Authors: Julia O'Faolain
‘Be sure you tell me,’ she advised out of the blue, ‘if any of them give you trouble.’
‘Any of whom?’
Confused and at cross-purposes, we stared at each other. In those days confusion was as common as mist.
Somewhat at random, I asked, ‘What
I had been hearing the word at school which was strictly divided between ‘community rooms’ – off-limits to pupils – where the nuns ate and slept, and those where we had lessons. Any girl, it was whispered, who ventured into the nuns’ domain was violating the privacy of the brides of Christ and could be expelled. Perhaps
even excommunicated? To see nuns in their underwear or with cropped heads uncovered would be a sacrilege.
Yet, it mightn’t be. A girl called Ann in the class below mine lived in a house whose garden bordered the convent grounds. Sometimes, she confided, she hid in the bushes which formed a barrier between the two properties and watched nuns bathing in a sea-water pool. The high tide filled it, surging in over rocks.
‘I saw Mother Fidelia,’ Ann told us, ‘wearing a long, thick nightdress and bobbing up and down in the water. That’s all any of them do. Maybe they think sport is worldly.’
‘Or maybe the nightdress is too tight?’
It wasn’t tight, she told us. It floated to the surface when the nun bobbed down.
I saw her other listeners try, as I was doing myself, to visualise this. We couldn’t help being fascinated. A taboo was being broken. And taboos in our twelve-year-old world – we must by now have been twelve – focused either on sex or, as in this case, on its rejection. That was what cropped heads and forbidden community rooms came down to. Sex was the satanic snake whose clammy neck the Blessed Virgin’s triumphant foot crushed in paintings hanging in convents all over the city. It was at once absent and present. Just visible under the hem of her lapis-blue gown, its sly emergence seemed to be part of herself.
Finding this thought too furtive for words, we averted our eyes from each other, and fell silent.
Turning to the safe topic of sleeves, a girl called Stella insisted that these could be too tight to permit swimming. ‘That,’ she reminded us, ‘was why women used to be allowed to serve
at tennis. Their sleeves were too tight at the armpits for them to raise their arms. You see that in old photos.’
‘How high did the nightdress float?’ another girl wondered. ‘Did it leave her legs bare?’
The imagined sight of Mother Fidelia’s legs, fish-pale in murky
sea water, was fascinating. The limbs, Ann claimed, had been tightly joined and as neat as a mermaid’s tail. Mermaids must have died out like garments with tight armholes.
‘Isn’t that what your evolution heresy says happens?’ Stella remembered. ‘What, by the way, did the priest have to say about it when you saw him?’
‘Not a lot,’ I told her. ‘He asked why I wanted to think my ancestors were monkeys, and when I told him that that wasn’t what the book said happened, he didn’t listen.’
A pious girl said, ‘You’re lucky he didn’t burn it. Looking into things like that could be dangerous. So is spying on nuns.’
Ann, wanting the last word, said she had every right to sit in her parents’ garden and look wherever she chose. This was true, so, though letting property rights trump religion made us uncomfortable, we didn’t argue. She, who had actually glimpsed bare nunnish flesh, seemed less prurient than the rest of us, who had only imagined it – so how could we?
The religious order which owned our junior school wasn’t the only one to have snapped up big houses which had been sold off when the Free State took over. Its grounds sloped down to the edge of the sea, and relics of old finery subsisted indoors, especially between the tall windows of what might once have been a ballroom. The chief relic, a mirror surrounded by gilded carving, stretched from the top of a marble console table to a lofty ceiling. It might once have been part of a larger display which had been removed by the nuns as being too worldly. The mirror itself could not be removed, and they were clearly glad of this for, when interviewing parents, they boasted happily about their school’s charm. None of them, they were keen to point out, owned anything personally (‘Not even our clothes,’ they would say, and point to the ones they were
wearing), for they had each taken a vow of poverty. That, though, did not prevent their rejoicing in the convent’s good fortune in having attractive surroundings for pupils to enjoy.
Mother Fidelia, as head of the junior school, was particularly prone to rejoice. She was a pretty nun about whom I sometimes dreamed. Her flowing habit reminded me of Maid Marian’s clothes in the film of Robin Hood, and, though sorry that the black habit was a touch funereal, I felt that this was compensated for by the strangeness – even mystery – of someone as pretty as she being a nun. So my feelings about her were mixed. Once or twice I began to develop a crush on her, only to remember and resent the ridicule to which she had exposed me on my first day in school. She hadn’t done anything like this again, because Eileen had made it her business to let her know that she would not tolerate my being bullied. She had visited the school, talked pleasantly about her experience working as a teacher in Boston and London, and established herself as someone who might, if provoked, make trouble. At first I didn’t understand that this was what she was doing even though, as she herself told me later, it was I who had signalled to her that this nun was dangerous. The incident with the red ribbon was only a small part of the picture which Eileen had been building up from my chatter. Having herself taught in a convent school in London, she was aware of the furtive and blatant improprieties that could go on in such places. In the English school, she told me years later, the head nun, a hard-nosed Kerry woman, had actually ordered one of the lay teachers to open the sealed envelopes containing state exam papers on the day of the maths exam, go through the questions with the girls and give them the answers. The teacher, being not only lay but also English and young, was so stunned by the experience that she did as she was told, then resigned from her job.
‘There was a conflict of loyalties,’ Eileen explained. ‘You get that with nuns. In the mind of a woman like that, keeping English
rules would always take second place. She’d see helping Catholic pupils to do better than those in secular schools as her first duty.’
‘So she got away with cheating?’
‘The lay teacher’, Eileen guessed, ‘may have despised her, then felt ashamed of this and so been too deferential. I, being Irish, could have stood up to the nun, but the English woman couldn’t.’
‘But you didn’t denounce her either?’
No, Eileen admitted. She hadn’t. She too had left soon after that to come back to Ireland.
I guessed that the old Irish hatred of traitors was the reason, but didn’t ask. Instead I said, ‘Well, there are no English people in our school.’
‘Just as well.’
Later, though, it struck me that there were one or two pupils from England who at the beginning of the war had been evacuated to the school and who, because their parents were far away, were vulnerable to bullying. One of the boarders had told me that Mother Fidelia patrolled the dormitories armed with a cane and sometimes savagely beat girls whom she caught talking after lights out – even more savagely if she caught them going into each others’ beds.
Mother Fidelia? I was astounded.
‘She’s different with us,’ said the boarder, ‘from how she is with you. And she’s especially hard on the girls from England.’
One night, hearing me talk in my sleep about cruelty and possibly worse, Eileen woke me up. I fell asleep again, however, almost as soon as she left the room, and plunged into a dream in which Maid Marian was beating me and turning into a nun. Confused by my own feelings, I began to feel guilty. Apparently I then went back to talking in my sleep, but when Eileen questioned me about my nightmare at breakfast, I said I had forgotten what it had been about.
I hadn’t, though.
In school the day before, there had been whispers about some trouble that had broken out in the dormitories, about which the boarders didn’t want to tell us. They were clearly shaken, and a girl whom I shall call Jill, one of the evacuees, was led into our classroom. We had been drawn up in a circle and she was now made to stand in the middle. She had pink weals on her legs, was wearing a dunce’s cap, and her face was completely distorted and swollen. This terrified us. Such treatment had not been seen before. Not anyway by me, but not, I think, by any of the other day girls either.
‘She’s bad, a very bad girl,’ said pretty Mother Fidelia gravely. ‘I want each of you to say so in Gaelic.’ Then she pointed to the member of our class who was to start doing this and did.
‘Is cailín dána í,’
the girl said sullenly. It was clear that she disliked doing so. ‘She’s a bad girl.’ Our Gaelic wasn’t up to dealing with situations of any complexity – and anyway we didn’t know what this one was about.
‘Louder,’ commanded the ruthless Mother Fidelia. ‘Say it again.’
The girl did, and so did the next and the next, until half the circle had agreed that Jill was bad and so, by implication, deserved what she had so clearly got. Then it was my turn. Impotence numbed and strangled me. I felt that I had somehow brought this on the victim by indulging fantasies about the horrible chameleon nun. She
, I now saw, a horrible woman, and the gleam of evil in her was what I had mistaken for charm. Whatever she was up to had nothing to do with keeping order, lessons, or the ‘duty towards God’, which I had heard her claim as her reason for punishing bad children for the good of their souls.
it,’ she ordered me impatiently when I hesitated, and gave me a look which at once reminded me of Eileen’s warning about her being dangerous but also of the useful fact that I – was the
nun forgetting this? – had back-up.
‘Is cailín maith í
,’ I said fast and loudly before I had time to change my mind. ‘She’s a good girl.’ The pious bully, being as aware as I was that things could now turn nasty and even get into the press, spat out the word ‘stupid’ and moved quickly on to the next pupil. I knew I hadn’t done much. My attempt at solidarity was not only inadequate, but might have hurt the victim by reminding her that other people had more support than she. This, of course, is speculation, and I never knew what she felt, as she neither blinked nor looked either at me or anyone else. She was totally expressionless, seemed inert and frozen and probably wasn’t thinking of us at all. Why would she? We couldn’t help her. Her parents were in England and must have been telling each other that that nice, friendly Mother Fidelia was looking out for their daughter who must surely be better off in neutral Eire than she would have been living with them under German bombs. By now, however, the war was coming to an end, and that stickler for etiquette, de Valera, had already astonished the world by paying a visit to the German minister, Dr Hempel, to condole with him on Hitler’s death.
Meanwhile I left the school, though I forget quite how this came about. The incident with Jill must have taken place shortly before the start of the summer holidays – the nuns’ sea-bathing indicates that. What must have happened was that Eileen’s intuitions about Mother Fidelia, sharpened by whatever ravings of mine she heard when I was asleep, led her to remove me before the end of term. So I never heard how the trouble between nun and victim was resolved, because by the autumn I was attending a new school which had just opened in Monkstown, some miles north of my old one. It was run by Sacred Heart nuns and was calmly efficient, unlike the anarchic and intermittently brutal one I had left. It was also slightly out of line with the mainstream of Irish education. This pleased Eileen, even though the divergence was to the right rather than the left. Despite her devotion to
, she was relieved to find that my new teachers would be as different as possible from the erratic peasants in habit and wimple on whom she and I now turned our backs.
Memories of post-revolutionary France affected the Monkstown curriculum, which was short on Gaelic, strong on plainchant and required us to curtsy to the top nuns who, like my mother, adopted a high moral tone. Cramming they despised, for they aimed, they said, to
, and exams were nothing to them if, despite getting us late, they could turn us into ladies and true Children of the Sacred Heart.
‘You will all have to be unmade and remade,’ said our Mistress of Studies as coolly as if we had been so many jumpers whose kinked wool she needed to unpick. It was clear that she knew she could do it, but also that she would have her work cut out. We would later discover that she had been chosen as a troubleshooter and brought from one of the order’s houses in Scotland to set the new school on its feet and form us into a unit. She was a Latin teacher, too, and, as most of us had done no Latin at all, whereas my class should – if I remember aright – have been starting our third year of it, she had to start us off and speed us ahead to catch up. Which she did. She was good at her job and, now that Ireland has had two successful women presidents, it strikes me frequently that in the years when women like her had few opportunities to use their talents, there must have been many mute inglorious Mary Robinsons hidden away in convents. Our Mistress of Studies was one of them. Her name was Mother Hogan and she could have run the country.
She impressed my mother and, more surprisingly, Seán, who had till then taken no interest in my education. Now, however, he wrote Mother Hogan a letter saying, among other things, that he
hoped the new school would have some lay teachers, since girls of my age might need access to women with some experience of the world to whom they could turn for advice.
Mother Hogan invited him to tea. I don’t know what they said to each other, but the meeting seemed to have been a success. They must have amused and challenged each other, for I think there were subsequent teas. She wanted him to know that nuns were less unworldly than he thought, but may have been hampered in her argument by convent etiquette. If she stuck to the rules, she would not have had tea herself, but would have sat there watching him drink his. The tray, unless she countermanded the usual arrangement, would have arrived with a single cup and saucer, and departing from custom might have been tricky. I wonder if she did arrange for a second cup. I should have asked him.