Post by Olive Morrin, Special Collections & Archives
Margaret Anna Cusack was born into a wealthy protestant family in 1829. She became known as the “Nun of Kenmare” during her years as a Poor Clare sister in the enclosed convent at Kenmare. She founded Kenmare Publications and used the money from her publications in the running of the convent, charitable works and other church related projects.
She lived with her family in Coolock during her childhood, but after the separation of her parents in her teenage years she went to live with a grand-aunt in England. After the death of her fiancé in her twenties she became an Anglican nun but frustrated at not been allowed help in the Crimean War she left and converted to Catholicism and joined the Poor Clare order in Newry.
In 1861 as Sr. Mary Francis Clare she was sent with seven other nuns to found a new convent in Kenmare, Co. Kerry. She was an energetic, determined and strong willed woman with a business acumen probably not suited to convent life especially in the enclosed order of the Poor Clares. Because of her outspoken views on Irish nationalism she often came into conflict with local landlords in Kerry, the Catholic church hierarchy and her religious superiors. She became a prolific writer during the twenty years she spent in Kenmare and wrote in all 35 books on Irish history and biography including many pious and religious texts.
She was helped by two full-time secretaries as her research and writing necessitated much correspondence. She wrote letters highlighting Irish distress and injustice in the Irish, US and Canadian press. She wrote a biography of Daniel O’Connell with the title The Liberator: his life and times, political, social and religious.
In Special Collections we hold several of her publications including An illustrated history of Ireland from the earliest period, A history of the city and county of Cork and Life inside the Church of Rome. She also wrote woman’s work in modern society in 1874 which outlined the role of women in the home and advocated the necessity of limited education for women. She approved of class distinction “I confess I do not see any advantage to society, either in women taking degrees in colleges, or in preparing to enter professions which have hitherto been exclusively masculine…..Let education be made suitable to the wants of the educated, and to their position in life, and then we shall have good education and our young people grow up to be useful members of society, because they will grow up to enter their proper place in society”.
The re-emergence of famine in Kerry during 1871 generated fear of a repeat of the tragedy of the Great Famine. She setup the Famine Relief Fund and distributed £15,000 towards relieving distress and poverty throughout Ireland. In her letters she attacked local landlords particularly Lord Lansdowne and his agent Townsend Trench which generated hostility towards her from the establishment both secular and religious.
Opposition to her continued especially with a new parish priest. Isolated and alone without friends she left the Kenmare Poor Clares in 1881. Her transfer orders were for her to return to her mother house in Newry but on the way she stopped off at Knock where the apparition had appeared two years previously. She stayed and Archbishop McEvilly of Tuam wanted her to found a Poor Clare convent whereas she wanted to setup a new convent of her own called the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She started fund-raising and with her reputation and name she soon had had enough money to draw up plans and start the building. It was to be a substantial house close to the church and appropriate to the incipient shrine of Knock. Work started on the building but in the event of her not receiving permission opposition grew against her particularly from the parish priest of Knock who left no stone unturned to remove her. Dr. MacEvilly, Bishop of Tuam writing to Cardinal McCabe about her starts off his letter with “This nun of Knock will surely be my death”. He goes on to say “She has fought with everyone”. She eventually leaves Knock with a half finished convent and refused to finish the convent for someone else to take over. It became a ball-alley for local youths for many years until it was eventually demolished. Canon Bourke writing to Mgr. Kirby says of her “I regarded her rather like someone having a special mission who was not bound by the ordinary rules that guide others. ….the great thing is were her motives good? I thought so, and think so still”.
She was persuaded to go to Nottingham and establish a convent there. In 1884 she went to Rome and secured a personal interview with Pope Leo XIII. She obtained permission to leave the Poor Clares and found a new order called The Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace which was intended as a home for friendless girls where domestic service and good moral habits would be taught. She opened her first house in Nottingham and then went to America in order to raise money and promote her work. While there she was invited to establish a community in Englewood in the Diocese of Newark. It was the only convent she established in America although her vision was to establish many houses.
Entrenched and sustained opposition to her blocked every effort she made. She travelled to many places along the east coast and even as far west as Seattle but the results were always the same. Despite promising invitations all efforts in the end came to nothing. Shortly after her arrival in America she was attacked in the press by a Fr. Shanley. He wrote “Will anyone at this late day, number among claimants for charity that religious Poo-Bah-political-economist-hagiographer-Young Girl’s adviser-pamphleteer, mistress of Novices, historian, beggar and nun, who for twenty years and more, both in Ireland and America, has been an irrepressible begging nuisance? Will anyone in his right mind give her more money to squander, after the monument of folly she has left at Knock?”
Apart from the perceived ignoring of regulations and vows part of the opposition to her may have been her extraordinary success in raising money. She did not hesitate to use any advantage she might have – be it contacts, using her appointed title “The Nun of Kenmare” writing to newspapers even far afield. This was also a time when the Catholic clergy were raising money to build churches and she had attacked the clergy in America for the ‘tax’ they levelled on poor servant girls.
By her later years in Kenmare she had become a controversial and polarised figure who continued to make powerful enemies. She had created a name for herself as a writer and was responsible for many good works. But she could have achived much more had opposition to her not been so entrenched. But possibly her outspoken criticisms of injustices and short circuiting established ecclesiastical routes in pursuit of her ambitions contributed to the opposition.
The earnings from her writings supported her convents and after she left the Catholic church she also gave lectures to air her grievances and supplement her income. Over the years her order spread to Ireland, Canada, Haiti and other parts of the US. In 1888 after a dispute with her bishop and disillusioned with the Catholic Church she returned to England and the Anglican faith. She died in 1889 age 70.
The Nun of Kenmare by Irene ffrench Eager, published by Mercier Press, 1970
Margaret Anna Cusack: one woman’s campaign for women’s rights by Irene ffrench Eagar published by Arlen House, 1979
Margaret Anna Cusack by Catherine Ferguson, Gaelbooks, 2008
The Nun of Kenmare: the true facts by Philomena McCarthy, St. Clare’s Convent, 1989