- "Our Nuns Are Not a Nation":Politicizing the Convent in Irish Literature and Film
My interest in the conflicting political agendas that inform literary and cinematic representations of nuns was inspired by a coincidence. My DVD of Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters arrived in the mail on the same day as a newsletter from the English convent school at which I was extraordinarily happy during the early 1960s, the period in which Mullan's film is set. The newsletter announced that the community, now reduced in numbers and increased in age, had decided to leave the school to the lay teachers, abandon the habit, and regroup in an inner city environment. I thought at once of Julia O'Faolain's novel No Country for Young Men, in which the modernizing Sister Mary Quinn sells the convent buildings and sends the nuns "to live in small apartments in the poorer parts of the city. 'We shall be going to the people,' triumphed Sister Mary Quinn, 'living in manageable units and acting as the shock troops of the Lord'" (25). Quinn is satirized as a "guerilla-fighter" (24) who values politics above prayer and rejects the communal ideal that my own nuns still wish to sustain; but both the fictional and the real sisters have decided to "make radical adjustments to the living out of our form of life."1 [End Page 9]
Across these radical adjustments, however, fall twin shadows that may render them ultimately irrelevant. The sexual abuse scandals that have shaken the church in Ireland, America, and elsewhere primarily involve priests and Christian Brothers, but since the production of Patricia Burke Brogan's play Eclipsed in 1992 and the TV documentary States of Fear in 1999, the stories of the Magdalene laundries and the industrial schools have forced us to recognize that some Irish nuns were also sadistic abusers of women and children. Claims of maltreatment in orphanages and reformatories all over the world, the majority of them run by orders that originated in Ireland, have multiplied. The exposure of this shameful past has accentuated a Western demographic trend that began just after Vatican II, long before tales of brutality threatened to undermine the ethical foundations of the religious life. As modernizing nuns abandoned the medieval habit and the hidden discipline of the cloister to take up work in the world, and as professional careers for women outside the convent increased, the distinctive appeal of the religious life faded. In Africa, which offers fewer secular opportunities for women, convents are still attracting numerous recruits, but the decline of Irish vocations has been precipitous, and it has accelerated during the last decade. During the 1960s roughly seven hundred women entered Irish convents every year; in 2004 there were just twelve postulants, and most of the Irish nuns who remain are over sixty years old.2 A traditional way of life is ending amidst accusations that threaten to invalidate everything for which it once stood.3
Although for a lapsed Catholic like me the theological stakes are not high, I am still a convent girl at heart, and as a feminist I would like to recuperate the ethical and social value of these communities of women, even as I confront their past corruption and their probable disappearance. But the theoretical issues are complex and contradictory. Feminism in Ireland is frequently aligned with the discourse of modernity, and many feminists who oppose patriarchal Catholicism see nuns as complicit with a traditional system that [End Page 10] both dominated and devalued them. Catriona Clear writes, "Visible but not vocal, nuns were an Irish Catholic variation on the theme of the ideal Victorian female" ("Limits" 45).4 Dwindling religious recruitment can thus be interpreted as a positive by-product of the scandals, and the dissolution of the nexus between religion and nationalism acclaimed as a symptom of progress. As disused convent buildings are modernized into condos for the newly prosperous, the foundation of the traditionally Gaelic and Catholic Ireland envisioned by Pearse and constructed by de Valera is crumbling.
Yet, as postcolonial scholars have frequently pointed out, the narrative of global modernity threatens to erase both the specificity of...