The untold story of the role of Catholic nuns during the Troubles in North Ireland
A small group of Catholic sisters were brought together to recount their stories of the Northern Ireland conflict
They called the fence the Peace Line. And they still do. It runs for 13 miles across Belfast, longer than it did during the days of the Troubles, but still dividing the city into different sectarian zones. At one point, it butts into the wall of the semi-detached house in the west of the city where Sr Kathleen Keane used to live, resuming on the other side. Sr Kathleen’s front door opened on to the Catholic side of the divide, her back door on to its Protestant neighbour.
The main transport gate in the Peace Line remained shut but a pedestrian gate was open during daylight hours unless there was trouble – which there frequently was. When that was closed, anyone wanting to walk from the Protestant to the Catholic neighbourhood would have to take a long detour. Unless Sr Kathleen was in. Then they would knock on her back door and ask to pass through the kitchen and hallway and out of the front door on to the Springfield Road.
Sr Kathleen, now aged 80 and living in Dublin, is a sister with the Little Company of Mary. After years spent in what was then Rhodesia and in South Africa she had a vague idea that she wanted to go and serve in Northern Ireland. “I was totally naive,” she says of herself now. A fellow nun was living in a community just off the Springfield Road. So, in 1994, Sr Kathleen moved in round the corner. At that time the fence was solid and daubed with sectarian graffiti.
“I was too busy during the day to worry much about the stones that regularly hit the house or the fence,” says Sr Kathleen, “Many more went overhead in both directions. But during the night, I needed to know where they were coming from and whether they were Protestant or Catholic missiles.”
Sr Kathleen is one of 20 or so religious sisters who took part in an oral history project – the Witness seminars – initiated by independent scholar Dr Dianne Kirby and Lisa Isherwood, professor of feminist liberation theologies at the University of Winchester. The seminars record the largely untold story of the role of Catholic nuns during the Troubles. When Kirby and doctoral student Briege Rafferty began researching the lives of the sisters, they found a huge gap in the archive.
“Women have been written out of the narrative,” says Rafferty. “Historians such as Eilish Rooney have noted that you find women in the index of a book but you’ll never find their experience in its chapters, particularly when it comes to women Religious. When I was growing up, it was male clergy who spoke on TV on behalf of the Catholic community. Women Religious were never interviewed.”
It was a smaller group of sisters that reconvened last month to recount their stories for the BBC World Service and to reflect on what taking part in the seminars had meant for them. Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, which brought decades of sectarian conflict to an end, there are still acute sensitivities. More than once the famous phrase taken up by Seamus Heaney for the title of one of his poems was quoted: “Whatever you say, say nothing.” Speaking has been painful; even now some sisters are reluctant to open up.
Geraldine Smyth, a Dominican sister and adjunct associate professor at the Irish School of Ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin, who grew up off the Falls Road in West Belfast, says: “The Northern Ireland conflict was primarily a political not a religious one, but fears and tensions were easily exploited and religion was manipulated as a badge of identity.”
For one of the younger participants, Liz Smyth, another Dominican, it was the experience of being ministered to by nuns that led her to enter the order. Her earliest memory is of her family being burned out of their home in the Lower Falls in 1969. She admits to her share of stone throwing when there was unrest. The sisters at St Rose’s secondary school in Belfast showed her another path. As she saw it, “there were three ways you could make a difference – you could join the IRA, you could join the police, or you could join a religious order. I joined the Dominicans because they used the weapon of education, rather than a gun, to make a difference.”
The other factor influencing her decision was the hunger strikes by Republican prisoners in 1980 and 1981 during which 10 men died. She describes this time as a turning point, saying: “I’m not going to get into the politics of it – was it the right or wrong thing to do – but I believe that it is never right for someone to lose their life.”
One of the most powerful stories came from Marie McNeice of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion. Her friend was murdered in front of his family in 1987. His widow sought to forgive his killers, but Sr Marie couldn’t respond in the same way.
“She believed God would bring some good out of it, but I couldn’t connect to God, only my anger,” says Sr Marie. “I wanted access to a gun. It had a tremendous effect on my life. It does something to you when you realise the depths of your anger. It opens you up to greater empathy. You can’t sit in judgement as easily as you did before.” Sr Marie went on to found the group Wave (Widows Against Violence Empower) for victims of violence.
Was there anything unique about the role these sisters played? None of them would make that claim. They would just say that they were there, carrying out their mission. They might concede that they were able to take risks that women with families could not take, but they are clear that they did nothing on their own. They were always in partnership with other people.
Baroness (May) Blood, a Protestant and a founding member of the cross-community Women’s Coalition, is convinced that the Belfast Agreement could not have happened without the work of women in communities, of which the sisters were a vital part.
Presbyterian minister and deputy head of the Northern Ireland Equality Commission Dr Lesley Carroll agrees. “For the Good Friday Agreement to work there had to be a substantial network of all sort of relationships across society,” she says, “and politicians have never understood the importance of that network. Twenty years on from the agreement one of the reasons we are not as successful as we would like to be is because that wonderful network of relationships wasn’t nurtured.”
“The sisters were risk-takers and visionaries,” says Rafferty. “All those that educated us, all the nurses who witnessed the atrocities, all the social activists who travelled alongside families – their contribution should be recognised. And I’d rather we recognise these women while they’re still here.”
Rosie Dawson is a senior producer for BBC Religion & Ethics. The documentary Sisters of the Troubles was broadcast on 25 March on the BBC World Service.