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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Margaret Aylward, Founder of the Sisters of the Holy Faith

Margaret Louisa Aylward, Roman Catholic nun, philanthropist, and founder of the Sisters of the Holy Faith, is born to a wealthy merchant family on November 23, 1810 in Thomas Street in Waterford, County Waterford.

Aylward is educated by the Ursuline nuns in Thurles, County Tipperary. After doing some charitable work in Waterford in her early years, she joins her sister in the Sisters of Charity in 1834 as a novice. She leaves the novitiate in 1836 and returns to Waterford to continue her charity work in a secular role. She again attempts to join a religious order in 1846 when she enters the Ursuline novitiate in Waterford, however she leaves after two months.

By 1851, Aylward has moved to Dublin where she is active in re-energising the Ladies’ Association of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The Great Famine leads to a large-scale movement of people from rural areas into cities, including Dublin, which leads to increased pressure on the charitable institutions of these areas. Her efforts are part of this wider charitable effort to help the poor, particularly Catholics who are seen to be at risk of coercive religious conversion (known as Souperism). This association is concerned with the “temporal as well as the spiritual relief of the sick poor in Dublin.”

The Ladies’ Association of St. Vincent de Paul opens St. Brigid’s in 1856, an orphanage which has an anti-proselytising mission and claims to rescue Catholic children from Protestant agencies. The Ladies’ Association often comes into dispute with those involved in the Irish Church Missions (ICM) and the ragged schools in Dublin, with members of the Ladies’ Association distributing crucifixes to children attending the Protestant-run ragged schools and visiting the homes of parents who send their children to them. The women involved in St. Brigid’s Orphanage organise themselves into a society called the Daughters of St. Brigid. However, while the establishment of St. Brigid’s brings Aylward closer to religious orders, historian Maria Luddy notes that in the 1850s, she is not concerned with the establishment of a religious community, rather she wants to “live in a community of women who were united by their religious convictions but did not necessarily desire to take formal religious vows.”

There is a growth in religious orders for women in Ireland from the early nineteenth century due to a relaxing of anti-Catholic Penal Laws. These include the Irish Sisters of Charity who are established in 1815 under Mary Aikenhead, the Sisters of Loreto order (1822) under Frances Ball, and Catherine McAuley‘s Sisters of Mercy (1831). Archbishop Paul Cullen of Dublin is an important figure in persuading leaders of religious communities of women, like Catherine McAuley, to formally organise as religious congregations in order to continue their charitable work and be respectable. While Aylward is resistant to this idea for a while, she eventually agrees. In 1857 the Sisters of the Holy Faith are established, and in 1869 the order are approved by Pope Pius IX.

Aylward is arrested in 1860 for “failing to produce a child named Mary Matthews, who had been taken away and concealed from her parents for the purpose of being brought up in the Roman Catholic faith.” Matthews had been placed with a nurse in Saggart, County Dublin, when her father had died and her mother had emigrated to The Bahamas. When her mother returns, Aylward is notified by Matthews’ foster mother that she is missing. Aylward is acquitted of the charge of kidnapping but is found to be in contempt of court and serves six months in jail. She continues her work after her release.

Aylward (now Sister Mary Agatha) dies on October 11, 1889. She had continued wearing her own clothes and travelling after taking her religious vows.

Historian Margaret Helen Preston argues that Aylward is unusual for the time that she lives in because she does not believe that poverty results from sin. Aylward refers to the poor as the “Elect of God” and argues that God sees the poor as special because of their difficult circumstances.

The Sisters of the Holy Faith still work around the world.


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Death of Sister Catherine McAuley, Founder of the Sisters of Mercy

Catherine Elizabeth McAuley, Irish religious sister who founds the Sisters of Mercy in 1831, dies in Dublin on November 11, 1841. The Sisters of Mercy has always been associated with teaching, especially in Ireland, where the sisters teach Catholics, and at times Protestants, at a time when education is mainly reserved for members of the established Church of Ireland.

McAuley is born on September 29, 1778, at Stormestown House in Dublin to James and Elinor (née Conway) McAuley. Her father dies in 1783 when she is five and her mother dies in 1798. She first goes to live with a maternal uncle, Owen Conway, and later joins her brother James and sister Mary at the home of William Armstrong, a Protestant relative on her mother’s side. In 1803, she becomes the household manager and companion of William and Catherine Callaghan, an elderly, childless, and wealthy Protestant couple and friends of the Armstrongs, at their estate in Coolock, a village northeast of Dublin. For 20 years she gives catechetical instruction to the household servants and the poor village children. Catherine Callaghan, who is raised in the Quaker tradition, dies in 1819. When William Callaghan dies in 1822, McAuley becomes the sole residuary legatee of their estate.

McAuley inherits a considerable fortune and chooses to use it to build a house where she and other compassionate women can take in homeless women and children to provide care and education for them. A location is selected at the junction of Lower Baggot Street and Herbert Street in Dublin, and in June 1824, the cornerstone is laid by the Rev. Dr Blake. As it is being refurbished, she studies current educational methods in preparation for her new endeavour. On the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, September 24, 1827, the new institution for destitute women, orphans, and schools for the poor is opened and McAuley, with two companions, undertake its management.

For three years, McAuley and her companions continue their work as lay women. She never intends to found a community of religious women. Her initial intention is to assemble a lay corps of Catholic social workers. In 1828 Archbishop of Dublin Daniel Murray permits the staff of the institute to assume a distinctive dress and to publicly visit the sick. The uniform adopted is a black dress and cape of the same material reaching to the belt, a white collar and a lace cap and veil – such a costume as is now worn by the postulants of the congregation. In the same year the archbishop desires McAuley to choose some name by which the little community might be known, and she chooses that of “Sisters of Mercy,” having the design of making the works of mercy the distinctive feature of the institute.

McAuley is desirous that the members should combine with the silence and prayer of the Carmelites, with the active labours of a Sister of Charity. The position of the institute is anomalous, its members are not bound by vows nor are they restrained by rules. The clergy and people of the church of the time, however, are not supportive of groups of laywomen working independently of church structures. The main concern is for the stability and continuity of the works of mercy which the women had taken on. Should any of them get married or lose interest, the poor and the orphans whom they are caring for would then be at a loss.

McAuley’s clerical mentor urges her to form a religious institute. Along with two other women, Mary Ann Doyle and Mary Elizabeth Harley, she enters the novitiate of the Presentation Sisters to formally prepare for life as women religious in September 1830. On December 12, 1831 they profess vows and return to the House of Mercy. The Sisters of Mercy consider December 12, 1831 as the day of their founding as a religious community. Archbishop Murray assists McAuley in founding the Sisters of Mercy, and professes the first three members. He then appoints her Mother Superior.

Between 1831 and 1841 McAuley founds additional Convents in Tullamore, Charleville, Cork, Carlow, Galway, Limerick, Birr, Bermondsey and Birmingham and branch houses in Kingstown and Booterstown. A cholera epidemic hits Dublin in 1832, and she agrees to staff a cholera hospital on Townsend Street.

The rule of the Sisters of Mercy is formally confirmed by Pope Gregory XVI on June 6, 1841. McAuley lives only ten years as a Sister of Mercy, Sister Mary Catherine.

McAuley dies of tuberculosis at the age of sixty-three on November 11, 1841 at Baggot Street. She is buried at Baggot Street Cemetery. At the time of her death, there are 100 Sisters of Mercy in ten foundations. Shortly thereafter, small groups of sisters leave Ireland to establish new foundations on the east and west coasts of the United States, in Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina.

Total worldwide membership consists of about 5,500 Sisters of Mercy, 5,000 Associates, and close to half a million partners in ministry. The Mercy International Centre in Dublin is the international “home” of Mercy worldwide and the mercyworld.org website is the virtual home.

In 1978, the cause for the beatification of the Servant of God Catherine McAuley is opened by Pope Paul VI. In 1990, upon recognition of her heroic virtues, Pope John Paul II declares her Venerable.


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Edna O’Brien Receives the Irish PEN Award for Literature

Josephine Edna O’Brien, novelist, memoirist, playwright, poet and short story writer, receives a lifetime achievement award from the society for Irish writers, the Irish PEN Award for Literature, on February 2, 2001 in recognition of her work which spans 25 years. Philip Roth describes her as “the most gifted woman now writing in English,” while Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, cites her as “one of the great creative writers of her generation.”

O’Brien is born on December 15, 1930, the youngest child of farmer Michael O’Brien and Lena Cleary at Tuamgraney, County Clare, a place she would later describe as “fervid” and “enclosed.” Her father inherits a “thousand acres or more” and “a fortune from rich uncles,” but is a “profligate” hard-drinker who gambles away his inheritance, the land sold off or bartered to pay debts. From 1941 to 1946 she is educated by the Sisters of Mercy at the Convent of Mercy boarding school at Loughrea, County Galway – a circumstance that contributes to a “suffocating” childhood. In 1950, having studied at night at pharmaceutical college and worked in a Dublin pharmacy during the day, she is awarded a licence as a pharmacist. She reads such writers as Leo Tolstoy, William Makepeace Thackeray, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In Dublin, O’Brien purchases Introducing James Joyce, with an introduction written by T. S. Eliot, and says that when she learned that James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was autobiographical, it made her realise where she might turn, should she want to write herself. “Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories”, she says. In London she starts work as a reader for Hutchinson, a publishing firm, where on the basis of her reports she is commissioned, for £50, to write a novel. She publishes her first book, The Country Girls, in 1960. This is the first part of a trilogy of novels (later collected as The Country Girls Trilogy), which includes The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). Shortly after their publication, these books are banned and in some cases burned in her native country due to their frank portrayals of the sex lives of their characters. She is accused of “corrupting the minds of young women.” She later says, “I felt no fame. I was married. I had young children. All I could hear out of Ireland from my mother and anonymous letters was bile and odium and outrage.”

In the 1960s, O’Brien is a patient of R. D. Laing. “I thought he might be able to help me. He couldn’t do that – he was too mad himself – but he opened doors,” she later says. Her novel A Pagan Place (1970) is about her repressive childhood. Her parents were vehemently against all things related to literature. Her mother strongly disapproved of her daughter’s career as a writer. Once when her mother found a Seán O’Casey book in her daughter’s possession, she tried to burn it.

O’Brien is a panel member for the first edition of BBC One‘s Question Time in 1979. In 2017 she becomes the sole surviving member.

In 1980, O’Brien writes a play, Virginia, about Virginia Woolf, and it is staged originally in June 1980 at the Stratford Festival, Ontario, Canada and subsequently in the West End of London at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with Maggie Smith and directed by Robin Phillips. It is staged at The Public Theater in New York City in 1985. Other works include a biography of James Joyce, published in 1999, and one of the poet Lord Byron, Byron in Love (2009). House of Splendid Isolation (1994), her novel about a terrorist who goes on the run and whose research involves visiting Irish republican Dominic McGlinchey who is later killed and whom she calls “a grave and reflective man,” marks a new phase in her writing career. Down by the River (1996) concerns an under-age rape victim who seeks an abortion in England, the “Miss X case.” In the Forest (2002) deals with the real-life case of Brendan O’Donnell, who abducts and murders a woman, her three-year-old son, and a priest, in rural Ireland.

In addition to the Irish PEN Award, O’Brien’s awards include The Yorkshire Post Book Award in 1970 for A Pagan Place, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1990 for Lantern Slides. In 2006, she is appointed adjunct professor of English Literature at University College Dublin.

In 2009, O’Brien is honoured with the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award during a special ceremony at the year’s Irish Book Awards in Dublin. Her collection Saints and Sinners wins the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, with judge Thomas McCarthy referring to her as “the Solzhenitsyn of Irish life.” RTÉ airs a documentary on her as part of its Arts strand in early 2012. For her contributions to literature, she is appointed an honorary Dame of the Order of the British Empire on April 10, 2018.

In 2019, O’Brien is awarded the David Cohen Prize for Literature at a ceremony in London. The £40,000 prize, awarded every two years in recognition of a living writer’s lifetime achievement in literature, has been described as the “UK and Ireland Nobel in literature.” Judge David Park says, “In winning the David Cohen Prize, Edna O’Brien adds her name to a literary roll call of honour.”

(Pictured: Edna O’Brien speaking at the 2016 Hay Festival, photo by Andrew Lih and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)


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Birth of Mother Marie Joseph “Johanna” Butler

johanna-butlerMother Marie Joseph “Johanna” Butler, Irish nun, mother general of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary and founder of Marymount colleges and schools, is born in Ballynunry, County Kilkenny on July 22, 1860.

Butler is the seventh child of John Butler, gentleman farmer, and Ellen (née Forrestal). She attends the Sisters of Mercy school in New Ross, County Wexford, entering the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary in Béziers, France in 1876. She takes the name Marie Joseph when she is sent to Porto, Portugal in 1879, professing in 1880. From 1880 to 1903 she teaches in Porto and Braga, becoming superior of the school in 1893.

In 1903 Butler is appointed head of the congregation’s school at Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York, with the responsibility to extend the influence of the order in there. Her cousin, James Butler, gives her a site in Tarrytown, New York in 1907 where she founds the first Marymount school that year, and then the first Marymount college in 1918. She acts as president of the college, with the institution being granted a charter from the University of the State of New York to award bachelor’s degrees in 1924. She is elected Mother General of her order in 1926 and serves until her death, being the first American superior elected to the international congregation of the Catholic Church. She introduces a unique educational system incorporating high religious and academic standards with the aim of preparing young women for a changing society. She becomes a citizen of the United States in 1927.

Under her influence, the order founds fourteen schools, including a novitiate in New York, three Marymount schools and three colleges, and 23 foundations internationally with Marymount schools in Rome, Paris, and Quebec, and a novitiate in Ferrybank, Waterford, County Waterford.

Butler dies on April 23, 1940 in Tarrytown and is buried there. In 1954 her spiritual writings are published as As an eagle: the spiritual writings of Mother Butler R.S.H.M. by J.K. Leahy. She is put forward as a candidate for canonisation in 1948.


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Birth of Edna O’Brien, Novelist, Playwright & Poet

edna-o-brienEdna O’Brien, novelist, memoirist, playwright, poet and short story writer, is born in Tuamgraney, County Clare on December 15, 1930. Philip Roth describes her as “the most gifted woman now writing in English,” while the former President of Ireland Mary Robinson cites her as “one of the great creative writers of her generation.” Her works often revolve around the inner feelings of women, and their problems in relating to men, and to society as a whole.

O’Brien is the youngest child of “a strict, religious family.” From 1941 to 1946 she is educated by the Sisters of Mercy, a circumstance that contributes to a “suffocating” childhood. “I rebelled against the coercive and stifling religion into which I was born and bred. It was very frightening and all pervasive. I’m glad it has gone.” She is fond of a nun as she deeply misses her mum and tries to identify the nun with her mother.

In 1950, O’Brien is awarded a licence as a pharmacist. In Ireland, she reads such writers as Leo Tolstoy, William Makepeace Thackeray, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1954, she marries, against her parents’ wishes, the Irish writer Ernest Gébler and the couple moves to London. They have two sons but the marriage is dissolved in 1964. Gébler dies in 1998.

In London, O’Brien purchases Introducing James Joyce, with an introduction written by T. S. Eliot. When she learns that James Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is autobiographical, it makes her realise where she might turn, should she decide to write herself. In London she starts work as a reader for Hutchinson, where on the basis of her reports she is commissioned, for £50, to write a novel. Her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), is often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland following World War II.

This novel is the first part of a trilogy of novels which includes The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). Shortly after their publication, these books are banned and, in some cases burned, in her native country due to their frank portrayals of the sex lives of their characters. Her novel A Pagan Place (1970) is about her repressive childhood. Her parents are vehemently against all things related to literature and her mother strongly disapproves of her daughter’s career as a writer.

O’Brien is a panel member for the first edition of the BBC‘s Question Time in 1979. In 2017, she becomes the sole surviving member.

In 1980, she writes a play, Virginia, about Virginia Woolf, and it is staged originally in June 1980 at the Stratford Festival, Ontario, Canada and subsequently in the West End of London at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with Maggie Smith and directed by Robin Phillips. It is staged at The Public Theater in New York City in 1985.

Other works include a biography of James Joyce, published in 1999, and one of the poet Lord Byron, Byron in Love (2009). House of Splendid Isolation (1994), her novel about a terrorist who goes on the run, marks a new phase in her writing career. Down by the River (1996) concerns an under-age rape victim who seeks an abortion in England, the “Miss X case.” In the Forest (2002) deals with the real-life case of Brendan O’Donnell, who abducts and murders a woman, her three-year-old son, and a priest, in rural Ireland.

O’Brien now lives in London. She receives the Irish PEN Award in 2001. Saints and Sinners wins the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the world’s richest prize for a short story collection. Faber and Faber publishes her memoir, Country Girl, in 2012. In 2015, she is bestowed Saoi by the Aosdána.