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Studies: telling the nuns’ story

Most of the autumn issue of Studies is given over to the proceedings of a 2017 conference on ‘Sources and the history of women religious’, organised under the auspices of H-WRBI (History of Women Religious – Britain and Ireland). Seven papers from that conference are published here. They cover a range of issues regarding the tracking and interpreting of evidence, written and oral, in telling the story of nuns’ lives in Ireland.

Nun’s the word. As the editorial puts it, “A large part of the motivation for producing this issue is the desire to help in however modest a way in the work of rescuing the word ‘nun’, and the reputation of the many thousands of immensely dedicated Irish women who were traditionally called by that name from (…) ‘historical marginalisation’.” It is of course acknowledged that in some of the institutions run by women religious “damage, sometimes terrible damage, was done by individuals and bodies purporting to act in the name of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”. This, however, was only part of the story – “surely much the lesser part” – and the fact that it has been allowed to become the whole story “constitutes a grave injustice of its own”.

In her lead article, Dr Deirdre Raftery, organiser of the conference and associate editor of this issue, identifies the problems and the opportunities which researchers in recent decades have encountered in respect to the archives of the women’s congregations. Access to these private collections has improved greatly of late in Ireland and elsewhere, especially through the professionalisation of archive curation and the active encouragement that women religious often now extend to researchers and scholars.

“At home,” Dr Raftery writes, “Irish women religious have left a vast, and largely undocumented, legacy to healthcare and education”. It may be difficult for these religious communities, she notes, “to prioritise consideration of their historical footprint”; this, however “is precisely the time when congregational histories need to be written and archival collections need to be supported”.

In her ‘Documentary sources for Magdalen history and the challenges’, Jacinta Prunty concentrates on the houses of Our Lady of Charity, who ran Magdalen asylums in Dublin, about which she has written at much greater length elsewhere. She surveys the opportunities and the pitfalls with which the archives of religious congregations provide the researcher. Attention must be paid, she stresses, to the “culture and context” of the record-keeping tradition in these congregations. The historian must attend to the institutional purposes behind the community annals, obituaries, circular letters, and so on, as well as to considerations of genre, language, terminology, and translation.

Other essays in this autumn’s Studies look at the role of women religious in the sciences (by Jennifer A. Head), the theoretical and practical issues surrounding oral records particularly with regard to the stories of women religious (Carmen Mangion), and insights into the life and work of women religious in post-war Italy (Flora Derounian).

This issue of Studies may be purchased here »