Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2022), Reviews, Volume 30

Newstalk, 3 & 9 October, 28 December 2021

By Fionnuala Walsh

Above: Margaret MacCurtain, known variously as Margaret, Dr MacCurtain, Sister Benvenuta or Sister Ben—her teaching and scholarship inspired several generations of historians at UCD and beyond.

In October 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, word trickled out that the historian Margaret MacCurtain had passed away. Over social media and in Zoom meetings, history scholars and friends gathered to lament her passing and reflect on her inspiration. The immediate fulsome response was some indication of the profound esteem in which MacCurtain was held in Ireland and among the wider Irish historical community. Her teaching and scholarship inspired several generations of historians at UCD and beyond, with her influence most profoundly felt in the field of women’s history. Her lasting legacy is very evident in this radio documentary, first broadcast on Newstalk in October 2021, repeated over Christmas and now available to hear again online. Produced and narrated by Patricia Baker, The Troublesome Nun is part of a series aimed at uncovering the transformative role of individual women in bringing about change in Irish society. Baker sought to capture the life and work of MacCurtain, whom she described as having ‘taught a generation to remember more ethically and to think more deeply about our past’ and who devoted her life to writing women into history.

The many varied contributors to the documentary include the historians Mary Cullen, Mary McAuliffe and Jennifer Redmond (all former presidents of the Women’s History Association of Ireland), Diarmaid Ferriter and Mary E. Daly from UCD History, and Maureen Murphy of Hofstra University, alongside Alan Hayes of Arlen House, her long-time publisher. The poets Paula Meehan and Theo Dorgan and the former presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese also briefly feature. Of particular interest are the musings and reflections of MacCurtain herself, drawn from an interview with Baker in 2019. The resulting documentary is an engaging and stimulating insight into the woman and historian and gives a sense of the magnitude of her legacy.

Many readers will be familiar with the broad strokes of Margaret MacCurtain’s life: the Dominican sister from County Cork who became a fixture of the UCD History Department from 1964 to 1994, known variously as Margaret, Dr MacCurtain, Sister Benvenuta or Sister Ben. There is much more to her life, however, and this documentary sheds light on lesser-known aspects of her career. Her wicked sense of humour, ‘boundless curiosity’ and generosity are warmly recalled, but there is a deliberate effort to avoid sanitising or diminishing her subversive side. In the words of Theo Dorgan, she was a ‘sweetheart’ who understood her own power and authority. She stood up to the hierarchy both of the Catholic Church, drawing the ire of Archbishop McQuaid, and of UCD, taking a court case against the university when it attempted to terminate her employment. The documentary takes its title from Ferriter’s description of her as the ‘troublesome nun’ in the context of her challenges to Church and university management. The very concept of women’s history in the 1970s was itself subversive in a male-dominated university environment where women’s experiences were considered of limited relevance to historiography and teaching. With determination MacCurtain pushed back and fought to include women’s history in the syllabus. She recognised the importance of alliances and worked closely with others, most notably in the establishment with Mary Cullen of the Women’s History Association of Ireland in 1989. The organisation continues today with more than 200 active members.

Above: The birth of modern Ireland (1969)—one of several school textbooks produced by Margaret MacCurtain (this one along with Mark Tierney).

The documentary also makes it clear that, while her upbringing and context influenced her direction, MacCurtain exercised agency in her choice to become a nun. She was active in student politics during her time studying for her BA and HDip. at University College Cork in the late 1950s. We learn that she was subsequently encouraged to undertake further study in Oxford with J.R.R. Tolkien, who, as external examiner, had been impressed by her work. She followed her own path, however, joining the Irish Congregation of Dominican Sisters at the age of 21 and completing a Ph.D in history at UCD while living in the convent. Her Ph.D focused on the seventeenth-century diplomat and priest Daniel O’Daly, and involved trips to archives in Spain, France and Portugal. As noted by Ferriter, there was a ‘very broad range’ to her research interests.

Mary McAleese argues, however, that teaching was her great vocation. MacCurtain was very involved in curriculum development in UCD and authored several second-level textbooks. It was interesting to learn from the documentary about her time as principal of Ballyfermot College of Further Education. For MacCurtain, education was inherently bound up with wider questions of social justice, and her time in Ballyfermot was an opportunity to develop her interests in access and inclusion. A former Ballyfermot colleague, Mary O’Dwyer, described Margaret’s restlessness and hurry to bring about reform, and her determination to ‘teach through lightness’, to make education a positive experience. She was instrumental in the introduction of sex education to the college, recognising its importance and willing to bypass religious customs when required.

Above: Theo Dorgan and Paula Meehan wrote poetry for MacCurtain, to be read to her on her deathbed to ease her final journey, and brief extracts are included in the documentary.

A devout nun for whom spirituality was of great importance, MacCurtain nonetheless believed that the Church had to change or be left behind by Irish society. She was active in social reform campaigns, including the abolition of corporal punishment, opposition to apartheid, the right to remarry after civil divorce and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. She was comfortable occupying the seemingly contradictory roles of feminist and nun, and even in the 2019 interview she persisted in challenging the hypocrisy of the Irish Church and wider society.

The tone from the contributors is universally affectionate. The pandemic meant that she had a small funeral, though many more watched it online. There were limited opportunities for her friends to gather in person to reminisce. Instead, this took place over Zoom calls, and the documentary captures some of these stories and memories. It feels somewhat like eavesdropping on a wake as these historians and writers recall her life and legacy. Meehan and Dorgan wrote poetry for MacCurtain to be read to her on her deathbed to ease her final journey, and brief extracts are included in the documentary. Her long-standing publisher Alan Hayes recalled movingly how Margaret reflected in her last days on the contribution she had made to Irish life. This documentary is an important reminder of the extent of that contribution and her transformative impact on Irish history and society.

Fionnuala Walsh is Assistant Professor of Modern Irish History at University College Dublin and secretary of the Women’s History Association of Ireland.


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