I was preparing for my First Communion when I first got the sense that I might become a nun. I kept asking myself who was Jesus and did God make the world? The Mercy Sister instructing my class invited us to think of becoming a nun, and because she was such fun and so kind, it didn’t seem outrageous.
Religious vocation was a little persistent voice in the background throughout my childhood. A long illness, diphtheria, at the age of nine confined me to a rundown fever hospital with no visitors allowed for months. As a result my thoughts turned to God, especially when one of my companions in that bleak ward died. The experience was to have a profound effect on my resolve to become a nun.
On my 14th or 15th teenage birthday, I received a little book in English, written by a French Dominican friar “On the Joy of Loving God”. Reading it as a meditation when I became a Child of Mary, I began to look for joy instead of sadness and bitterness. Much later I noticed the same emphasis in the Church’s liturgy with the two Sundays in Advent and Lent devoted to the theme of joy.
While studying for my Leaving Certificate examination back in Cork in a famous school, Fr. Aloysius, a Dominican priest, a former actor, took my English class and explained the meanings behind the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins on our course. “I felt especially drawn to his poem “Margaret, are you grieving over Goldengrove unleaving…..
The Dominican priests and brothers have a strong presence in Cork city, for example the feast day of St Thomas Aquinas had a special mass for the schools and university in Cork city always with a rousing sermon! The prayers of St Thomas Aquinas are among my favourites, they get to the heart of living, the need for humility, to simplify, to start with what is easy and to go on to the more difficult task. This was one of his maxims I used when teaching- he was a great teacher and funny also.
I went to university in Cork where I had a wonderful time and earned a degree in History, English and Irish and took a Higher Diploma in education with a view to teaching. After much heart-searching I entered the Irish Congregation of Dominican Sisters, a Dublin-based group. My novitiate in Kildare was challenging: the early fifties in Ireland were austere and following the taking of temporary vows, I was assigned to Sion Hill community in Blackrock on the outskirts of Dublin. I arrived as a jolly party was finishing in the community room celebrating the end of summer holidays. I was given teaching hours in the secondary school and I thoroughly enjoyed the classroom with junior pupils.
Unexpectedly I had to take over a colleague’s senior history classes. Bright students, I felt inadequate and received permission to study for a Master’s degree. I had as my supervisor the famous and eccentric Dudley Edwards and completed a thesis on a 17th century Dominican, Fr Dominic O’Daly in two years, while teaching full time. Dudley Edwards wanted me to complete a full study of my topic and arranged with my superiors that I would research continental archives beginning with the famous Secret Archives of the Vatican. On my return to Ireland, I was invited to take some tutorials and lectures and eventually I joined the History Department in UCD as a lecturer. Meanwhile the Second Vatican Council (1962-4) brought profound change to religious life for women, a growing sense of human rights, a realisation of mission to the poorest, an invitation to challenge inequality such as Apartheid in South Africa where the Dominican Sisters worked. For me being in UCD where a new generation of students made me aware of their rights meant siding with them or opposing them. In making a decision to support students’ demands, I gradually became aware of other inequalities, such as the position of women worldwide. My determination to write women into mainstream history, though resisted for years, has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams!
An invitation to develop a Senior College in Ballyfermot, now a college of further education tested my sincerity but gave me the opportunity to make my best contribution to Irish society. Ballyfermot people deserved a college and the Senior College staff set a standard of achievement and creativity that astounded the sceptical. Later, I publicly supported the right of annulled couples to remarry. Not one bishop or priest reproached me to their credit.
With Mary Condren, the theologian, I am promoting a return to Celtic spirituality, to the honouring of St Bridget and the celebration of Celtic saints locally, as well as marking Samhain and Bealtaine. Until Irish Christians reconnect with their Celtic roots, they will flounder in a post-modern world. Look at how people loved John O’Donoghue’s book, ‘Anam Cara’ and we have such a strong founder of Christianity in Ireland with St Patrick.