Integral to the Henrician religious reform programme in Ireland, as in England, was the dissolution of religious houses. In Ireland, the majority of monasteries and convents within the orbit of English government influence were suppressed during the late 1530s and early 1540s and their properties secularised. A systematic visitation of religious houses resulted in the resignation of heads and communities (who were pensioned off) and confiscation of their real estate and chattels. While scattered evidence suggests that some dissolved female communities continued to live together as late as the 1570s or 1580s, thereafter, as attempts to enforce religious conformity in Ireland intensified, communal cloistered living for women became untenable. As a result, from the early decades of the seventeenth century onwards, young women from socially prominent and politically influential Catholic families travelled from Ireland to the Continent in pursuit of a formal religious formation, an experience they shared with their English counterparts.
While we have a good overall picture of the activities and locations of English women religious on the Continent during the early modern period – largely through the work of the pioneering ‘Who Were the Nuns?’ project – we lack an equivalent for Irish nuns. The WWTN prosopgraphical database holds records of over 3,000 nuns professed in twenty-two convents across Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Furthermore, the project has provided the impetus for a myriad of scholarly research on early modern English nuns, which has in turn revealed further valuable insights into the nature of female contemplative life in exile and the particular challenges faced by those wishing to pursue religious vocations abroad, such as financial difficulties and linguistic impediments (for more on English nuns and language see Emilie K.M. Murphy’s recent series of blogs). For historians of early modern Irish women, the project’s prospographical database has been a particularly valuable tool for recovering information about Irish nuns, many of whom in the absence of dedicated Irish convents abroad, entered English houses. They included Kilkenny-native, Helen Marshall, who alongside her sister, Clare Marshall (b.c.1614) entered a community of Mary Ward sisters in Munich in December 1629 and February 1630 respectively. Similarly, Catherine Butler (in religion Sister Ursula) (b. 1620), cousin to James Butler (d. 1688), first duke of Ormond, entered the English Benedictine convent at Ghent in April 1636 and later became prioress of that community. However, as Marie-Louise Coolahan has cautioned, since ‘the [WWTN] database records Irish identity only when it has appeared on a source document’, there are significant methodological challenges involved with harnessing information about Irish women from the digital repository (Coolahan, 2013).
While we have some indication of those who were professed in English continental convents, the case of Irish nuns housed in indigenous convents abroad, as well as convents founded on the Continent expressly as Irish houses, remains overlooked within the wider historiography of early modern European female monasticism. By the late seventeenth century, a number of dedicated Irish convents were in operation. Apart from the well-documented case of the Irish Benedictine convent established at Ypres (1682), Irish convents founded abroad during the seventeenth century were located primarily on the Iberian Peninsula (distinct from English convents which were established mainly in Spanish Flanders). These included the Irish Dominican convent of Bom Sucesso at Lisbon, founded in 1639, as well as a number of smaller foundations scattered throughout Spain, in locations such as La Coruña, Valladolid and Salamanca (as identified by Andrea Knox (2007)). As I have discussed in an earlier blog, the convent of Bom Sucesso holds an important position in the history of Irish religious foundations on the Continent, being the first continental convent founded expressly for Irish women religious.
In September this year, I travelled to the Bom Sucesso convent in Lisbon, where I spent time trawling the archive*. An expansive repository, the archive holds no less than 400 records spanning the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century. The language of the archival sources vary; documents are to be found in Portuguese, English and a small amount in Latin, and are classified according to a range of topics, from ‘Foundation’, ‘Jurisdiction’ and ‘Governance’ to ‘Personnel’, ‘Property’, ‘Finance’ and ‘Spirituality’. Unfortunately, due to Portugal’s turbulent history (which included an earthquake in the eighteenth century, a series of wars in the nineteenth century and no less than three revolutions during the twentieth century), a large proportion of the early modern material has been either badly damaged or entirely destroyed. Indeed, those familiar with extant archival sources for early modern English convents, which boast a wealth of female-authored works such as chronicles, letters and autobiographies, will be disappointed; the Bom Sucesso archive holds no female authored works from the seventeenth century. Despite these limitations, however, surviving records give us a good indication of the circumstances and motivations underpinning the convent’s foundation in 1639 and the nature of the contemplative lifestyle envisioned for Irish sisters who joined the fledgling community.
One such document is the charter granting the Irish Dominican, Fr Dominic O’Daly (1595-1662) permission to establish a convent of Irish sisters at Lisbon. Composed at Madrid and dated 15 June 1639, the document is signed by Joao de Vasconcella, Provincial of the Portuguese Dominican order. The charter begins by giving an overview of the impediments preventing religious vocations for women in Ireland, which are construed in polemical terms; ‘on account of the Heretics no House or Monastery could be established where Nuns could live in Community – Nuns of distinction – fervent Nuns who wished to dedicate and consecrate themselves to the service of God’. On account of these prevailing conditions, O’Daly was instructed to locate a suitable site for the convent ‘in the City of Lisbon or its vicinity’. The charter went on to stipulate a series of regulations by which the new community were expected to adhere; they were to observe the laws and constitutions of the Dominican order, the sisters were not permitted to hold land or property; Divine Office and Holy Rosary were to be said in the Choir; eating meat was strictly forbidden while linen was only to be worn in cases of serious illness. In line with Tridentine dictates, communication with the outside world was to be vigorously curtailed; the sisters were to remain strictly enclosed, without parlours, while express permission from the Prioress was required to speak at the grille.
On 12 November 1639, the first novices entered the Bom Sucesso convent, established overlooking the River Tagus on land owned by the wealthy Portuguese noblewoman, Dona Iria de Brito, Countess of Atalaya (d. 1640), the community’s first patron. Thereafter, a steady flow of new postulants were admitted to the fledgling community so that by 1800 over ninety women had been professed there, the vast majority of them Irish or members of the Irish émigré community active in Lisbon throughout much of the early modern period. Among the community’s early members included Leonor Kavanagh (in religion, Sister Leonor of Saint Margaret) daughter of the Lord of Pelmonty and Borese of ‘an illustrious House of Leinster’, and Jeanne MacCarthy, who in the summer of 1698, petitioned Fr Antonin Cloche, General of the Dominican Order (1686-1720), to join the Bom Sucesso convent; Queen Mary of Modena (1658-1718) later interceded on her behalf writing to the Dominican General in December 1699 from the exiled court of St Germaine, in support of the Irish woman’s request to join the Lisbon house.
The Bom Sucesso foundation and other Irish convents abroad played a pivotal role in sustaining religious vocation options for Irish women at a time when cloistered living in Ireland was proscribed. Records pertaining to early modern Irish women religious are often obscure, fragmentary and at times frustratingly scant, especially when compared with those that survive for their English counterparts. Nevertheless, incorporating their history into the wider context of European and English female monasticism is vital to deepening our understanding of the nature of religious survivalism, vocational formation and exile in post-Reformation Europe.
*I am grateful to the Royal Irish Academy Charlemont grant for funding my research trip to the Bom Sucesso convent archive.
Bowden, Caroline and Kelly, James E. (eds), The English convents in exile, 1600-1800: Communities, culture and identity (Farnham, 2013).
Coolahan, Marie-Louise, ‘Archipelagic identities in Europe: Irish nuns in English convents’ in Caroline Bowden and James Kelly (eds), The English convents in exile, 1600-1800: Communities, culture and identity (Farnham, 2013), pp 211-28.
McCabe, Honor, A light undimmed: the story of the convent of Our Lady of Bom Sucesso Lisbon, 1639-2000 (Dublin, 2007).