Ireland’s last nuns are dying out. Can we condemn their abuses – and admit the good they did too?

The Guardian [London, England]

January 15, 2024

By Dearbhail McDonald

I helped expose the grotesque hypocrisy of the Catholic church. But I owe so much to the nuns who formed me

The 1990s witnessed the collision of three tectonic plates that are still shaping the course of Irish history: the Celtic Tiger, the peace process and the decline of the Catholic church.

Legacy is all around us: the legacy of boom and bust, the legacy of the Troubles and, almost 30 years after the catastrophic eruption of the clerical and institutional abuse scandals, Ireland is still coming to terms with the legacy of an unholy communion between church and state. Anger over the institutional response of the Catholic church to the abuse scandals, and its continued failure to take responsibility for the systemic cover-up of those abuses, is still visceral and ever-present.

The Irish government is currently locked in “confidential” negotiations with female religious orders that ran “mother and baby homes” over how much those orders should pay towards an €800m compensation scheme for survivors. The talks come ahead of the excavation of the remains of potentially hundreds of dead babies that were discovered in a septic tank on the grounds of a former home in Tuam, Galway.

Horrors such as Tuam still have the capacity to shock this scandal-fatigued island – and that’s before they bring the bodies up. But whether we like it or not, the Catholic church was integral to the foundation of the Irish nation. Priests and nuns, particularly the latter, built schools, hospitals and social care services at a time when the state could not, cementing the dominance and control of the Vatican over every aspect of Irish life.

The toxic codependency owes its genesis, in part, to England’s suppression of Irish Catholics and the Irish language through Na Péindlíthe, the penal laws introduced in 1695. Catholics were finally emancipated in 1829, but the penal era- induced fusion of Catholicism and nationalism has cast a long pall, giving the impoverished, fledgling Irish state in the 1920s a distinctive theocratic aspect.

Fast forward 100 years and we are now, arguably, a post-Catholic state. The first country in the world to legalise gay marriage by public vote, in 2015, Ireland three years later comprehensively repealed its constitutional ban on abortion, with 66% voting in support. Those referendums, ostensibly on social issues, were – in many respects – proxy plebiscites on the remnants of power and patriarchy wielded by the Catholic church.

Faith still matters to many people in Ireland, including the 69% who still identify as Catholic, down 10 percentage points from 2016. Many still have respect and admiration for nuns and priests, but that affection is for individual nuns or priests. It’s the institution we can’t abide. We are “bouncy castle Catholics”, marking big occasions through the familiar and comforting rituals of baptisms, funerals and sacraments such as holy communion, which leads to an annual hiring frenzy of inflatable bouncy castles.

Cultural Catholicism aside, the legacy of abuse is manifest in complex rows over redress, asset transfers and the yet to be legally tested question of who really should have ownership of the church’s massive land banks and properties, them or us? It is manifest in empty pews, a vocations crisis and the realisation we may now be witnessing the age of the last priests and last nuns in Ireland. In a country where, in living memory, practically every family included at least one priest or nun, their numbers now appear to be in terminal decline.

The statistics are stark. The average age of Catholic priests in Ireland, whose numbers hover around the 2,000 mark, is now over 70. The population of nuns and sisters, which peaked at more than 13,400 in the 1960s, has now plunged to fewer than 4,000, with an average age of over 80.

I recently met many, mostly older women in religious orders as part of a pair of authored films, by myself and the actor and comedian Ardal O’Hanlon, who played Father Dougal in the Father Ted series. What if these are the last priests and nuns, Ardal and I asked? Will we miss them when they are gone?

The journey was, and remains, a complicated one for me, a convent-educated journalist who cut her teeth covering the abuse scandals, whose work helped expose the grotesque hypocrisy of the institutional church. And yet I owe so much to the nuns who formed me and many other Irish women.

As the broadcaster Olivia O’Leary has pointed out, Irish women in the 20th century “got a better education from nuns than they would have got from the state, which didn’t care much about women other than to point out that their place was in the home”.

We can’t ignore that fact. I certainly can’t, because the Sisters of St Clare in Newry were the first feminists I encountered. Women ahead of their time, who fervently believed that education was the way out of the Troubles that blighted our young lives, they made it their life’s mission to enable us to become financially independent and take our place in the world. Many did, including Siobhan Keegan, a fellow “St Clare’s girl” who in 2021 became the first lady chief justice of Northern Ireland.

On my journey, I met women in religious orders who had been pilots, surgeons, social workers and academics. Nuns and sisters whom I imagine would be running countries or large corporations had they not dedicated their lives to God. Women who found freedom and autonomy behind convent walls at a time when many Irish women outside them did not. I met valiant and selfless women who are doing amazing work, today, with poor and marginalised people.

I met women who expressed sincere and profound regret at the harms suffered by children and young girls in the control of orders of which they are members. I met nuns who felt that they as a whole had been scapegoated, and others who were devastated that the abuse perpetrated by some will cancel the positive contribution and life’s work of their majority.

Some nuns are themselves asking uncomfortable questions. “Why were young women put into institutions because they were pregnant?” one 91-year-old sister asked me. “Where was he? Where was the father and where were the parents that put their daughters in there? That was the problem. It was society that created these places, and then the nuns were foolish enough to take on the work.

“We thought we had to do all the charitable work of the church, all the caring for orphans, caring for the dying.”

Perhaps she is right. But we cannot ignore the fact the church actively participated in the takeover of these functions. Nor can we ignore the countless victims of institutional abuse who, in the past, suffered horrific cruelties under the control and domination of female religious orders. Women incarcerated in Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes, whose babies were adopted illegally. Women who were subjected to needless hysterectomies and symphysiotomies – an outdated procedure where the pelvis is sawn apart during childbirth – which were continued in some Irish hospitals long after it was abandoned elsewhere. Unreal suffering.

Like many, I struggle to reconcile the undoubted achievements of our women in religious orders with the undeniable legacy of abuse. The priests’ and nuns’ way of life, as we and they have known it, may be gone in 10 or 15 years’ time. Reconciliation remains out of reach until the Catholic church opens its archives and accepts responsibility for its failings. In the meantime, can we hold these truths, the achievements, as well as the abuse?

  • Dearbhail McDonald is an Irish journalist and author. The Last Priests in Ireland airs on 15 January at 9.35pm on RTÉ One. The Last Nuns in Ireland airs on 16 January at 10.15pm