Dear Mother Superior,
When I hear that wonderful song by the Irish group Script ‘If you could see me now’ you come to mind.
If you could see me now, would you recognise me?
Would you pat me on the back or would you criticise me?
(Lyrics from ‘If you could see me now)
Your words to me when you called me out in front of the class and asked me if my mother had ironed my blouse to the response of laughter from the rest of the class haunted me for years. Your dismissing me back to my seat, announcing “Mary you will never make anything of yourself ,“ left me with a fear of failure as I journeyed into adulthood.
You were right, my mother hadn’t ironed my blouse or indeed any part of the uniform. Living out in the country with no electricity we had a box iron where heated iron blocks were placed inside. They quickly lost heat, so for a mother who had six children and a husband to look after, ironing was not top of her list.
What my mother was proud of was that I had passed the 11-plus and had got a place at a grammar school. The 11-plus transfer test between primary and secondary school began in Northern Ireland in 1947, not long before I was born, and for those who were able to pass the 11-plus exam the grammar school would receive government funding for the pupils. Often I would hear you mutter under your breath in anger “You are mere products of the welfare state that we have to put up with”.
An etched memory, deeply embedded in my psyche, is the recall of that morning you were waiting for me outside a classroom. Grabbing me by the hair, you pulled me inside. On seeing my friend sobbing in the corner, I knew immediately that you had rumbled our secret. As you banged the cane on the table before letting it loose on me I had an inner resolve not to cry. There was something within you that seemed to get satisfaction from the tears falling from this corporal punishment doled out on numerous occasions. You gave us a lecture on how we were doing the work of the devil.
I have often thought of those poor girls sent away from home to become “Educated Parlour Maids” – a step up from a domestic servant – through the prestige education of a French order. They were allowed to write one letter home each week but that had to be censored by the nuns. The same happened to any mail that came in for them. Often, one of the girls would ask me if I would post a letter for them. I was more than happy to do it and continued to do so even after that cruel punishment.
After many years of self-searching and coming home to the hearth of my soul, I can now recognise that you, Mother Superior, were as much a victim as us girls living within the patriarchal society in Catholic Ireland. It was the ambition of every Catholic household to present a member of the family for entry to the ministry of the Church. This not only brought a sense of pride and being treated with respect from some of the Church’s hierarchy but also the family got one of their children fed and educated for free.
You would have had to take the vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, all of which went against your basic human rights. These vows were written from man’s interpretation of scripture.
The grammar schools were originally set up as monastic and cathedral schools, which prepared students for the priesthood by teaching them Latin grammar. During the period in which most grammar schools were abolished in the rest of the United Kingdom, the influence of the religious parties was particularly important in keeping selective grammar schools alive in Northern Ireland as fee-paying establishments.
From an early stage in my life, I sensed the unfairness of the inequality of girls and women from growing up with five brothers. My behaviour was often referred to as rebellious. I now wonder whether your power over us girls using corporal punishment a reaction to the resentment of being trapped in an institution controlled by men.
I leave you with some more lyrics from Script and hope that you found peace,
Oh if you could see me now. Would you stand in disgrace or take a bow?
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