12 February 2018
Gerald O’Donovan’s novel Vocations (1921) is set in a small town in late Victorian Ireland, and is a searing indictment of the traffic in young women, in the marriage market and the market in nuns.
‘If we don’t sit here where have we to go?’
‘Well, there’s our walk every day. And we are allowed out twice if it is fine, and our boating in summer, and our little visits to the church and to the convents.’
‘And you’re twenty-one and I’m nineteen and a half,’ Kitty said hysterically. ‘My God, what a life! Never allowed to speak to anyone but blind Lanty and a few beggars. Everyone we pass on the street is either someone we’re not allowed to speak to or someone who won’t speak to us. We’re either “the stuck-up Miss Curtins”, or “those dolls, Tom Curtin the publican’s daughters”.’
Winnie and Kitty Curtin, the two daughters of the wealthy grocer, are being firmly driven towards the Sisters of Mercy by their determined mother. Winnie is in love with Father Burke, and Kitty is uselessly in love with Dr Thornton, but their mother is determined that the convent will have them both. Kitty’s furious resistance to becoming a nun is thwarted by a most unattractive suitor, and Winnie’s glad embrace of the veil is driven by her secret passion. But the convent does not control the girls completely, and they take charge of their futures.
Read an extract from the Introduction by Chrissie Van Mierlo:
‘ … O’Donovan is concerned with the practical role convents might play in raising the standard of living, because, as he optimistically notes to his readers, “The priests of Ireland have always shown themselves in sympathy with the temporal as well as the spiritual interests of their flocks”.
With this in mind, he praises the efforts of both convents in drawing upon available funds to establish Technical Schools: at Portumna the nuns were concentrating their efforts on agricultural endeavours, such as butter-making, as well as training girls to be cooks; at Gort local girls were taught weaving, lace-making, hosiery and embroidery. As well as raising agricultural standards and spreading the spirit of co-operation, these endeavours might, in O’Donovan’s view, help stem the flood of Irish girls emigrating to Australia and America. The descriptions of the Mercy establishments contained in the piece echo some of the physical descriptions of the convent grounds in Vocations; but, by contrast, in these instances the appearance of “sweet do-nothingness” betrays “the hives of industry within”. O’Donovan the parish curate naturally focuses his attentions on what convents should be doing, rather than making explicit the many failings that he would later explore in his fiction. Yet a piece he published in the Leader on 10 January 1901 entitled “Dishonouring Irish Saints” does level more direct criticism of the French influence on Irish convents …
The outspoken priest’s concern that Irish girls were trained “to be accomplished rather than to be accomplishing” is the very frustration that emerges with the Curtin family in Vocations, although this was written almost two decades later … Vocations was born out of the productive post-war period in O’Donovan’s writing career, which saw him turn back, yet again, to the experiences of his early life. By the time he finally came to revisit his experiences of the Irish convent, he was father to two daughters (as well as a son) and it is perhaps natural that he now turned his attention away from the larger questions of nation and state that he had addressed in the 1920 work Conquest and towards the fate of the individual girl or young woman within an excessively repressive and coercive religious society …’
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