they were not dressed in religious habits, and not observing the rules of a continental convent. On this occasion, the official convent chronicle relates that the nuns quickly disguised themselves as laywomen. Interestingly, the nuns were also able to get help from passers by, alerting them from a window, ‘and the house was soon filled with the friends of the inmates’. [2012, p. 293] Again, even though they observed a monastic rule, they were not an isolated group withdrawn from the world, they had friends and neighbours who knew them and who passed by their house every day.
On the occasion of the 1718 raid of the King Street convent, three carriages full of women were brought before Judge Caulfields, of whom just one was a professed Poor Clare nun, three were novices and the rest were lay women who lived with them. Following a court appearance, the women were allowed resume their residence, it being deemed to be ‘no other than a house of lodgers’, an apparent example of expedient toleration in practice. From 1718 onwards, the Poor Clare nuns in King Street ceased to wear a habit, and may have relaxed other elements of the strict rule of St Clare. This became a matter of division in the community by 1751, but that is a separate story.
5. The nuns and their neighbours
The nuns in both the Dominican and Poor Clare convents had clear ideas about their social position and the daily tasks appropriate to a genteel and prudent lifestyle.
It is important to realise that the early education of these women, not just in reading and writing, but also in music, dancing, and other social accomplishments, useful in polite society, influenced their lives as nuns.
Aside from time spent in prayer and meditation, ladylike occupations such as needlework were part of the daily routine. A workroom was set aside in Channel Row for such activities, though it was sparsely furnished with just one table, three chairs and a stool. However, cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, brewing, gardening, looking after the cow, cleaning chimneys, household repairs and other manual tasks were among the things the nuns paid others to do.
It is evident from the account books that the choir nuns employed servants to do such tasks, as would have been the case in their family homes in their earlier years. The household servants, some of whom lived in the convent, regularly feature in the accounts. Generally referred to by their Christian name only, or sometimes just the ‘washerwoman’, or the ‘gardener’, the meagre payments to them were often well in arrears.
Others who had almost daily contact with the convent included the local men and women who supplied essential foodstuffs: bread and flour, milk and butter, eggs, beef, mutton, fish and fowl, and a variety of vegetables. The nuns also regularly purchased malt for brewing, or purchased beer and ale, the normal drink in an era of unsafe water supply. The outhouses associated with the convents included a brew-house; the Dominican one was rebuilt more than once in the early eighteenth century.
Goods were routinely delivered to the convent from the market. In 1728 for example, Mary Maguire brought general goods from the market, Else Grady and Margaret Goss supplied milk, various others supplied eggs, John Bruton supplied coal, Elenor Dillon did washing, and Terence Hynes was employed to keep the garden in good order and supply salads, root vegetables, herbs, and ‘every other thing proper for the kitchen in its season as the ground will afford’. In the same year, 1728, a woman named Christian Usher, was paid 6s. for baking. It was agreed she should be paid 2d. per dish, big or little. Allowance was made ‘for the dish she melted’.
Another regular caller was a huckster, whose name we eventually discover was Thady McDonnough (possibly another migrant from the west of Ireland), who supplied miscellaneous food and other goods and was even the source of loans to the Dominican nuns on occasion. Very few of these trades-people were able to sign their names. Most of the women, who signed for payments received, used a mark only, as did some of the men.
The regular diet of bread, oatmeal, beef and mutton, eggs, fish, potatoes, vegetables and salads, washed down with beer, was occasionally supplemented by more exotic items. Tea and coffee were available, and they occasionally noted the purchase of new tea or coffee pots. Green tea, cakes and biscuits, cream, mushrooms, mustard, oysters and rice, were more occasional purchases. Cauliflower was grown in the garden one year. Some but not all of the wine bought – sometimes direct from a French merchant – was for liturgical use. Brandy was occasionally bought. They paid 12s. 2d. for ’Snuff for the Sisters’ in March 1743/4. The servants received a ‘St Patrick’s Pot’ and a Christmas box, and the feast of St Dominic was also celebrated.
Other items routinely purchased included candles & soap. Wax candles were used extensively in the chapel, particularly on special occasions, but would have been used throughout the house also.
There were frequent payments for household maintenance to chimney cleaners, slaters, plasterers, carpenters, and glaziers for window repairs. In 1729, when Thomas Bryan worked for six days at 2s. a day, using deal boards, nails, hinges, glue, & bed cord, he was probably making beds. They sometimes bought chairs from a supplier in Bride’s Alley. A smith was employed to supply iron bars for accessible windows and padlocks for the garden gate in 1729, 1730, 1733, 1734 and 1735 - an indication that the security of the buildings was an issue on more than one occasion. A break-in at the Channel Row boarding school was reported in Pue’s Occurrences in October 1754.
Other frequent purchases included materials and specialist threads for making curtains, vestments, and other garments. There are indications of a dress code, with check gingham bought for servants and blue aprons made for lay sisters, distinguishing them clearly from the choir nuns.
In the 1730s the Dominicans were paying rent on three buildings, totalling almost £100 per year. By the 1740s the rent was more than six months in arrears. March 1744 was typical: they paid £42 10s., half a year’s rent for two houses, due the previous September. In those years they were also paying an annual rent of £10 for a separate house for ‘Mr Egan’ a priest who lived there unnoticed by the civil authorities. In 1752, the nuns were careful to negotiate a discount ‘being allow’d for ye 11 days’ that were lost due to the adjustment of the calendar in that year.
The convents were part of a wider Dublin community whose affairs were managed by the local Church of Ireland parishes. The Dominican convent had the misfortune to straddle two parishes. The dividing line between the parishes of St Michan and St Paul ran northwards from Smithfield market along Red Cow Lane and through the plot occupied by the Channel Row convent.
Like other parish residents, they paid local taxes and charges. In a typical year, they paid Grand Jury cess, hearth money, minister’s money, watch money, lamp money and cess for the poor house. They also paid for water, and sometimes paid for the cleaning of the nearby river Bradogue.
The local collectors of all of these payments would have had a good idea of who the nuns were, and it is very clear that they were not living in secrecy.
As well as being local taxpayers, they were an active presence in the lives of the Catholic laity in Dublin. This is evident from the success of the Rosary confraternity operating in the Dominican convent chapel at Channel Row by 1733. These devotions drew sufficient members of the laity for the Dominican friars to become concerned. In 1747 the friars nearby attempted to suppress the Channel Row confraternity because it was drawing people away from their own similar confraternity. Such rivalry could only emerge where semi-public Catholic devotion was tolerated in the city, and where the activities of the nuns enjoyed significant lay support.
Devotion to the relic of the True Cross was also facilitated and was a source of some income for the Dominican nuns. For example, £2 10s. 1d. was received ‘at the cross’ on Good Friday 1747. An ebony cross reliquary dating from 1732 still survives.
Indulgences could also be gained for certain devotions. Entries in the accounts to pay postage for foreign letters appear to relate to the role of the convent as intermediary in obtaining indulgences.
In the late 1720s, a pamphlet by Stephen Radcliff, vicar of Naas, addressed the issue of toleration of Catholics. It included an appendix by an ‘anonymous popish author’, which referred to some Catholic activities of which the government seemed unaware. The author instanced the establishment of several monasteries and nunneries, ‘and particularly, a famous convent of the latter, in Channel Row, Dublin, where the most celebrated Italian musicians help to make the voices of the Holy Sisters more melodious; and many Protestant fine gentlemen have been invited to take their places in a convenient gallery and hear the performance.’
Radcliff’s claims were almost certainly true. When the Dominican Provincial, Bernard MacHenry visited in 1734, he observed [in Latin] that ‘they have many ornaments and other precious things pertaining to the chapel’ Among them were a very large oil painting depicting the crucifixion, in the style of Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) which was the main altar-piece. It measured almost 3 metres by 2 metres, and was valued at £16 in 1726. It now hangs in the Dominican Convent in Cabra, where an early painting of St Dominic is also preserved.
A report on the state and condition of Roman Catholic chapels in Dublin, compiled in 1749, gave further details on the Dominican convent chapel.
‘The house is large, the chapel decent, the altar grand, well wainscoted and adorned with pillars. The altar-piece is a painting of the crucifixion. On one side is the picture of St Dominic and on the other that of St Katherine of Siena; on the altar pillars stand two small gilt images of Angels with wings expanded, each having a wax taper in his hand. The Tabernacle is double gilt, about which stand six silver candle-sticks on the altar, with as many artificial nosegays. Before the altar stands a silver lamp, and near it a silver branch for wax lights. Here is another altar also called the Rosary Altar, whereon is a picture of the V[irgin] M[ary] giving the Beads to St Dominic. The sacristy is large and commodious, the pulpit neat and there are two confessionals at the lower end of the chapel. The gallery serves for a choir, and has many stalls in it, at the front of which is a very sweet organ, the gift of Mrs Mary Bellew.’
This, then, was the setting for the Rosary devotions that attracted many of the laity to the convent chapel in the mid-eighteenth century. In the 1760s Dominican historian Thomas de Burgo described the Channel Row chapel as
‘an oasis in the desert, a centre of devotion where the devout soul would find many spiritual helps not to be found elsewhere, for the nuns had the ceremonies of the Church carried out with becoming splendour. The organ was used for choral services and at High Mass.’
This same chapel provided the venue for the ordination of three Catholic bishops, who were members of the Dominican Order, no doubt with much elaborate ceremonial. That this was so gives us an inkling of just how prominent the Channel Row convent was in the Catholic ecclesiastical life of Dublin. The women used the resources at their disposal to achieve a degree of style and comfort.
[The Poor Clares had an equally elaborate chapel, described by Mrs Mary Delany in 1751.]
6. What were the residential part of the convent like?
The Dominican convent at Channel Row in the eighteenth century was a large establishment, with an extensive house and a garden. There were 27 or 28 nuns in the community in 1735, and 30 religious women resided there in 1750. The house was largely rebuilt, to the original plan, c. 1748, which was 31 years after they had first arrived. This major investment in the building presumably began after they had negotiated another long lease.
The account books contain several inventories of the furniture and furnishings of the building, itemised room by room. The 1741 inventory is typical. It opens with a detailed list of the contents of the chapel. The contents of the residential part of the convent were then itemised. There was a kitchen, refectory, brewhouse, cellar, washhouse, green parlour, white parlour, school parlour, the room over the school which contained 3 beds, the servants’ room with another 3 beds, the infirmary, the work room, 35 individual bedrooms, a gazebo, and a dairy. [There was also a stable.]
A typical nun’s cell contained a bed with curtains, and a chair or two, and sometimes a table. They did not all have a window or a fireplace. (There were 24 fireplaces in the main residence.) In contrast, a parlour boarder such as Mrs Nagle had
One standing bed with curtains;
two pairs of Paragon window curtains, and a spare pair of curtains in the closet;
twelve walnut chairs with silk seats, one walnut settee;
one moving grate, fender and set of irons;
two tea tables;
one pair of brass branches (candle holders); one swinging glass;
one pair of brass candlesticks & snuffers;
one chair bed,
[three other tables and a stool] – quite a clutter!
There was an obvious difference between the worldly comforts of those who had taken a vow of poverty and those who had not. The difference was also a matter of lifestyle. Mrs Nagle and others who had similar large rooms entertained family and friends in their own rooms, while the nuns would have adopted a more communal lifestyle.
We get little enough sense from the accounts of the daily routines of the nuns, almost always conducted within the convent walls. The day would have been regulated with a routine of prayer and devotion. There were only occasional changes of scene. The Dominican accounts make periodic mention of coach hire for ‘the sisters going to the country’, and on two occasions in 1733 this was specifically stated to have been for the purpose of ‘takeing the air’. They probably did not venture much beyond Glasnevin or Finglas.
There are some indications that the nuns were rather lax about the idea of enclosure, which had been stipulated by the Council of Trent as the norm for all communities of nuns. In his 1739 visitation, Rev John Fottrell, the Dominican provincial, insisted that the Dublin nuns should be punctual and conscientious about attending devotions at the prescribed times, beginning with Prime at 6am in summer, and 7am in winter, and that they were to attend the first meal of the day.
Fottrell also instructed that they were not to go out from the convent ‘without leave and urgent necessity’. He insisted that ‘none shall go alone, nor to any other place but to such as the superior gives them leave to go, that they shall not go otherwise than in a coach, and that they shall be home before night.’
He also complained that ‘It has given great offence to see young Nuns walking for a considerable time with secular men in the garden. This particular has given offence or scandal not only to some [of] the Religious, but to Gentlewomen that lodge in the House.’
The Dominican provincial was also concerned that the nuns’ style of dress was too elaborate. In 1739 he instructed that ‘a uniformity should be observed in your dress, that no new customs should be introduced, and in particular I absolutely forbid you the use of ruffles, either at home or abroad, and that none without particular licence shall wear or lie in linen.’
Nuns going out in public too often - or alone - seems to have been a continuing issue as far as the church authorities were concerned. In 1750, Canon John Murphy, a secular Dublin priest representing the Irish bishops at Rome, complained that the Dublin Dominican nuns did not observe a formal cloister, wore lay clothes, went out in public too often, and were insufficiently responsible to the male superior general of the order. His comments appear designed to achieve stricter ecclesiastical control over the nuns, but were unsuccessful.
In the case of the Poor Clares, we get a brief glimpse of one nun’s outing to visit friends in 1751. Mary Delany and Laetitia Bushe were joined by a Miss Crilly, for dinner at Delville, Mary Delany’s house on Glasnevin Hill. The visit had been prearranged and Laetitia Bushe collected Jane Crilly from the Poor Clare convent. We know of the episode from a chatty letter Mary Delany wrote to her sister in January 1751.
‘And who is Miss Crilly? Say you. Why, she is a nun professed, and lives at the Nunnery in King Street, Dublin; but nuns in this country have the liberty of going to see relatives and particular friends: this young woman is a relation of Mrs Forde’s, and is just returned from France, where she has been ten years for the recovery of her health. She ... is extremely sprightly, civil, and entertaining, was in raptures with everything in Delville’.
The sociability for the day did not end there, as the two hostesses escorted Miss Crilly back to the convent by coach after dinner.
‘She entreated me to go in, that some of her sisterhood might gratify their curiosity by seeing me; we drank tea with them, saw their chapel, and I played the organ; they wear no particular habit, only a black stuff nightgown and plain linen ... Bushe was very droll amongst them all, and said a thousand comical things, which they seemed not at all offended at. They have a handsome parlour to receive their company in’.
Clearly Mrs Delany, the wife of an Anglican dean, was somewhat surprised at the freedom of the nuns, their lack of primness, but was little disappointed by their informal dress. ‘I should like them much better in their habit’ she commented.
Jane Crilly’s outing to dinner in Delville was not an isolated event. On 13 April of the same year, Mrs Delany told of another visit.
‘... here flew in my nun Miss Crilly: sprightly and agreeable as she is, I wish she had stayed away an hour longer – she has overwhelmed me with praise and compliments. I must break her of that abundance of French civility, it quite confounds me, set that aside, and she is an agreeable, entertaining creature, and seems to have good principles and pretty sentiments.
She has been confined with sickness and devotion, and I don’t call upon her so often as I should like to do, as people are so offended here if these nuns are much taken notice of, that I should be thought disaffected.’
So, it seems that the extent to which it was acceptable to consort with Catholic nuns was a matter of discussion in Mrs Delany’s own social circle. The nuns, too, may have exercised caution about consorting too freely with Anglican women, but it is clear that their social circle outside the convent walls was not restricted to their Catholic relatives and acquaintances.
In this as in many other dimensions, it seems to me, the social world of these nuns was a microcosm of Dublin society in the eighteenth century.
The necessary interactions across social and denominational groups that were a defining characteristic of urban living, were part of the story of these Dublin convents.
The interdependence of families and the primacy of kin relationships was an essential element of the lives of these recent migrants to Dublin. These religious women from gentry and merchant families were sustained by their relatives and other benefactors.
The presence of these Dominican and Poor Clare convents certainly contributed to the expansion of Catholicism in eighteenth-century Dublin. They succeeded in creating viable Catholic communities in the city of Dublin, despite the social, economic and legislative restrictions on women religious, and despite the precariousness of their finances. Within the convent environment, they would have engaged in the kind of sociability necessary to cultivate and sustain those kin relationships.
The limitations on women’s education and the subordinate role of women in society could be mitigated but not overcome in a convent environment. But for those who lived in these religious communities, the restrictions of convent life, or the comforts of living as a parlour boarder, were clearly preferable to the alternatives.
The fortunes of these convents declined in the later eighteenth century. Economic crises meant the circumstances of Catholic merchant and gentry families were reduced. Convents were forced to spend some of the capital of the nuns’ dowries, rather than living off the interest, which seriously undermined their long-term viability.
At the same time, throughout western Europe and in Ireland, attitudes towards women, not least surplus daughters and widows of the gentry, began to change. Where some families had earlier encouraged women to live in convents in the absence of viable alternatives, that trend became less pronounced as the century progressed.
Yet there was more to convents than that. The religious imperative was strong and these communities of religious women survived, though with reduced numbers. They eventually became involved in philanthropic care of the poor, as they adapted to changing social attitudes. The Sisters of St Clare in Harold’s Cross are the modern successors of some of the King Street community who established a second convent in Drumcondra Lane, now Dorset Street, in 1751, before moving to Harold’s Cross and opening an orphanage there in 1804. The Dominicans moved from Brunswick Street to Clontarf in 1808, before relocating to Cabra in 1819, where they still have a strong presence in education and care of the deaf.
The communal memories of their early years in Dublin were not forgotten, and historians within the Orders have periodically documented their histories, and crucially, have preserved the archival records that allow us glimpse the world of eighteenth-century Catholic Dublin, and the world of these gentlemen’s and merchants’ daughters, from inside the convent walls.
Thank you for your attention.