Yvonne McKenna, Made Holy: Irish Women Religious at Home and Abroad, Irish Academic Press, Dublin and Portland OR, 2006. ISBN 978-0-7165-3341-3 (cloth); 978-0-7165-3342-1 (paper), pp. xii + 268
Reviewed by: Rosa MacGinley, Golding Centre for Women’s History, Theology and Spirituality, Australian Catholic University, McAuley Campus, Brisbane, October 2007
Published by kind permission of the Women’s History Magazine Issue 58
This book is essentially a sociological study of thirty Irish women religious, all of whom spent significant periods of their religious lives outside Ireland, 17 in England, 8 on foreign missions and 5 involved in both situations. The author explores, predominantly by means of interviews, the experiences of migration for each woman, with reference to England as destination or a foreign mission (here chiefly in Africa, but also Latin America and Asia). She locates the migration from Ireland of female religious as a special – and so far under-researched – category of the much wider phenomenon of Irish migration in general. Quoting that, by the late 1960s, there were almost 15 000 women religious in Ireland, she uses her sources to estimate that a further 15 000 were resident overseas (p.1). Such a migration stream, with its multiple destinations, indeed merits research.
McKenna begins her study with a well documented survey of Irish society over the relevant years for the women interviewed (born between 1911 and 1950 and aged between 49 and 86 when interviewed). She gives a resumé of family circumstances (mainly middle-class) and explores influences on their choice of a religious life-style. She found that, for each, this was a conscious choice, though made within a milieu where the predominating values and ethos of Catholicism in Ireland, as they evolved from the mid-19th century, were taken for granted. The women rejected the suggestion that lack of marriage options may have influenced them. Their subsequent decisions and reflections on them indicate articulate, perceptive women. The author stresses that her exploration is not ‘a definitive study of all religious or even of these women religious’ (p.7). Among them, they entered nine congregations, to which she has given pseudonymous titles though quoting from the constitutions of four of them. Nine of the women joined one English congregation, whose constitutions are also the most frequently quoted.
The book then explores the experiences and reactions of the women who spent years in England. McKenna found a high level of homogeneity, though not unanimous, in their sense of experiencing ‘otherness’, though in a different category from that experienced by Irish lay people in England, which is well documented in her text – chosen membership of a religious congregation and the degree of independence this conferred ensuring this difference. In contrast with their reservations regarding life in England, the experience of foreign missionary service was overwhelmingly positive. They loved the mission environment, however hazardous, and felt their emotional investment well reciprocated by the local people they had come to serve. The final section of the book deals with return to Ireland, where the immediate response of a sense of being at home was soon qualified in various ways. Most found the expectations placed on them by family and older Catholics outdated and a burden; they found a changed Ireland where one, in a job search, would not admit to being a religious for fear of immediate rejection; a number now expressed appreciation of anonymity and absence of expectations, as well as possible avoidance, in England.
The responses in each of these areas are individually distinctive, honest and in no way imply rejection of their life choice. Yvonne McKenna, while perhaps over-situating the respondents’ replies in sociological analysis drawn from a wide spread of texts – all relevant – is careful to offer even-handedly qualified interpretations. The impression that this reviewer is left with is that of a study almost of a ‘time warp’ – of an Irish society which has rapidly undergone unprecedented change with a high level of reaction against the immediate past and of a segment of female religious life also deeply affected by radical change and consequent reaction. From both aspects, it is an exploration of the dying end of an era and there is value in this.
I follow with some more personal reflections, having recently completed a history of 25 women religious (all Presentation, with 22 Australian and 3 Irish) on mission in Papua New Guinea, 1966-2006. Their response closely echoes that of McKenna’s respondents to their overseas missionary involvement – does this say something about the need for more basic challenge to equate with what has been the totality of the demand of the religious life-choice? These women also do not appear to have felt the restrictive degree of earlier religious training that McKenna’s respondents did. Their constitutions, perhaps older, do not contain the behavioural inhibitions, especially female-directed, of the constitutions quoted. A final query: where is one able to find the ‘official Church teaching that religious were asexual’ (p.84)?