Roman Catholic women religious in Ireland, 1849-1907
: Self representations and public perceptions

  • Bridget Harrison

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


In the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church rapidly gained influence over Irish culture. This resulted in more people, particularly women, joining religious orders. While there has been significant research into the activities of female religious congregations in Ireland, very little has examined representations of women religious in the Irish public sphere. This thesis investigates how the public engaged with Roman Catholic women religious in Ireland: what role they were understood to have and how they presented themselves to the wider community. The project spans from 1849, when Paul Cullen became archbishop of Armagh, to the 1907 Factory and Workshop Act. It relies on both published material and convent archives as its source base. Each chapter takes the form of a case study investigating a different facet of the Irish public sphere in which women religious were visible.

This thesis reveals that representations of women religious permeated many aspects of the public sphere, from the landscape of Irish towns to parliamentary debates. Their public image was not monolithic, but rather shifted depending on the context and intended audience. Nuns both influenced and were themselves shaped by contemporary ideas about femininity and middle-class culture, encouraging the behaviours and attitudes that came to define female respectability. Their religious practice was affected by post-Tradentine Roman Catholicism, which in turn helped to promote and reinforce these beliefs in the laity. By examining public perceptions of women religious, this thesis sheds new light on both the role of women and the reputation of the Catholic Church in nineteenth-century Ireland.
Date of AwardJul 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership
SupervisorMary O'Dowd (Supervisor), Elaine Farrell (Supervisor) & Joan Allen (Supervisor)

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