I was educated by nuns in Secondary School in Dublin. My experience was almost entirely positive. After five years (no TY then) I left my Catholic ethos, convent school with a clear idea of how to be a strong independent woman, able to speak up for herself and stand her ground; because I watched one such strong woman every day – our principal, the Head Nun. She was accomplished, compassionate, tough and mainly fair. She ran the school efficiently and with steely discipline.
I left school in 1979, the same year that contraceptives were finally on sale in Ireland although only on production of a prescription. Women’s liberation was a feature of Ireland in the 1970s as second wave feminism took hold. As school-girls we were very aware of the national conversations and one day a heated debate took place after school on the subject of abortion. We were so exercised by the topic that in our innocence we decided to ask if we could have a proper debate in school on the issue.
There was war. Ructions. Shock and horror that the word abortion had been uttered within the hallowed walls, never mind that we had the audacity to ask if we could debate it. Our request was turned down immediately with no explanation. However, the following day, during Morning Assembly the girls who been involved in “the devils work” were called out and one by one we had to approach the top of the hall and remove from a collection bucket whatever donation we had made to the “black baby appeal” (a kind of non-PC forerunner of the Trocaire Lenten Campaign).
Looking back now it’s clear how naive we were in thinking that the head nun would have allowed such a debate. But it was she who infused us in a belief that we could achieve whatever we put our minds to. Every day she provided us with a real time female role model of a strong, independent woman. But first and foremost, she was a Catholic nun and she never forgot that, not for a second. We had crossed the line. Abortion was wrong on all levels, in all circumstances and it was not a topic for debate. The churches stance on the matter remains absolute.
Ireland has changed hugely from the country that it was when I left school in 1979. From freely available contraception to divorce, from same sex marriage to multi culturalism, our country has embraced so much change in the last three decades. The Catholic Church, not so much. Sure, it’s been damaged. But it hasn’t fundamentally changed.
Back in the 1970s, nuns were among the only group of women who were running businesses. They ran hospitals and schools and by all accounts did so very well. But they did it without compromise and with a high degree of discipline. Many of the nurses who trained under ‘the nuns’ will tell you that. It wasn’t always a happy experience.
I still have huge respect for nuns. In a lot of ways, they are great feminists. But they belong to a highly patriarchal and chauvinistic church and they generally display an unwavering loyalty to that church. They are strong women and many are great business women but they are women of the church first and foremost. And that is why they should NOT be given ownership of our new National Maternity Hospital.
I listened to Rhona Mahoney this morning on RTE Radio One and she was persuasive. Her passion for this project was palpable. I could sense her frustration at the possibility that this vital project for women and their babies could be stalled by the people’s anger at the church in general and nuns in particular. It would be a wonderful legacy if she were to retire from a state of the art, top class maternity hospital.
But we are at a watershed moment in my view. And as the mother of daughters and a prospective grandmother I understand the urgency of providing a proper facility for mothers and babies in Ireland. But we cannot gallop into a situation that will cause us problems down the road. Now is the time for Ireland to begin the long process of taking back our health care and indeed our education infrastructure from religious orders.
These orders have largely ignored their responsibility for redress to those they wronged in Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries. We need our government to show leadership and to put in place whatever is needed in terms of legislation to begin to restore these vital elements of our social care to ownership and responsibility of the state.
The nuns taught us well. Perhaps if more of our ministers had been convent educated we might see more leadership on this issue.