Caught in the crossfire
: Catholic religious sisters and the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968-2008

  • Brigid Rafferty

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis examines the concept of marginalised identities during conflict through an analysis of the experiences and roles played by Catholic religious sisters in Northern Ireland during the period commonly known as the Troubles (1968-2008). As the contribution of these women has been largely overlooked in the historiography of the conflict, this thesis places their voices at the centre of the research, exploring what their narratives reveal about their lived experiences, their socio-historical situation, and the cultural and political climate in which they lived and worked. Specifically, it uncovers the diversity and scope of their ministries in the areas of social activism, education, nursing, and peace and reconciliation.

Despite the historically patriarchal and hierarchal tendencies of the Roman Catholic Church, this thesis demonstrates how women religious were empowered by the momentous call for renewal or aggiornamento proffered by the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and the myriad of encyclicals and directives which emerged in its aftermath. It shows how these documents facilitated transformation in religious life, enabling a shared historical experience among sisters who were able to exert personal agency to fulfil the expectations of the charism of their religious communities. It reveals that as sisters reimagined roles for themselves within a troubled society, their centrality to the events of the conflict at times bore striking similarities to the experiences of lay women during those years. The positive engagement of individual religious sisters in this thesis demonstrates the potential advantages offered by the oral history methodology and provides an insight into previously unchartered territory, demystifying female religious, exposing the evolution of individual religious identities and the difficulties faced by women during times of conflict.

Thesis embargoed until 31 July 2027.
Date of AwardJul 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorDiane Urquhart (Supervisor), Margaret O'Callaghan (Supervisor) & Mary O'Dowd (Supervisor)


  • Religious sisters
  • oral history
  • Vatican II
  • The Troubles
  • The Catholic Church
  • trauma

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