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Late in the Field: Catholic Sisters in Twentieth-Century Ireland and the New Religious History Margaret MacCurtain The most significant development of the 1980s in the field of history has been the emergence of women's history. Its acceptance by the Irish professional history estabhshment has been slow. In setting the history of women as the theme for the twenty-first Conference of Historians held in Queen's University, Belfast, 27-29 May 1993, the Irish conference of historians has yielded tardily to the demand of practitioners of women's history at third-level institutions to come together and share the research on women's history, an area formally recognized by the International Committee of Historical Sciences in September 1987. Its entry into and its reluctant acceptance by the academic world in Ireland have given rise to new ways of looking at primary sources and innovative methods, and has sparked an interest by a reading and hstening pubhc that has taken professional historians aback.1 No summer school, no third level, or university department of history can afford to ignore the treatment of women as an important field of studies. Yearly, the volume of new scholarship on women accelerates as graduate schools take on the task of guiding theses in women's history, often without the training and specialized skills needed for this rapidly expanding field. High on the list of new tools is the issue of gender as a category of analysis; to it may be added in the nineties those of class and ethnicity in the redefinition of "difference." A feminist analysis of power yields a different configuration of the past and, in general, according to Linda Gordon in a recent survey of U.S. women's history, "most women's historians consider themselves social historians, focusing more on private than on pubhc experience, more on informal than on official sources of power."2 The chronology of writing twentieth-century nuns into Irish history is full of surprises. A cluster of studies in the first years of the twentieth century focused on subjects such as Foxford and its woollen mills (founded by Agnes Morrogh-Bernard), Mother Arsenius,3 and Irish convent industries including lace and linen weaving.4 Somewhat later, Helena Concannon, professor of history in University College, Galway, wrote several studies of the Poor Clares nuns, estabhshing securely the spiritual traditions of contemplative nuns in Ireland.5 Her work contributes by its scholarly method to a history of Irish female spirituality. Two major biographies of founders, one by Roland Burke, S.J., A Valiant Dublin Woman: © 1995 Journal of Women's History, Vol 6 No. 4/Vol 7 No. ι (Winter/Spring) 50 Journal of Women's History Winter/Spring The History of George's Hill (1940), the other by T. J. Walsh, Nano Nagle and the Presentation Sisters (1959), exemplified the tenets of Catholic historiography of the mid-century: namely, that historical biography, especially of those who were leaders, was "the key to unlocking the past, and the object of this exercise was to understand more fully the history of the institution."6 In 1965 Angela Bolster pubhshed her Ph.D. thesis, "The Sisters of Mercy in the Crimea," a revisionist study that upset admirers of Florence Nightingale. Bolster, with her emphasis on documentary sources, went on to edit The Letters of Catherine McAuley, and has been one of the main influences behind the steady stream of postgraduate studies of Mercy Sisters since the seventies.7 At least fifty postgraduate theses dealing with the role or activities of Irish rehgious women in the twentieth century have been researched in various university departments over the past fifteen years. Of these, five dealt with the Mercy Sisters in different regions of Ireland, four with the Presentation Order of nuns, three with the Loreto Institute, two with the Sisters of the Holy Faith, one each with Dominicans, Ursulines, Sisters of St. Louis, and Poor Clare teaching Sisters. Several more theses, including the Ph.D. dissertation of John Coolahan, professor of education at Maynooth College, treated the Cathohc Sisters in the context of state training colleges, and several more examined their involvement with workhouses.8 Biographies have appeared in the 1980s...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 49-63
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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