The 2017 History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland (H-WRBI) Annual Conference took place recently at University College Dublin, Ireland and was immensely helpful to me as a researcher in the history of education. Deidre Raftery and her team at UCD provided us with an exciting and varied programme. Conference papers examined the history of women religious, medieval to modern engaging with sources and commenting on methodologies around the use of archival, oral, visual, material and digital sources. The majority of papers were on sources relating to the history of women religious involved in education.
Susan O’Brien gave an excellent keynote entitled, ‘Speaking in the Silence: Researching the Sisters’ Stories, 1850-2000’, shown in the image above (courtesy of Roberta Anderson). She highlighted the lack of historical research on women religious in England during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, unlike the situation in other European countries and in the United States. The recent ‘religious turn’ in feminist history is providing opportunities for exploration of a vast mine of untapped resources in convent archives and challenges the researcher to consider them in their social and cultural contexts. This can provide many opportunities for us, as historians of education.
The presentations were of a very high standard and it was difficult to choose between the two parallel sessions. Several papers explored the use of oral testimonies. Carmen Mangion spoke on convent group identity and the impact of ‘cultural scripts’ on personal accounts. Flora Derounian considered the identity of women religious as workers in post-World War II Italy, using some subtitled film clips of her interviews to demonstrate her methodology. Films made and commissioned by Irish missionary societies of women 1847-1963 were the focus of Edel Robinson’s presentation during which we viewed previously undocumented films. Several papers focused on financial issues. Catriona Delaney explored the impact of the introduction of state funding in Ireland on the schools of the Presentation Sisters, 1940-58. Sarah Joan Moran showed us the insights provided by the account books of Court Beguinages of the Low Countries for her work on gender, economic and religious history. Historians at UCD were seen to be at the ‘cutting-edge’ as Deidre Raftery demonstrated the use of digital technologies for ‘virtual reunification’ of dispersed archival material. We also benefited from presentations by several archivists who showed how they are making sources in the archives of women religious more accessible for researchers.
The conference used the UCD O’Brien Centre for Science which was modern, spacious and light- filled and the food was very good. This all created an atmosphere conducive to continuing discussions during our breaks. The conference fee was reasonable and bursaries were available. The UCD en-suite rooms with communal kitchens were very comfortable. The campus is a short bus ride from the city of Dublin which enabled some of us to do a little sightseeing before returning home.
For more on the work of the H-WRBI go to https://historyofwomenreligious.org/
Maria Patricia Williams
Maria is a doctoral student at UCL Institute of Education under the supervision of Professor Gary McCulloch. Prior to commencing her research she worked in London comprehensive schools for thirty years.