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‘The nun of Kenmare’ – her Kildare connections

  James Durney

Margaret Anna Cusack, ‘the nun of Kenmare,’ has long been a legend – one of the most colourful and controversial Irishwomen who ever lived. Born in Coolock, Co. Dublin , into a Protestant Ascendancy family, she joined an Anglican sisterhood, but soon grew disillusioned. Becoming a Catholic, she entered the Order of the Poor Clares and from her convent in Kenmare began to pour out the stream of books and pamphlets that made her famous. Supporting all the great causes of her time – Home Rule, the Land League, Women’s Rights, Famine Relief – she incurred the hatred of the Establishment figures everywhere, and her life became a struggle to translate her ideals into realities, a struggle that took her from to and back again to finally die in .

Margaret Anna was born the first child of Dr. Samuel and Sarah Cusack (née Stoney of Oakley Park, near Birr) in 1829. Her father, Samuel Cusack, was the youngest son of Athanasias Cusack of Lara (or Laragh) near Kilcock on the Meath/Kildare border. Growing up in an environment of strict puritanical Christianity Margaret Anna developed into a rebellious personality unique in the age she lived. Not that she was the only ‘rebel’ to be found on her family tree – so predominantly Protestant, loyalist and law-abiding. It was over laden with titles of services rendered to the Crown. However, as far as the ‘rebel’ blood flowing in her veins was concerned, among her ancestors one of her Cusack aunts was Alicia Wolfe, of Blackhall, Clane, cousin of the Wolfes, of Forenoughts, Naas – relatives of the father of Irish republicanism, Theobold Wolfe Tone. Another aunt, Elizabeth, had married Alexander Battersby of Daffey Lodge, Co. Kildare. Margaret Anna was also related, again on the Cusack side, to the Aylmer’s, of Donadea Castle .

Margaret Anna’s parents separated when she was a teenager and she went to live with a grand-aunt in Exeter, Devon . At age twenty-nine she converted to Catholicism and joined the Order of the Poor Clares, in Newry, Co. Down. In 1861 she was sent with a small group of nuns to Kenmare, Co. Kerry, then one of the most destitute parts of .  She wrote extensively, from pamphlets to books – biographies of saints, pontiffs, prelates and nationalist leaders. By 1870 more than 200,000 copies of her works had circulated throughout the world. The money made from her publications went to feed the poor in her community at Kenmare. Margaret Anna was the founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and established communities of her order in Nottingham, , and Newark, . Because of her outspoken views and her support of many radical causes she was not popular with all Roman Catholics and in 1888 she returned to the Anglican Communion after an altercation with her bishop. Margaret Anna Cusack, ‘the nun of Kenmare,’ died in 1899, aged sixty-seven, and was buried in a Church of England reserved burial site at Leamington Spa, Warwickshire.

In 1970 leading female journalist Irene ffrench Eager wrote The nun of Kenmare, the biography of this unique woman. It was her first book. Irene ffrench Eager also had Kildare connections and was born in Co. Kildare, of Kerry and Galway-Mayo ancestry. She attended Trinity College , Dublin, was a newsroom journalist for the Irish Times, and scripted a short documentary film, ‘Dublin: City of James Joyce .’

James Durney uncovers Kildare Connections with the famous 'Nun of Kenmare.' Our thanks as always to James. 

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