Yvonne McKenna, Made Holy: Irish Women Religious at Home and Abroad, Irish Academic Press: Dublin, Portland, OR, 2006. $30.00 / £ 20.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-7165-3342-9. pp. xii + 268.
Reviewed by Joos van Vugt, Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands
This book has a more specific subject than its title suggests. It is not a general history of Irish women religious but a study of the subjective experiences of Irish sisters who, at some point in their lives, went abroad to England or to the missions. And it is not about all their experiences but, more specifically, about their experiences as women, as sisters and as Irish. McKenna’s study rests on interviews with thirty Irish sisters. It also contains a rather extensive bibliography but this seems to be for background only. Made Holy consists of four parts. Part one is about Ireland and about the social, cultural and religious circumstances in which the interviewed women grew up and ultimately found their way into religious life. Parts two and three are about convent life (again: as experienced by the interviewees) before and after Vatican II, respectively. Part four is about their perception of their ultimate return to Ireland from either England or the missions.
Personally, I was taken aback by McKenna’s account of the importance of ‘Irishness’, mainly because (I am sorry to say) continental Europeans tend to think of ‘English’ and ‘Irish’ as varieties of one English-speaking ethnic group. McKenna convincingly illustrates how the sisters’ Irishness caused processes of exclusion and inclusion within their predominantly Irish or English communities, and how their Irishness produced many ambivalent emotions, especially in their years abroad: feelings of cultural inferiority and religious superiority, belonging and alienation, shame and pride. The ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland in the seventies and eighties did nothing to put Irish sisters at ease in their English environment. They were often put in the impossible position of being held somehow co-responsible for IRA atrocities. The part about the sisters’ return to Ireland (most of them did return eventually) seemed to me the least interesting, perhaps because the feelings of home-coming, familiarity, belonging and alienation etc. are not typical of Irish sisters but of remigrating missionaries everywhere.
There are some aspects of the identity of women religious in the last half century which I feel are neglected in this book. Firstly, McKenna does mention that the sisters’ identity was highly determined by their (Irish) Catholic background but she pays little attention to the religious development of the sisters after their entry into convent life. Vatican II was not only about less rules and more personal freedom, it also changed the religious outlook – spirituality if you will – of many religious in a profound way. For many, it changed their view on the meaning of religious life from otherworldly to worldly aspirations. This transformation has become an essential part of their identity, too.
Secondly, community life is discussed as regards ‘Irishness’ and the impact of rules and regulations. But religious communal life underwent many changes after Vatican II. It is a pity that McKenna did not extend her research to more aspects of communal life, because the identity of religious women has been closely related to developments in their social environment. One example: the removal of traditional rules and regulations gave religious women much personal freedom but it also did away with the uniformity of pre-Vatican convent life. As a result, differences in social and cultural background, education, intelligence, religious views, ambitions, social skills and personal style rose to the surface unhindered, often at the expense of the more vulnerable members of the community. Another example: the effect of the sharp rise in the number of ageing members on community life, and the confrontation with loneliness, disability, illness and death. Or the fact that the majority of religious retired and had to find a new purpose in life. Or that they have been able to form individual friendships and sometimes even relationships.
Thirdly, the impact of work on the sisters’ identity deserves much more attention. Remember that the congregations which provided McKenna’s interviewees were active communities, created to do charitable work. I think that everyone who has been in touch with members of such communities will have noticed that their self-image is determined not only and perhaps not mainly by their religious affiliation but by the work they do or did. Many actually entered convent life – McKenna confirms this – because they were attracted by the work and not necessarily by convent life as such. The post-war crisis in active convent life has been caused, to a large extent, by a crisis in their work: the advance of laymen in their field, the growing unpopularity of charity, the competition of State education and welfare provisions, the strain of keeping up with professionalization, the ageing of their (wo)manpower etc. It may be that in Ireland these developments were late in coming but surely by the seventies or eighties they were felt there too? For individual sisters, the loss of their work and the status it provided forced them into making a painful readjustment of their self-image.
On balance, McKenna’s study offers a good deal of insight into the emotional development of emigrating Irish sisters, especially along the lines of gender, ethnicity, and religious status. But religious life has many more aspects which should not have been omitted from a discussion of identity.