‘They just ignored my tears, they ignored my unhappiness’: former Irish nuns reveal accounts of brainwashing and abuse

Karen Hanrahan, University of Brighton

Any thoughts of escaping to a more natural life was regarded as being sinful. The idea of being unfaithful to your vocation was a step on the way to hell. It would be a mortal sin.

These are the words of Mary, my mother. She was just 15 when she entered a convent in Ireland in 1950 and 34 by the time she finally managed to leave. She had been expressing doubts to her superiors since her early twenties but years of “brainwashing” and the very real fear of her and her family facing eternal damnation made breaking her vows seem impossible.

Speaking to my mother, as well as to five other nuns and former nuns for my PhD research, gave me a glimpse into a way of life which no longer exists. Their often heartbreaking narratives paint a picture of a repressive and damaging regime which emphasised self-sacrifice and unquestioning obedience and where suffering and “breaking the spirit” supposedly brought you closer to heaven.

For many who left the convent, the years of “grooming”, “mind control” and “infantilisation” made adjusting to secular life a significant challenge – mentally, socially, emotionally and financially. Few were supported in this transition.

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The image of the “evil nun” has become almost a caricature in recent years, particularly in Ireland, where the fallout from decades of abuse scandals has left a deep scar, radically changing perceptions of the Catholic church. These women’s stories offer an insider’s perspective of life within the convent walls and hopefully provide a more nuanced view of just what it was like to wear the habit and then, eventually, to cast it aside.

The women I spoke to were just children when they entered the convent, with hopes of making a better life for themselves but without any real understanding of what lay in store. Instead, they were manipulated and brainwashed. One woman was sexually abused by an older priest at the age of 15, while another had a mental breakdown and went on hunger strike in a cry for help which was ignored.

The winds of change

No study currently exists which specifically explores the testimonies of former “women religious” (both nuns and sisters) in Ireland, particularly those who entered religious life before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Instigated by Pope John XXIII and with an emphasis on aggiornamento (updating or modernisation), the Second Vatican Council was characterised by a spirit of renewal and self-reflection. The winds of change blowing from Rome ushered in a raft of seismic transformations throughout the Catholic church. For example, following Vatican II, mass was no longer given in Latin but in the vernacular, and the position of the altar was turned around so that priests didn’t have their backs to “the people of God” as they delivered Mass.

Following Vatican II, nuns gradually enjoyed more autonomy. For example, they could take more personal responsibility in decision making, they were allowed to cultivate friendships within and beyond the convent, and they could learn to drive (something that they had previously been unable to do).

Before Vatican II convent hierarchies were much more rigid. An individual nun had to surrender her will to her superior and was no longer in control of her destiny. A number of the women in my study (who, apart from my mother, I will not be identifying or using real names for) said that their lives and duties could vary significantly depending on whoever held that office. An unquestioning acceptance was expected and the emphasis was on self-sacrifice, renunciation of the self and conforming to life in community.

My mother and the end of an era

The six women I’m working with entered a religious congregation in Ireland in the 1950s, when they were between 13 and 16. They grew up in different convents and worked as sisters and teachers in various schools in Ireland, England and East Asia. Four spent between 15 and 27 years in religious life before leaving and two remained. They are all now in their eighties.

I felt very strongly that their stories needed to be captured before they were lost because, within the patriarchal Catholic church, an “archaeology of exclusion” has rendered nuns almost invisible in the historical record.

The voices of former nuns are afforded even less space. Religious women formed the largest and most powerful group of professional women in Ireland for much of the 20th century. And yet congregations of teaching sisters in Ireland have been in decline since the late 1960s.

My investigation into these hidden lives began with my mother. Now well into her eighties, she still has a recurrent nightmare of not being able to escape the convent:

I’ve had for years the dream, the nightmare, of travelling through high grass with a bicycle. I’m in the wrong place – should be out on the road … Or I’m climbing over a wall, trying to get down and finding it difficult. Certainly, it was years of this thing in your head all the time, you know, you shouldn’t be here but I’m here. What can I do? You were told there was a light shining down on top of you from heaven and you were picked, you were chosen. Really, a stupid kind of way of describing a vocation.

I cannot remember when I first learned that my mother was a nun for almost two decades. My relationship to this aspect of her life story has evolved considerably. As a child, I think I adopted a position of active not knowing, feeling that my mother’s status as a former nun was somehow shameful and made us different in small town Catholic Ireland where I grew up. A “spoilt nun” or a “spoilt priest” was the description for those who left their vocation (often described as the “call” to religious life). There was a stigma attached to such transgressions. Some of the women in my study kept this part of their past secret to all but close family. One woman avoided telling her children about her former identity until they were adults.

As a teenager, I remember feeling a burning sense of injustice on my mother’s behalf and was horrified at the idea of her confinement. She had consistently expressed doubts about her vocation, believing herself to be unsuited to life as a sister. How could her superiors turn a blind eye to her repeated requests to leave? At 15, the age my mother entered the convent, I prized my growing independence and found the idea of complete submission and erasure of self incomprehensible.

As I grew older, I moved on to a deeper understanding of her former identity but still felt protective of her and was resistant to talking about it, in case she became an object of curiosity.

But when it comes to families, all our stories get tangled up. My mother’s story is a part of my story. My own daughter is now 15, and it brings home to me the vulnerability of “being groomed”, as one of the women describes her experience of entering the convent.

Entering the convent

While it is undoubtedly the case that some young women believed that they had a vocation and were answering “the call” from God, becoming a nun afforded opportunities for women in Ireland at a time when they were not visible in public life. The surge in vocations in Ireland continued until 1967 and can be attributed to a desire for education, professional opportunities, economic stability or a life of adventure as a missionary. Having a nun or priest in the family boosted a family’s social capital. Religious life conferred a privileged identity within a powerful, transnational institution.

The attraction to religious life could also be interpreted as a sign of women actively seeking an alternative to marriage and motherhood rather than a reaction to a lack of eligible bachelors. In the case of the women in my study, given that they were children when they entered (between 13 and 16) it is safe to assume they were not left “on the shelf”.

Canvassing by religious orders was common at that time as “getting vocations” was key to an institute’s growth and success. The Catholic church was akin to an empire, a transnational institution whose reach and governance extended far beyond national borders. Nuns representing various Irish and international orders visited schools and sometimes local farms with large families as part of their recruitment drive, often showing alluring films of life on the missions.

In the Ireland of the 1950s (and indeed until the demise of the Catholic church in the 1990s), priests and nuns enjoyed positions of power and privilege in Irish society and adopting a deferential, unquestioning acceptance of religion was expected. Ireland was, therefore, an important recruitment channel for young postulants (the title given at the first stage of entry into a congregation).

My mother remembers the nuns’ visit to her secondary school. She was 14 and beginning to think about where she might go as emigration was inevitable for so many people in rural Ireland at that time. She recalls being impressed by this nun who came from Italy, thinking that perhaps she had links with the pope.

My mother said: “She told us romantic stories about going to the missions, Africa in particular. I distinctly remember her showing us a photograph of a lovely nun dressed in white in a boat going down some river in Africa and having children with her and she was in charge of things. So immediately I thought, ‘Well that’s where I’m going then because I have to go somewhere and that sounds wonderful’.”

My aunt also joined, at 13. My mother remembers that my aunt’s legs did not reach the floor when she sat on her chair because she was so very young. While my mother was seduced by visions of a luminous missionary and informed by the wider economic context of needing to “go somewhere”, there were other, more personal, reasons for joining too.

One woman I spoke to, who I am calling Louise, spent 16 years as a nun before leaving at the age of 32. For her, joining was about family dynamics and a difficult relationship with her mother. She said:

Really I want to be sincere about this, when I decided to enter … it wasn’t that I wanted to be a nun as such or that I wanted to look after the poor or that I wanted to go to the missions. It really was to prove to my mum particularly that I was a good person. I remember thinking, if I do this they will know I am good. That was very important to me at the time.

Christina, who spent 27 years in the convent, attributes her entry to what she describes as “an illegitimate relationship” with a “predatory priest”. She was just 15. Now 88, but with an energy that belies her years, she told me:

I knew that it was inappropriate … But I thought it was a privilege at the time. I did. He was very versed in various things and French, he spoke French, you know, that sort of thing. I thought it was … on the surface and personally, I thought it was an honour.

She remembers when a particular order came to her school and made joining sound so “fashionable and delightful” that she thought, why not?

Brainwashing and sin

All of the women took simple vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Contact with the outside world was ruptured, letters in and out were read by their superiors. Convent life worked to erase a sense of individual identity through adherence to strict rules.

My mother said you were “not to speak about any part of your body and not to speak about your health in general and not to speak about … well, not to speak to anyone, it’s better not to”. The women were forbidden from forming special friendships (“that was a big thing”). You were not to “talk your heart out to anyone”.

You knew you shouldn’t say, ‘I’m very lonely. I wish I could go home’. That would be rather sinful to say a thing like that to one of your co-mates. So you were to be always in good humour, always smiling, always, you know, very respectful towards everybody and again on the surface … You were really dumbed down in the sense of not being able to talk much, not to talk about your ‘life in the world’ as they used to call it. So it was definitely a brainwashing thing …

For my mother, who had been thriving at school, it was a shock to discover that the promise of a scholarship did not materialise. On entering she discovered that the order had in fact no secondary school and the new recruits were expected to progress to their final state examinations through self-study, a correspondence course and occasional evening input from the nuns in the primary school.

We were sitting on butter boxes, upturned butter boxes, because they obviously found it hard to accommodate that number of us – we must have been 30 at least – and we had other butter boxes in which we had our belongings and we were all crowded into a very big dormitory in a house that was originally a factory. So therefore, it was spartan, the whole idea, the whole thing. The food was regular, but very poor quality … And now when I look back at that, we were just herded in there as if we all had a vocation. What was a vocation, you know, at that age? You just knew nothing about it.

No books, no stimulation

Louise found the lack of stimulation stultifying. She told me:

As there was no conversation with each other there was no way of enlightening each other in any way about life. We were totally sensory deprived, that was it. We never listened to music, we weren’t allowed to read books, we never saw a paper, we were never allowed to listen to the radio, so that we were totally cut off from the ‘outside world’, as they would call it. The ‘outside world’, which of course was full of evil anyway.

Louise said that once she regained her freedom she remembered the thrill of being able to buy and read books. Her house reflects this love of reading and I was struck by how articulate and methodical she was when describing her experience, even when speaking about the mental ill health she still suffers from decades later. The legacy of such social conditioning is not easy to cast off.

Christina, who entered the convent at 16 and left at 43, also lamented the censorship of reading materials which she believed stunted their development. She said: “We were still treated like children. We always had to be assisted, watched. There was always somebody watching us … And we had no books, no stimulation, so we were non-entities.”

Leave and be damned

But if you wanted to leave, it was far from straightforward. On expressing doubts to a superior about their vocation the women might be told it was the devil tempting them, or that if they left they would be damned, or that through their “higher calling”, as one of the women put it, “one’s relations down to the third generation would achieve salvation through our fidelity”. Or that they would never be able to pay back the congregation for what they had been given. And they would submit and stay on.

Christina, who had confessed her relationship with the priest, was told if she left the convent she “would be in hell for all eternity”. “Who wanted to be in hell for all eternity? You know, the pictures we saw of hell in those days were terrible. I don’t even believe in hell now”, she added.

For Louise, the strain caused her to develop OCD and, in her late twenties, she had, in her words, a nervous breakdown. Following a period in hospital she said of her reluctant return to the convent:

They just ignored my tears, they ignored my unhappiness. Then I decided I’d go on hunger strike and I didn’t know what hunger strike was but that’s what I did … I mean, that wasn’t in my nature. That sort of rebellion wasn’t in my nature and that went on for quite a while. But do you know something? I’ve often looked back on that and I’ve thought, how inhumane they were. They would let somebody who was so unhappy … and ignore their distress, totally ignore their distress.“

Throughout her twenties and early thirties my mother’s desire to leave grew stronger and she dreamed of having a family. She recalls the longing she felt observing a scene of domesticity from her attic dormitory: “I used to look through a porthole, an attic window, as I was preparing to go into bed. I used to see a housewife or mother of a family, getting on about her, coming out to the clothesline was one of the things I noticed especially. And then the door of her kitchen would have been open and you’d see the lights inside and you’d get hints of family life.” She added:

In my own mind I compared that to the lonely bed I had to lie on from half past nine that night. And you would wonder why you couldn’t have that – a life full of warmth – and what misfortune you had to have a vocation when a family life was all you wanted. And any inclination you mentioned towards that was regarded as a temptation by the devil to spoil your vocation. Any thoughts of escaping to a more natural life was regarded as being sinful. The idea of being unfaithful to your vocation was a step on the way to hell. It would be a mortal sin.

A teachers strike in 1969 provided a pause in a gruelling routine, allowing her time and space to think. By this time, she was 34 and the headteacher of a secondary school. The responsibility was empowering. She had begun to think for herself:

It was the first time in my life I could make a decision. Because I had come in too young and had been told what to do always, told what to think, what not to think and all that and I suddenly decided ‘I am advising everybody and I’m telling everyone what we’ll do. Now why can’t I tell myself what to do?’ And during that strike I made up my mind that, no matter what, I’m going. So I went up and I told the superior at that time, who was a nicer person, a very kindly person, and I said I’ve been talking like this for years. And now I’m not asking for advice anymore, I’m just telling you that I must leave.

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council there was an exodus as many nuns worldwide left their congregations and returned to the world as lay people. Karen Armstrong has written extensively of her own “climb out of darkness”, documenting her departure from convent life in a series of memoirs. Many left with nothing and were ill prepared for life after.

Research has drawn attention to this “paradox of service”, that there was little or no acknowledgement of the enormity of former nuns’ unpaid contributions, as teachers, as nurses or in other ministry, in the form of practical or financial support. The authoritarian and repressive aspects of convent life in the pre-Vatican II era have been linked to emotional deprivation, social isolation and psychological problems.

Louise spoke of her humiliation of leaving with nothing but her crucifix and still wearing her nun’s habit. She still feels bitter about the lack of care for her welfare. She said:

I knew I would never, never, never come back. Not only did I never go back but I never contacted them after I left, never and they never contacted me, not once to say how are you doing? Are you coping? Now I was 32, I had entered at 16 and … in terms of life’s experiences I was still 16. I had never handled money, I had never had to make a decision, I had never lived and taken care of myself.

My mother jokes about feeling self-conscious wearing miniskirts, which were in fashion when she left in 1969, because her many years of praying had left rough patches of skin on her knees. Others spoke of the social awkwardness of not knowing who The Beatles were and of hair loss following decades of wearing a veil.

Their leaving also had an impact on those who stayed. As communication was discouraged, they could not tell other sisters that they were leaving. According to one sister who remained:

… When they decided to leave, they were told not to tell anyone. So they never told us, they just disappeared, you know, and I think that was awful.

“The bottom fell out of my world”, was how another nun described hearing the news of a fellow sister’s return to secular life.

‘Are nuns human?’

Nuns occupy a contentious place within Irish collective memory. ‘Are nuns human?’, the title of a two-part documentary made for Irish television in 1971, reveals perhaps a longstanding ambivalence about the image of women religious. Nuns were responsible for historical injustices, colluding in oppressive narratives orchestrated by the dyad of church and state. This is apparent from inquiries into the Magdalen Laundries and the “mother and baby homes”.

The Clann Report, published in 2018, showed how the legacy of such abuse reverberated beyond Ireland, revealing that from the 1940s until the 1970s, in excess of 2,000 children were sent from Ireland to the US for adoption. This international adoption scheme was depicted in the Oscar-nominated film Philomena. The Clann Report raises the question of possible falsification of children’s deaths in institutions run by nuns to facilitate illegal adoptions.

Yet, this is not the full story.

Nuns also played a key role in advancing female education as well as social care. Portrayals 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” and the “politics of shame”.

Responding to the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in 2021, then Taoiseach Micheál Martin noted how the state and society embraced a perverse religious morality and control, judgmentalism and moral certainty
and issued an apology to the survivors of mother and baby homes.

The nature of historical abuse crimes linked to the Catholic church is also a global phenomenon that has become increasingly complex.

But, according to Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, nuns have also suffered abuse within their own congregations
and the sexual abuse of nuns by the clergy has even been acknowledged by the pope. Meanwhile, Vatican guidelines published in 2017 recognised abuse of power within women’s institutes.

My own research highlights the contrast which existed between the positions of power and privilege held by the religious orders in Irish society on the one hand and the hidden, self-sacrificing and often powerless life of the individual nun on the other.

‘I’m not bitter’

The church’s position today is far less secure than it was in the 1950s. Yet while institutional observance, as well as the proportion and total number of Catholics in the Irish population continues to fall (details of the 2016 census show that Catholics comprise 78.3% of the population compared with 84.2% five years previously), it would seem that Catholicism remains coupled with Irish identity for over three quarters of the population.

Many convents – once a dominant symbol of faith and authority in Irish towns and cities – lie derelict or are undergoing redevelopment. The ageing population of nuns tend to live in small groups in houses located within their local community.

Unlike the other women in the study who have eschewed any links with their previous life, my mother has been back in touch with some sisters from her former congregation in recent years.

Woman poses for a picture while at a dinner dance.
The author’s mother, Mary, at a dinner dance with her future husband about a year after leaving the convent.
Author provided

Reflecting on her former identity, she said:

Whereas I’m not bitter, at the same time I’ve come to the conclusion that it was all really badly done and that many people were harmed and that those of us who were educated had something to fall back on when we left, but others hadn’t and were completely out of step with their age group and experienced an inability to find a job and to find a partner because they were older.

Perhaps it helped that she met my father, started a family and created the more “natural life” that she imagined for herself looking out from her attic window.

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Karen Hanrahan, Principal Lecturer, School of Education, University of Brighton

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