On the 24 June 1844 two Sisters of Charity travelled from Dublin to Clarinbridge with the aim of establishing a convent in the village. One might wonder what were the circumstances that led this religious order to set up their first convent in the west of Ireland 173 years ago?
The credit for the establishment of the convent here in our village goes largely to two very capable and determined women, namely Frances Xavier Redington and Mother Mary Aikenhead. In 1815 Mary Aikenhead, a Cork woman and daughter of a Protestant doctor, established the Sisters of Charity which became a pioneer in the development of hospitals, the provision of education, and support for the disadvantaged and poor at home and abroad.
Frances Xavier Redington, who was born in Cadiz, Spain of Irish ancestry was the only child of a wealthy wine producer. She grew up with a strong Catholic faith and a desire to help those who were poor and disadvantaged. After marrying Christopher Redington of Kilcornan, she decided to allocate a substantial amount of her inheritance towards the erection of a convent on her land in Clarinbridge. It took 13 years before her plans came to fruition and it must have been with great joy that she welcomed the two Sisters of Charity to Kilcornan house on that summer's day in 1844.
These two nuns were missionaries sent here to what was described by the autobiographer of Mother Aikenhead as "a remote settlement whose inhabitants were from a 'primitive race'. The nuns were told that they would need 'zeal and patience' to succeed in Clarinbridge!
Frances Xavier Redington was generous to them and presented them with the former Patrician monastery and 7 acres of land surrounding it. The Patrician Brothers had left the parish 4 years earlier, after 20 years of service, and their one-story monastery was re-constructed into an imposing convent, designed by renowned architect George Papworth.
Frances Xavier Redington spent the enormous sum of f 7,664 on the convent.
No expense was spared on the convent, whose church was furnished with a marble altar from Rome, a sculpture of the Ascension by internationally renowned sculptor John Hogan and a chalice blessed by Pope Gregory, as well as many other reliquaries.
The Clarinbridge convent was named 'Our Lady of Mercy'. It was fortunate to have as its first rectress, Mother Mary Baptist Griffin, who would spend the remaining 34 years of her life here in Clarinbridge and is buried in the Sisters of Charity graveyard in the village. Three further nuns joined the convent soon after its formation.
The Sisters of charity had a short 'honeymoon' in Clarinbridge because the following year 1845 began what many consider Ireland's greatest calamity, the Great Famine in which over a million people died and another million emigrated. Clarinbridge and the surrounding area was devastated by the famine and the local population fell by over 40%.
As the Famine raged the sisters were instructed by their mother house "to curtail school duties in favour of dispensing food". The nuns were exasperated with the government schemes to help the hungry as they were tied up in red tape and worked tirelessly to help those afflicted by hunger and disease. The nuns created employment through their various enterprises manufacturing knitting, baby linen and selling butter in the markets. Such was the deprivation in the area that the nuns feared robbery and had to take measures to protect themselves.
Little wonder that by the end of the Famine in 1849 the Sisters of Charity were in financial difficulty. The Redingtons were not able to support them to the same extent as they had been unable to collect rents from a large proportion of their tenants during the Famine. The nuns began a range of initiatives to support themselves. They bought sheep and built up their farm. They sold apples to their mother-house, and with the support of Mrs. Redington's daughter in-law, Anna Eliza Redington, they established a lace school and employed a teacher of the craft. They began the manufacture of what was described as 'plain work and knitting'.
The Sisters of Charity must have made a powerful impression on the community which is something we can gauge from the size of their sodalities. The Sisters formed a Men's Temperance sodality in 1878 and the Bishop of Galway attended one of their meetings at which 600 attended. The Children of Mary was a thriving sodality in Clarinbridge but the nuns didn't confine themselves to their home base they established 2 sodalities in Roveagh church where they also prepared children for first Holy Communion and prepared the altar for Sunday Mass.
The work of the Sisters of Charity continued in a similar vein for over a century right up to the 1960s. The following is a quote from a journal of Sr. Ursula Higgins in 1997-
" After the closure of the Secondary Top School in 1967 the old classrooms on the ground floor were renovated and used as a Craft Shop, called the Abbey Handcrafts. This went exceptionally well for thirty years, when the business was moved to another premises in Kilcolgan as the Convent was sold in 1996 and a new 'convent' built. Side by side with the Abbey Handcrafts went Glenrue cottage where customers, many of whom were from the USA, could enjoy a cup of tea. "
The Sisters of Charity have been at the centre of community life in Clarinbridge since they arrived in 1844 and there is no doubt that they were loved by the people. The range of their activities is too great to outline in this short summary, suffice it to say that their contribution was done with dignity and discretion, whether it was working with people with intellectual disability in partnership with the Brothers of Charity in John Paul Centre Ballybane, visiting the sick and elderly, praying for people in distress or treating children to a breakfast in the convent after making their first Holy Communion.
The Sisters of Charity and other congregations of women religious in Ireland faced many challenges trying to maintain their independence in a male dominated society. The journal 'History Ireland' in their 2003 edition wrote the following about nuns —
'Nuns were endowed with great business capacity or had skill in business matters and a power of administration which astounded men of the world". The journal praised nuns for initiating bold building projects and not being afraid to tangle with bishops to achieve their goals.
Historian, Caitriona Clear, in her book Nuns in the Nineteenth-century Ireland believes that the role of nuns in Irish society has not been fully recognised. She wrote —
“Nothing has been said about the small struggles that never made it into the paper, let alone into the public arena. We know little of the personal victories of effort over circumstance, the resourcefulness, imagination and everyday sisterhood which must surely have existed.”
Over the past 173 many Sisters of Charity from all over Ireland have spent a period in Clarinbridge convent and contributed to our community. We remember them today and those who are now deceased. We also remember the many staff and volunteers who were dedicated to the nuns and supported them in their work.
Le focal scoir, ba mhaith liom buiochas a ghabhail le na tSiuracha
Charthannacha ar son år bpobal. Beidh muid faoi chomaoin agaibh go deo. Mar a deireann an sean-råiteas - 'Ni bheidh a leithéad aris ann'.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh.
Joe Murphy (11th June 2017)