The Sisters of Charity came to Clonmel in October 1845. The last two Sisters members of that Order, and still serving in the town, are leaving in December 2013.
It is possible to reduce that long period of 168 years into a list of statistics: the number of schools and buildings constructed; the thousands of children educated in those schools; the hundreds of children sheltered in an orphanage; or working women facilitated in special night classes or trained in marketable skills; or meals cooked and distributed to the needy.
It might be possible, in a long trawl over a century-and-a-half of archives, to compute the aggregate of visits made to the poor and suffering; or to prisoners in Clonmel Jail, some of whom were awaiting execution; or those living in the workhouse, augmented by auxiliary workhouses, during the Great Famine. And more. And much more.
These statistics would make for specialised studies, or interesting reading, but statistics are statistics. They would not give the true length and breadth of selfless service to a town and its people. And all given by women, inspired by another woman, the extraordinary Mark Aikenhead.
She was born in Cork in 1787 into a prosperous family. Her father was a Protestant, her mother a Catholic. She was baptised into the Anglican communion but converted to Catholicism when she was sixteen. She became so acutely aware of the poverty of her fellow citizens in the streets of her native city, that she resolved to do something about it - hence the foundation of the Irish Sisters of Charity.
It is not possible to look at the history of the turn of the 18th/19th century in Ireland, without becoming aware of the pioneering and practical contribution which a number of women - the founders of the Religious Orders - made to Irish society.
They blazed a trail in social reform, challenging in the most immediate and practical of ways, the structures of the time: structures which kept the poor in constant poverty, and the children of the poor, illiterate. These women stepped out of the comforts of their own security and anticipated the social and educational policies of modern times. And they did it, often in the face of impediment and opposition, from the institutions and mores of their time. As has frequently been said in this column, they now deserve serious study in today’s feminist and social studies.
The Clonmel convent in Gladstone Street was the tenth in Mary Aikenhead’s foundations. It was opened in October 1845, at the invitation of Fr. Michael Burke, the Parish Priest of Ss. Peter & Paul’s. (There is a memorial to him in the porch of the church). Two local women, Mrs. J. Hackett and Mrs. Lacey, arranged to have the building, which had been supplied by the Parish Priest, furnished. The foundation benefitted from the estate of Laetitea Bradshaw of Tipperary Town, who had entered the Order.
The town had come from the very best of economic times, the prosperity of its unique Quaker-led, industrial revolution, during which the population rose to 18,000. It had expanded beyond its medieval fortifications, but in the modern context, living accommodation was still very limited. Many people lived in over-crowded, insanitary conditions, in lanes, some of which are still extant in the town centre. A supply of clean domestic water was almost half a century away.
By 1845, when the convent was first established, Clonmel had entered the very worst of economic and social times. The Repeal of the Corn Laws and the cessation of the Napoleonic Wars, contributed to a collapse in the town’s industries. And then came the Great Famine.
The already large urban population was further enlarged by the necessity of trying to cater for the hungry people who came to the town from the rural hinterland, in search of work and food and soup kitchens. Inevitably, in the conditions of the time, there was an outbreak of cholera. One of the young Sisters in the newly established convent became infected and died.
In responding to these conditions, Mark Aikenhead was a pragmatist. She was not a woman of theories or long-term appraisals. She believed in service and of doing what was necessary and urgent, and of doing it in the here and now. Meeting the needs of the time, when these needs presented themselves, was the task she set for herself and for her Sisters.
These needs presented themselves in the subsequent decades. The Sisters took charge of the school (built by the Parish Priest Fr. Burke) in 1848. In 1866, they established a night school for girls, those who had never been able to attend day school. Again, responding to the demands of the time, an orphanage was opened in 1876, and this was partly funded by donations from Mr. and Mrs. Hudson, Mr. Thomas Looby (of Mary Street and the United States who founded many charities in Clonmel), Mr. Thomas Cantwell, Count Moore and Mr. James Myers.
A laundry was established in Morton Street, and in 1876, following the closure Malcolsom’s Cotton Mill, The Lace School was founded, for the re-training of the unemployed girls. And so it goes on into modern times.
A Secondary Top was set up in 1926 and a new school was built in Mary Street in 1964. Meals on Wheels came in 1980s.
Of the two Sisters, the last in a long tradition of service, now leaving the town, it is significant and poignant that one should be a Clonmel woman, Sr. Helen Butler. Former pupils of the schools in Morton Street and Mary Street, will recall the white starched aprons which the Sisters always wore. These were the symbols of the obligation of service to the poor and to community which Mary Aikenhead prescribed for her Order.
The town of Clonmel owes a deep debt of gratitude for that service during so many phases of its history, over the last 168 years.