Bad Sister or Self-sacrificing Saint: transcending narratives of good versus evil in the lives of Irish nuns

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Women religious (nuns) occupy a contentious place within Irish collective memory. Nuns were responsible for historical injustices, colluding in oppressive master narratives circulated by the dyad
of Church and State. Yet this is not the full story. Media depictions of nuns as evil caricatures risk simplifying representations of the past, enabling state and society to absolve themselves of their part
in Ireland’s ‘architecture of containment’ (Smith, 2008). Furthermore, in 1950s Ireland, religious life offered an alternative model of womanhood outside marriage and motherhood, providing opportunities for professionalism, playing a key role in advancing female education as well as conferring a privileged identity within a powerful, transnational institution. Following Vatican II
(1962-1965), hagiographic works depicting women religious flourished whilst vocations plummeted. Between these two competing narratives of martyr versus villain, the voices of Irish nuns have not
been sufficiently explored. A juxtaposition exists between the positions of power and responsibility held by the religious orders in Irish society and the hidden, powerless life of the individual nun. No
study exists in the Irish context which explores the testimonies of former nuns, particularly those who entered religious life pre-Vatican II. Based on doctoral work in progress, my interdisciplinary project adopts a life history approach to explore the lives of Irish nuns who left religious life, one of whom is my mother. As the daughter of a former nun, I am afforded a unique auto/biographical perspective within the research. I explore the entanglement and slippage which can occur between self and other as I locate myself in the wider frame of my narrative inheritance. Given that these women are now in their eighties, there is an ethical imperative to capture their stories before they are lost to help understand the complexity of the space assigned to women religious in twentieth century Ireland.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2023
EventNarrative Matters 2023: Instrumental Narratives: Narrative Studies and the Storytelling Boom - Tampere University, Tampere, Finland
Duration: 15 Jun 202317 Jun 2023


ConferenceNarrative Matters 2023
Internet address


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