A Nun Takes the Veil.
I find this poem by Cullen born poet, Bernard O’ Donoghue, extremely moving. Whenever I read it, the pathos of it moves me to tears of sadness and rage in equal measure. I ask myself, what kind of a society or institution would accept little girls into a convent at the age of twelve? Making a lifelong decision, or having it made for them, long before they had the maturity to make any decision, on anything at all. A vocation – at twelve!
A cousin of my mother entered a convent at the age of thirteen after finishing primary school and set sail for Australia, four years later to the Mother House in New South Wales. In those pre Vatican 11 days, if the young girls were intended for the missions, they set sail knowing they would never be able to return home. Their departure was like a wake, something similar to the so called American wakes when young people emigrated to the US. What heartless and nonsensical rules! Words fail me at the cruelty of it.
The other point is that if these young girls grew up, as many of them must have, to realise they didn’t have a vocation, they were trapped in the religious life until they died as few ever left. If they did, they would have been quite isolated and more than likely would have had to emigrate in order to have the freedom to build a new life. Most didn’t, unable to face letting down parents, families and communities and institutionalised from a young age, they feared their ability to carve out a new life for themselves, so they stayed put. I don’t think it’s very surprising that many of them became heartless monsters themselves, inflicting terrible damage on children in their care.
The poem itself captures the innocence and the beauty of a mind just opening to the world around it.
That morning early I ran through briars
To catch the calves that were bound for market.
I stopped the once, to watch the sun
Rising over Doolin across the water.
The calves were tethered outside the house
While I had my breakfast: the last one at home
For forty years. I had what I wanted (they said
I could), so we’d loaf bread and Marie biscuits.
We strung the calves behind the boat,
Me keeping clear to protect my style:
Confirmation suit and my patent sandals.
But I trailed my fingers in the cool green water,
Watching the puffins driving homeward
To their nests on Aran. On the Galway mainland
I tiptoed clear of the cow-dunged slipway
And watched my brothers heaving the calves
As they lost their footing. We went in the trap,
Myself and my mother, and I said goodbye
To my father then. The last I saw of him
Was a hat and jacket and a salley stick,
Driving cattle to Ballyvaughan.
He died (they told me) in the county home,
Asking to see me. But that was later:
As we trotted on through the morning-mist,
I saw a car for the first time ever,
Hardly seeing it before it vanished.
I couldn’t believe it, and I stood up looking
To where I could hear its noise departing
But it was only a glimpse. That night in the convent
The sisters fussed me, but I couldn’t forget
The morning’s vision, and I fell asleep
With the engine humming through the open window.