Máire M. Kealy, Dominican Education in Ireland 1820-1930, Irish Academic Press, Dublin, Portland, OR, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-7165-2888-3 (cloth), 978-0-7165-2889-0 (paper), xx-236 p.
Reviewed by Claude Auger, Dominican University College, Ottawa, June 2008.
The women religious of the “Isle of Saints and Scholars” have been the subjects of many books and studies, especially since Caitriona Clear’s pioneer work The Nun in Nineteenth Century Ireland(1988). Máire M. Kealy’s book, Dominican Education in Ireland 1820-1930, is one of the latest publications in this expanding field. The book covers the period from 1820, when the Dominican nuns of Cabra (Dublin) opened a poor school, to 1930, when the Siena Dominicans, in Drogheda, decided to close their school. The 110 years studied provide a wealth of materials for a well-documented and well-told history of Irish Dominican sisters’ involvement in education at all levels. The author chronicles and analyzes successes, difficulties and failures; her “insider” status, as a member of the Cabra Dominicans, does not stop her from making a critical assessment of the reasons explaining the relative lack of Dominican involvement in schools for the poor (p. 43-47), or looking at some areas where the nuns were less successful, such as the establishment of a university college for nuns (p. 180-185).
An introduction presents the “Dominican Ethos in Education.” While the reader might have expected a longer development about the Order of Preachers’ mission and its consequences for the educative endeavours typical of many Dominican congregations, this short section (10 pages) also surveys the history of Dominican women in Ireland between 1224 and 1820, highlights the importance of the lay sisters in the overall mission, and presents an overview of historiographical issues regarding women’s education and available source material. (A small typo occurs on page 5: Sr Rose O’Neill’s book covers the period from 1644 to 1994 and not 1944 as printed; the bibliographical reference, p. 222, has the correct information.) The author studies the Dominican convents that gave birth to her own congregation, including the Taylor’s Hill community (Galway) which joined the Cabra congregation in 1970, but includes also the educational activities of Siena Convent, in Drogheda, where the sisters decided in 1930 to renounce their school and embrace the purely contemplative life that had been theirs for many centuries. A very short account of the foundation of the friars’ college, St. Thomas in Newbridge, rounds up the picture of Dominican involvement in Irish education (p. 3-4). An overview, however brief, of the Irish Dominican women’s educational endeavours outside Ireland (notably in Portugal, New Orleans, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) would have given an even better sense of the importance of their work.
The first three chapters cover respectively primary education, secondary education and women’s higher education (university and teachers’ colleges). In each chapter, Sr Kealy not only describes the work of the different Dominican convents, but also presents it within the perspective of the general history of education in Ireland. The book provides the necessary background allowing the non-Irish reader to understand the importance of the National Schools System of 1831 (primary education), the Intermediate Act [Ireland] of 1878 (secondary schools) and the University question in Ireland (1845-1909). While providing a wealth of information regarding the secular environment, the author strikes a good balance in replacing the Dominican sisters’ work in the ecclesial context of the Irish Church of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This reviewer was particularly interested by the story on how the Poor Clares, Carmelites and Dominicans asked Rome to pass from the jurisdiction of the male mendicant order to that of the archbishop of Dublin (pp. 30-32), demonstrating how the heirs of the cloistered nuns found ways of actualizing the charism of their community. It is a fascinating piece of history, especially when contrasted with the efforts of so many founders in the nineteenth century to put their congregations under papal jurisdiction.
The fourth chapter, called “Widening Horizons” (pp. 167-190), touches more briefly on different topics: the education of teaching nuns between 1820 and 1878; various cultural achievements of Dominican sisters through the years; a recounting of the amalgamation of the different Dominican convents in Ireland to form the Cabra congregation; the relations between the convents and the department of Education; a brief history of the Conference of Convent Secondary Schools of Ireland (CCSS); some notes about the efforts to create a separate university college for sisters (a project that never came to fruition); and a few words on some alumnae of the different Dominican schools. Any of these seven topics warrants a fuller development, and we hope that other scholars will pick up these threads and add to the overview done by Sr Kealy. Five appendices supply a list of the Dominican convents in Ireland, 1644-1930, and reprint some primary material (two notices, a prospectus and a letter).
Dominican Education in Ireland is the published version of Sr Kealy’s doctoral dissertation. On some aspects, the transition from thesis to book would have benefited from a more rigorous editing. Because of the division of chapters according to educational levels, there is a risk of repetition. For example, the story of (most) Dominican convents amalgamating to form the Cabra congregation is hinted at on page 5, and again on pages 114-115, before being told fully on pages 172-174. For readers not yet familiar with Dominican Irish history, it would have been helpful to read the whole story right from the outset.
Another small quibble: the map on page 77, of the Dominican convents in Dublin, is helpful; even more helpful would have been an indication of the communities’ moves from one convent to another, or a presentation centred on institutions as opposed to addresses, as the British and Irish custom of calling religious communities or parishes by their address is sometimes perplexing for North American readers. The same could be said of the table on page 11: one has to read the third chapter before fully understanding that there were not three Dominican universities in Dublin, but that the same institution had three different addresses (as the captions on page 137 make abundantly clear).
The Dominican Sisters of Cabra are probably the Irish congregation which has been the most studied recently, as the “Books and Publications” page on their website demonstrates. Sr Kealy’s book is a worthy addition to this growing list, adding new strands to many tapestries: Dominican history, women and education studies, not to mention Irish and Catholic history in general.
In light of this abundance of riches (but certainly not to stop it from growing!), this reviewer hopes that other congregations will also become, or become again, the object of scholarly investigation. For example, would it not be time to renew the history of the Presentation and the Mercy congregations, focussing less on the founders and more on the congregations they established? Given their world-wide influence, they certainly deserve no less. We also hope that due attention will be given to the contemplative communities, especially the two founded in Ireland, the Institute of the Perpetual Adoration (Wexford) and the Franciscan Convent of Perpetual Adoration (Drumshanbo), so that the full diversity of women religious’ experience in Ireland might be understood and remembered.