The 'mission' of nuns in female education in Ireland, c. 1850-1950
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AbstractThis article provides a review and critique of scholarship on female education in Ireland, arguing that researchers have provided a consensual narrative in which women religious (nuns) played a central role in providing academic education to girls and higher education to women. The tendency has been to claim the activities of women religious as part of the impetus that drove the organised women’s movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and that brought about a 'revolution' in female education. But there remains a need to stand back from this decidedly secular 'cause and effect' narrative, and turn a critical eye on the urge which congregations themselves identified as central to their mission in education. This is a revisionist perspective, qualifying and modifying claims made elsewhere by this author, and challenging the way in which the work of nuns in education has been interpreted as a part of the female education 'revolution'. Recognising the spiritual impulse within religious orders that found expression in acts of duty, vocation and mission, the article concludes that convent education had purposes that were quite distinct from those prescribed by official 'state' education programmes and examination systems, and that these purposes demand greater scrutiny in order to provide a more balanced understanding of female education in Ireland.