Community and Silence: Female Religious Orders in Local Irish Newspapers, 1849-1900

Bridget Harrison
Queen’s University, Belfast

In the second half of the 19th century, the influence of the Catholic
Church rapidly increased in Ireland, leading to what Emmet Larkin
dubbed “the Devotional Revolution”. One of the most striking
manifestations of this was the rise of female religious orders in
Ireland. In 1840, there were 1,500 nuns in the country, but by 1870
this figure had more than doubled to 3,700 (during the same period,
the numbers of priests only rose by approximately 700). Despite this
massive increase, women religious in Ireland remain largely unstudied.
What has been written has focused on their day-to-day experiences and
work. As a result, very little is known about social attitudes towards
women religious at a local level, and about how these attitudes
changed as religious orders settled into communities.

This paper will explore how newspapers in Ireland represented the
changes in gender dynamics brought about by the Devotional Revolution.
It will examine the visibility of nuns in local Irish newspapers,
using a sample of newspapers from rural areas and from larger towns.
It will examine the period from 1849 to 1900, and as such will
encompass the Devotional Revolution and the decades immediately
following this consolidation of the Catholic hierarchy’s

I will argue that during this period newspaper notices often addressed
the work of female religious orders, but did so in such a way as to
create distance between that work and the women who carried it out. In
my research so far I have seen that newspapers at this time were
filled with notices for talks and events which were run in aid of
convents and female religious institutions, however very few of these
advertisements directly mention any women religious by name. More
often than not these notices instead listed the names of clergymen who
were associated with the project or who planned to be in attendance.
Newspaper records of the procession ceremonies and funerals of women
religious also reflected this.

This talk will address how gender identities were depicted in
newspapers. It will examine how Irish newspapers, particularly
newspaper notices, reflected wider issues such as the consolidation of
the Catholic Church’s influence in Ireland and the influence of
Victorian gender norms. It will also investigate the idiosyncratic
situation where nuns as a collective were included, but in such a way
that they appeared to be part of the fabric of the Catholic Church,
rather than independently acting groups or individuals.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900