by ehistoryadmin on December 12, 2015

A “red-letter day” in the convent annals

Liam Kenny

There are few things more rare than an old newspaper. Other than the specialist vaults of libraries and archives newspapers tend to disappear in the business of life. Indeed there is an old saying among in the newspaper industry that this morning’s newspaper will, by this evening, be wrapping somebody’s fish and chips. So it was with some excitement that your columnist learned from photographer Tony Murray of the Atrium in Naas that a Sister from the Mercy Convent in Naas called into him with an original page from the Leinster Leader from all of 125 years ago … dated 28 September 1889. It is probably only in the well regulated life of a convent that an artefact as ephemeral as a newspaper page could be carefully preserved over a period spanning a century and a quarter. That it was preserved with care in the convent is explained by the fact that the page was almost completely taken up with a report on the then fiftieth anniversary of the coming of the Mercy Sisters to Naas in September 1839. Thus the report itself was reaching back into the story of the Naas area in the early part of the 19th century. Quoting from annals and letters archived in the convent from its earliest days the report gives an eye-opening account of religious life, of the state of society, and of the early days of the revived Catholic Church which was at that time emerging from a dark period of repression and isolation.

The report quotes from annals maintained by the sisters which record that: “The ninth convent of Our Lady of Mercy was founded in the ancient city of Naas, once the seat of the Kings of Leinster, now the county town of Kildare …”. Naas was well known to the foundress of the Mercy Order, Mother Catherine McAuley. In the course of her journeys across Ireland it appears that Catherine McAuley travelled by canal boat – as the annals relate: “From its situation directly on the Grand Canal which Mother McAuley often traversed, it was well known to her before it offered a home within its ancient walls to her children.” Interestingly the Naas convent shared its foundation year – 1839 – with that of the first Mercy convent in London.

There had been plans to invite the Mercy order to Naas in earlier years. The driving force of the emancipated Catholic church in Naas was Fr Gerald Doyle who was anxious to counteract what was reported as a prosletyising campaign by the protestant churches particularly in association with the major public institutions in the town – the military barracks (1813) and the county gaol (1833). According to the sisters’ annals Fr Doyle was “a bold man to think of opening a convent in such a bigoted little parish.” In numerical terms the Catholics could not complain as the population of the town was given as 3,964 Catholics and 347 Protestants. However, it was the latter who controlled much of the schooling in the town in the same period. The sister writing up the annals warmed to her theme when she noted that the majority of the pupils in the school attached to the military barracks were catholic but they were “compelled to march to the Protestant church every Sunday, and remain there until the end of the Church of England service and listen to their teachers expounding heretical doctrine.”

However, Fr. Gerald Doyle’s enthusiasm as regards inviting the Mercy Sisters to Naas was dampened somewhat by his Bishop who admonished that he would be better off paying off the debt on the parish church built in or about 1827. However the need to reinforce the catholic presence in the town continued and more than a decade later a firm decision was taken to establish a Convent of Mercy. The Naas foundation was established by three sisters detached from the Mercy Convent in Carlow. The new convent – named St Mary’s – was opened on the feast of Our Lady of Mercy, 24 September 1889 which was termed by the reporter as being “a red-letter day” in the annals of the Convent of Mercy, Naas.

The foundress of the order, Mother Catherine McAuley, wrote that she could not describe her “joy” at the foundation of the convent in Naas. It was to be the following year before she visited in person. Whether her sisters quite shared her joy is a question that might be raised by the spartan nature of their accommodation. The original convent was described as being a “miserable little building, with one small reception room, and only five of the cells windowed, sisters sleeping in three windowless apartments.” However the annals relate that the good Naas air helped compensate for the deficiency in comforts: “the Naas community has been singularly healthy in the mild atmosphere once breathed by the stalwart kings of Leinster.” With similar allusion to the town’s regal past it was related that the sisters had breathed new life into the spiritual circumstances of the people: “the Sisters of Mercy were but as the dawning of a second spring in Naas, for that once royal town, like all the ancient places of Ireland, was formerly remarkable for the number and riches of its religious houses.” It was to be another forty years or more before a suitable convent and schoolrooms were erected, where by 1889, some 350 fifty pupils were being educated by twenty-six sisters who also had a heavy workload of ministering to the poor and to the inmates of the prison and the workhouse. The fiftieth anniversary celebrations in September 1889 took place with a level of ceremonial fitting to a Catholic population anxious to assert its public status as the religion of the vast majority of the people. And all reported in a vast article occupying a full page of a broadsheet Leinster Leader of September 1889 – a robust rectangle of newsprint which reads as fresh today as it did to the reader perusing its columns 125 years ago.

This column marks its 400th instalment this week. Sincere appreciation to so many readers who have made contact over the past eight years sharing their knowledge of the history and lore of County Kildare and adjoining counties. Many thanks to Tony G. Murray for assistance with this instalment. Leinster Leader 23 September 2014, Looking Back Series no: 400.

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