Lifting the veil on entrepreneurial Irishwomen

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (Winter 2003), Volume 11


The Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul dispensing bread in 1916. (Murtagh Collection)

The Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul dispensing bread in 1916. (Murtagh Collection)

The governing responsibilities of the mother superior of a convent, as laid down by nineteenth-century Canon Law, stated that she may ‘make ordinary purchases necessary to provide shelter or clothing or which are needed for the ordinary upkeep of property. She may [perform] acts of ordinary administration . . . enter into contracts of buying and selling . . . gifts, loans, rents and all other acts of a similar nature’. In other words, a considerable amount of decision-making in financial and business matters was needed, and the women who managed religious institutions were required to have experience, skill and business acumen. References in convent annals and obituaries cite sisters who were ‘endowed with great business capacity’ or had ‘a skill in business matters and a power of administration which astonished men of the world’. These particular quotations relate to a couple of dynamic English-born nuns but contain sentiments which could equally be applied to hundreds, if not thousands, of Irishwomen recruited out of Ireland to join religious orders since the 1850s.
In the main drawn from middle-class farming families, these young women would live out the rest of their days abroad in England, North America, Australia, Africa, India, China and elsewhere. The religious institutions of their choice in many instances did not even possess a house in Ireland, and girls set off to report to novitiates in England, or even further afield. Unaccounted for in the shadowy grey statistics that chart female emigration figures, they slipped away from these shores—for the most part never to return.

Close examination of the growth of religious orders in these islands reveals the startling fact that there were far more Roman Catholic convents in England and Wales than in Ireland by the latter half of the nineteenth century. From 1870 onwards several waves of French, German and other European communities had fled to seek sanctuary on English soil, driven there by European anti-clerical legislation, wars and other civil strife. An early exodus was triggered by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–1, Bismarck’s Kulturkampf (1871–87) and the ‘Falk Laws’ of 1873, which sought to completely suppress the influence of the Roman Catholic church in Prussia. The trickle of exiles later became a fast-growing flow. French religious communities fell foul of Combe’s educational laws of July 1904 that forbade them to teach and ordered their houses to be shut within ten years. Congregations of nursing sisters were also eventually banned from French hospitals and they, too, chose exile in due course.
The financial viability and survival of these communities’ convent life in exile, however, relied very much on their ability to earn their keep as educationalists, nurses or social care workers. They also now needed many more English-speaking members. But the Catholic population of England, although increasing, was still small. The convents switched their attention to Ireland and, as one former French community put it, they set about ‘gleaning from the land of St Patrick’. It was a stupendously successful tactic, as will be shown.

Working at the cutting edge of social development

As the earliest influx of exiled religious communities were arriving in England, government agencies were already coping with the result of changes in the administration of the old Poor Laws. Voluntary bodies of all denominations had been gearing up to provide charitable social services and there was rising public concern over health and education issues. Institutional care and rehabilitation of those in need was a priority, and the newly arrived religious communities found themselves working at the cutting edge of the many social and economic developments taking place in Britain. In addition, the increasingly benign climate of tolerance, which had led to the English Catholic hierarchy being re-established in 1851, had brought about a flurry of parish (at that time called mission) consolidation. Spurred on by both church and government approval, convents built, administered and staffed hundreds of schools at every level of education from pre-school crèches for working mothers to coaching girls for university entrance. They provided teacher training colleges, hostels, homes and orphanages. They established and ran hospitals, asylums, institutions, organised nursing services, and a wide range of other social care. The increase in the number and expansion of religious houses was nothing short of phenomenal. Some were very large—holding perhaps upwards of 90 sisters—while others were smaller but, as a rule, accommodating not less than twelve nuns. They were soon an established presence in every corner of England and Wales.

Alarm bells

The average Victorian, especially if non-Catholic, liked to shroud this choice of lifestyle for women in a mysterious Gothic mist which hinted at nefarious intent and dark medieval practices. With newly established convent houses springing up in almost every English city and town, a great wave of alarm began to rise. Questions were asked in parliament. There was a demand for immediate legislation to provide for convent inspection and the issue became a well-aired talking-point. Public curiosity about all matters connected with nuns became obsessive. There were cartoons in Punch, and not for nothing was the most popular painting in the Royal Academy in 1868 a depiction of a young girl being rescued in the nick of time by a dashing medieval knight just as she was being bricked up alive in a convent wall by a coterie of evil-looking monks and nuns. Its sensational title, ‘Not a whit too soon!’, was guaranteed to create plenty of notice and fashionable acclaim. In 1872 a pamphlet going the rounds in London warned of ‘swarms of Jesuits [attracted] to this country . . . who had got wind of a vast horde of potential recruits to Roman Catholic convents’.
The public concern at the expansion of convent life, while bordering on the hysterical, was not, however, over-imaginative in its predictions. By the 1880s there were already far more convents in England and Wales than in Ireland. By the turn of the century the pattern of growth had continued. Less than two decades into the new century there would be twice as many convents in England as in Ireland.
In providing a response to social needs the convents had willingly engaged in hundreds of new undertakings, and their services were supported by and well used by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But none of these activities could be developed without a large intake of new aspirants to religious life. All the convents were seeking personnel. All were recruiting heavily. In England the religious orders could, of course, tap the traditional heartlands of old English Catholicism to be found in Lancashire and parts of the north-east, in addition to drawing from the melting-pot of London. Analysis of these recruitment patterns reveals a wealth of Irish surnames and backgrounds—evidence of the Irish diaspora—also to be found in the west of Scotland. (See map 1, p.25.) But the volume of aspirants from these sources was relatively small and unable to provide enough girls who, as nuns, could teach, nurse or tackle the social problems to be addressed.

Recruitment from Munster and south Leinster

Recent analysis of professed (fully accepted) membership of four religious institutions, only one of which had a house based in Ireland prior to the twentieth century, reveal that their intake over about 80 years was reliant on high numbers of Irishwomen and, in particular, on aspirants from Munster and south Leinster. (See map 2, p. 25.)
A line can be drawn from Louth to Limerick to trace these sisters’ birthplaces. Coincidentally, the same line also marks out the best farming land in Ireland. Poor soil, stone, bog and wild mountainside were not, it seems, fertile ground for vocations. Great swaths of Ireland accounted for barely one per cent of intake, or less. Clearly many religious institutions preferred girls drawn from solid middle-class backgrounds—the daughters of substantial farming households.
Fortunately for the convents seeking young women at this time, many economic and social changes had deeply affected the farming families of Munster and Leinster. From the 1870s onwards, having survived the Famine, a new middle class of ‘strong farmers’, cattle-dealers and small town merchants had emerged.

The gradual changes in farming practice, however, had started to erode the traditional farming role for farmers’ daughters. Slowly, areas of work that had formerly been their responsibility were disappearing. Male-run creameries were taking over the milking and butter-making. The setting up of farm co-ops and the emergence of middlemen had edged into egg production and pig- and poultry-keeping. Consequently, as the convents discovered, there was a growing pool of unemployed strong farmers’ daughters for the picking. Alternative off-farm employment for these girls in rural areas did not exist. Many from the larger homesteads would have been relatively well educated at the local convent school and it could be suspected that they might have thought themselves too high up the social scale of ‘respectability’ to have considered the possibility of emigration to seek work as domestic servants or factory hands. However, to teach, nurse or engage in social work was, by contrast, considered a very ‘ladylike’ and worthy occupation with status. To engage in this work, while at the same time being protected by the security of a religious habit, would have appeared very desirable, even leaving aside all the higher religious motives which undoubtedly provided a strong driving force.
Census returns bear testimony to the hundreds, if not thousands, described merely as ‘farmer’s daughter’ still living at home. For example, in County Limerick in 1901 and 1911, out of 54 farming families traced from which daughters had entered one English congregation, only two households had an alternative occupation for their girls. In one a young woman worked as a teacher; in another three sisters were seamstresses.
Family pressures brought encouragement. Manuscripts of the Irish Folklore Commission contain evidence that to have children recruited to the church carried a very high approval rating for parents in rural Ireland. As it was said, ‘a priest in the family is the sign of big people’. Much the same would apply to daughters who ‘took the veil’. Many had been schooled in French, music, needlework and the ‘domestic skills’ of housewifery and child care, and it follows that such refinements readily equipped the daughters of respectable strong farmers to don a religious habit in order to become the schoolteachers, nurses and social care workers who formed the backbone of development in social and health care facilities for the masses—whether in Ireland, England or elsewhere in the world.
Not every daughter of a strong farmer was successful in achieving her ambition to become a nun. Entry registers for active communities engaged in teaching, health and social care reveal the rigour of the weeding-out process. Unsuitable would-be candidates or postulants who were not perfectly healthy in mind and body, or who were deemed too fickle to endure the strict discipline, were summarily despatched home within weeks as having ‘no vocation’.

In attendance at a domestic sickbed-the newly arrived religious communities found themselves working at the cutting edge of the many social and economic developments taking place in Britain. (Peter Walsh)

In attendance at a domestic sickbed-the newly arrived religious communities found themselves working at the cutting edge of the many social and economic developments taking place in Britain. (Peter Walsh)

The work they would be asked to do was demanding, obedience was paramount, and the training to be undergone was strict and thorough. In convent registers tart comments recorded aspirants’ shortcomings: ‘not a worker’, ‘distinctly sluggish’, ‘too delicate for housework’, ‘legs bad’, ‘weak eyes’, ‘untruthful’, ‘useless’, ‘no loss’! The girls they wanted had to be totally committed—and tough. They were the sort who nowadays volunteer for work abroad with aid agencies, who give up their free time to join women’s support groups, who counsel, teach and help care for the disadvantaged.
Evidence has shown that there could be up to twenty per cent kinship within the membership of some congregations. Encouraged by great-aunts, aunts, cousins and blood sisters who had already entered the ranks of a religious community, generation after generation of bright and gutsy girls joined their kith and kin in religious life, rolled up their sleeves and tackled social problems that not many others would touch. The majority, it must be said, subsequently spent years in lowly and obscure dedication to the work they were assigned to—but others rose high within the ranks of their chosen institutions to become formidable mother superiors who did not balk at tangling with intransigent bishops or initiating bold building projects.
Why were these daughters of the strong farmers and middle-class merchants so successful in their chosen careers? Perhaps they brought to convent life an overlooked bonus in that their family backgrounds had fostered in them an inherent business acumen and authority. It was knowledge gathered in the most traditional and basic way since childhood by listening to the talk round the table. These girls had grown up understanding the negotiating skills required by self-employed farmers for striking deals, for haggling and manoeuvring over a price. If not exactly ‘street-wise’ in the urban sense, it might be said that they were most certainly ‘market-place aware’ when it came to financial matters. They were accustomed to the supervision of farm servants and other staff and they were familiar with animal husbandry—which was useful if a convent ran a small farm, as many did. As ‘daughters of the house’, young Irishwomen knew how to run a middle-class household. Convent households were, in essence, exactly this and they had to conduct their affairs in a business-like manner to survive.

Balancing the books

Research on religious communities based in England—and some of these institutions were 75 per cent reliant on Irishwomen for membership—shows that a typical convent was required to balance its books and, if at all possible, to provide a small annual surplus of income over expenditure. The mother superior and her assistant, the convent bursar, were accountable for every penny spent, either to their institute’s superior general or to the local bishop.
Their income, for the most part, was raised from the professional work carried out, whether as teachers, nurses or as administrators of health and welfare institutions. A two-tier scale of fees was usually in operation, by which a proportion of payments made by the wealthy for educational, nursing, hospital or institutional care would be set aside to subsidise poor schools, gratuitous nursing services and care of the elderly and so on. Income was also generated from money brought in to communities as dowries by the girls who were accepted. Dowries might range from as much as £1,000 to as little as £5, or even nothing at all. It is not always understood that the amount of dowry varied considerably from community to community and depended sometimes on whether the structure of the religious congregation involved class differences between choir nuns and lay sisters. Many did not employ a rule that required formal divisions. On average, a dowry was roughly commensurate with the sum expected as a marriage dowry—which in mid-nineteenth-century rural Ireland might be around £300. Such funds were invested and not touched during the lifetime of each community member.
Convents sometime received subscriptions, donations and gifts of property, or endowments from benefactors, especially from new converts to Catholicism, or from the clergy. They were always well supported by laywomen, who may have felt a particular empathy with the sisters and their work. Such funds were usually carefully invested to provide interest or collateral for borrowings. Convents took out loans and mortgages in just the same way as any other business. They could, and did, negotiate bank overdrafts. They held portfolios of shares and other financial investment packages. Legal and financial documents would be signed by the mother superior, sometimes together with her assistant or the convent bursar.
A community’s outgoings should be thought of in terms of an ordinary household’s expenses for food, heat, light, rent and rates, insurance and so on. Added to this would be the costs of running the schools, the hospitals and the other services.

The Catholic Cathedral of St John's, Salford, in the 1890s. (H.E. Titmarsh)

The Catholic Cathedral of St John’s, Salford, in the 1890s. (H.E. Titmarsh)

School supplies had to be purchased and a wage bill covered if lay staff members were employed. Having taken vows of poverty, the sisters themselves received no personal payment for their work. The wages paid by government agencies to a religious community for professional services would be subsumed into the general income of the congregation.
Their work was costly. In the administration of hospitals, clusters of schools or asylum types of institutions, a convent community could expect to have several hundred or so extra people who needed to be provided with sustenance: patients, inmates, schoolchildren—those who through age, or homelessness or other disability were incapable of helping themselves in some way. All required food, shelter, heat, light and so on. All such convent–based activities were required to be financially viable.
It is not always realised that convent accounts were subject to annual audits, often conducted by outside accountants. Before charitable status was introduced, the religious institutions had to pay income tax and other charges. Many expanding congregations acquired large, old and sometimes unsuitable buildings in need of expensive refurbishment. Completely new premises were often built and mother superiors took personal responsibility for the supervision of

construction work. They had direct dealings with surveyors, architects and building tradesmen, plumbers, carpenters, painters and decorators. Contracts were negotiated, surveyors consulted, reports and quotations drawn up, and the work finally supervised—all dealt with by the sisters as a matter of course. A letter in one archive, written by the institution’s mother general, pays tribute to a convent superior whom she had entrusted with a large building programme in 1891:

Sister Catherine of Sienna has spared herself no trouble or fatigue. She has really done the office of Clerk of the Works and I am sure must have saved thus more than £100. There would have been many mistakes without her supervision.

One hundred pounds was a considerable sum of money in those days!

Formidable purchasing power

By the turn of the century, some of the larger religious congregations’ purchasing power was formidable and the business they conducted with local traders of substantial value. Examination of the advertising section of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholic Directories reveals these journals to be replete with building suppliers and wholesalers offering plumbing and heating systems, laundry machinery, desks and school supplies of every description, in addition to day-to-day catering requirements. It was a lucrative market and one jealously guarded. However, astute reverend mothers were slow to bend to threats or persuasion from supposedly supportive Catholic tradespeople.

According to nineteenth-century Canon Law the mother superior of a convent could ‘make ordinary purchases necessary to provide shelter or clothing or which are needed for the ordinary upkeep of property. She may [perform] acts of ordinary administration . . . enter into contracts of buying and selling . . . gifts, loans, rents and all other acts of a similar nature'. (The Catholic Directory, Advertiser, 1897)

According to nineteenth-century Canon Law the mother superior of a convent could ‘make ordinary purchases necessary to provide shelter or clothing or which are needed for the ordinary upkeep of property. She may [perform] acts of ordinary administration . . . enter into contracts of buying and selling . . . gifts, loans, rents and all other acts of a similar nature’. (The Catholic Directory, Advertiser, 1897)

When faced with threats of being reported to the bishop for using a non-Catholic builder and architect in Sheffield, one community merely referred the matter to their lawyer and carried on with their plans regardless. The convent archives do not record whether or not they followed the further advice of their legal team who, on hearing that the protesting traders had been led by a local Catholic bank manager, suggested that the sisters might show their disapproval of his meddling in their affairs by removing their account from his branch.
On a day to day basis, evidence suggests that small individual convents conducted their household expenditure with the same thrifty management as was required of any ordinary Victorian middle-class home. Good value and saving were sought in the purchase of all necessities. In the 1880s a community of sisters in Birmingham—three-quarters of whom were either Irish or from the Irish diaspora—conducted regular business with a London-based co-operative firm for delivery of groceries at discount prices. The convent bursar monitored the quality and exactitude of their supplies by carefully checking the entries in their passbook. When a charge of 4d for coffee was found to be in error, it was later carefully itemised as a credited refund. Truly an example of compliance with the Victorian moral axiom ‘If you mind the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves’!
Nineteenth-century convents, having risen to become powerful and influential institutions, began their slow decline in the final quarter of the last century. Other agencies had taken on their social responsibilities in the fields of education, health and caring work and the need for their input had passed. Moreover, the well of unemployable young rural Irishwomen had dried up. It may be seen now that convent life in the last two centuries had created an unprecedented dynamic which, despite inherent failings and faults, endeavoured bravely to respond to the needs of the time. The contribution made by the thousands of Irishwomen who left Ireland to become nuns has been of inestimable merit. While often hidden and unacknowledged, the power and influence they wielded are undeniable and their work, when weighed up against the vacuum that had previously existed in education, health and social care, staggeringly worthwhile.

Barbara Walsh has a doctorate in history from Lancaster University.

Further reading:

B. Walsh, Roman Catholic nuns in England and Wales 1800–1937: a social history (Dublin and Portland, 2002).


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