NUNS (Medieval Ireland)

There were nuns in Ireland from the arrival of St. Patrick in the fifth century until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s, although they left fewer traces of their lives and spiritual interests than their brothers did.

Fifth to Twelfth Century

The earliest Christian writings from Ireland, those of St. Patrick, speak of the large numbers of women who were living under religious vows. In the earliest days these women must have lived privately, as it was not until the sixth century that there is evidence of women’s communities in the records. After this, religious women began to live together on land often set aside for their use by their families. Some of the communities were short-lived, while others flourished and have been remembered in place names, stories about saints, and the surviving buildings.

Bridget of Kildare (sixth century) is the best known of the nuns from early Ireland, although there is little certainty about the events of her life. Hagiography and other texts indicate that the nunnery at Kildare was a large and very important community from at least the seventh century. Its political importance is underlined by the fact that all the recorded abbesses of Kildare were from the families of the kings of Leinster, such as the Ui Dunlainge. From the hagiography of prominent women saints such as Bridget of Kildare, Ite of Cell Ite (Killeedy, Co. Limerick), Mo-Ninne of Cell Shleibe Cuilinn (Killeevy, Co. Armagh), and Samthann of Cluain Bronaig (Clonbroney Co. Longford), it is clear that professed nuns were involved in fostering and educating children, pastoral care, negotiating for the release of hostages, and caring for the sick. Hagiography also records nuns reading and writing, teaching psalms, and lending manuscripts. These well-educated and privileged women lived under religious rules that were probably devised by the founders of their nunneries. There were other religious women who lived under less formal vows. Some of these were widows living either in small groups or around churches, where they prayed and undertook some pastoral care.


Twelfth Century

Many early Irish nunneries survived until the twelfth century, when church reforms by Irish churchmen included the introduction of continental religious orders for both men and women. Secular leaders and reforming bishops were instrumental in founding convents to house the women who wanted to join these revitalized nunneries in the twelfth century. One of the first women’s communities to be founded under the Arroasian observance of the Augustinian rule was St. Mary’s at Clonard, County Meath, founded by Murchad Ua Mael Sechlainn, ruler of Meath in association with Malachy of Down. St. Mary’s had monks and nuns living in separate buildings and worshipping in the same church. Diamait Mac Murchadha also founded important nunneries in his territories in Dublin (St. Mary del Hogges) and near Waterford (Kilculliheen). These nunneries and their smaller dependencies formed loose federations that maintained some connections throughout the medieval period. After the Anglo-Norman invasion, religious houses were often refounded or reinvigorated with donations of money and land from their newly conquered territories. Nunneries were included in this pattern of monastic foundations, and there were important, well-endowed convents founded in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries in County Dublin (Grace Dieu), Meath (Lismullin), and Kildare (Graney and Timolin).

Thirteenth to Sixteenth Century

In the late twelfth and early thirteenth century there was renewed interest by Gaelic Irish kings and bishops in including nunneries in their own reorganization of local monastic houses. Two major foundations dating from this time are the Ua Briain convent of Killone (Co. Clare) and the Ua Conchubair convent at Kilcreevanty (Co. Galway) and its dependencies. Both of these houses were well endowed with land and buildings and were staffed with women from the founders’ families.

There were some small convents for nuns following other rules. There were Cistercian convents at Ballymore (Co. Westmeath), Derry, Downpatrick and St John’s in Cork followed the Benedictine rule. The majority of nunneries in the later medieval period were Augustinian, usually using the Arroasian observance of that rule, either from the time of their foundation or not long afterward. These nuns were under the care of the local bishop and were subject to visitation and correction of any lapses of adherence to their rule. Most of the recorded lapses were for breaking enclosure or neglecting monastic property, though there were also nuns who broke their vows of chastity.

Nuns in later medieval Ireland were usually enclosed, at least officially. That is, they were not permitted to leave the convent walls nor were lay people permitted to enter. However, for these nuns, as with their sisters in the rest of medieval Europe, enclosure was often not closely followed, as it proved difficult for nuns to manage their properties and negotiate with secular leaders if they remained inside their walls.

These nuns were involved in their local lay communities by providing prayers for their founders and lay patrons, educating children who were destined for the church, and giving hospitality and alms to travellers and those in need. Some nunneries prospered throughout the later medieval period, retaining the support of the local laity, either the Gaelic kings or Anglo-Norman landholders. When nuns did not have this lay support they were more vulnerable to diminution of their income and, ultimately, to closure. Nuns who lived under formal vows were mostly from relatively wealthy families, and there were probably never more than 12 at any one time. By the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s, most nunneries had only a handful of nuns. There were also many vowed women who lived privately, either in their family homes or beside churches, throughout Gaelic and Anglo-Norman Ireland. These women have left few traces of their existence.

Although some nunneries such as Grace Dieu tried to survive the tide of change at the dissolution, by the end of the sixteenth century the medieval nunneries of Ireland had faded away, the nuns themselves had died out, and their estates and buildings were sold or given away. There are physical remains of some of the nunneries, particularly in the west of Ireland, however none have been excavated to date.

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